What is Stress


Stress comes in many different forms and ranges from mild to extreme intensity, as is the case in any crisis situation.

Modern life presents us invariably with a whole gamut of stress factors: pollution, peak hour traffic, road rage, disrespectful behaviour by others, work stress, deadlines, poor sleep patterns, fighting with your spouse or teenager to name but a few. These are external stressors.

Then there are our internal stressors: old wounds, insults, having been wronged or treated unfairly, losses. Old emotional pain locked away in our bodies. Unresolved issues and wounding keeps a good chunk of our attention under wraps. This reduces the amount of creative attention we have available to us to focus on the task at hand, such as a work project. The more locked-away pain we have, the more we feel that we have been wronged by others, life, a colleague or our boss, the lower our stress threshold becomes. It is a vicious cycle. The more stressed we are, the lower our tolerance level for the smaller stressors in our life, such as another driver cutting in on us, minor annoyances or delays. We blow up, get angry, and our resilience for stronger stressors, such as a betrayal or the loss of a relationship, diminishes. The more stressed we are, the more vulnerable we feel.

But there are other ways we stress ourselves: through our thinking. Negative thinking and self-talk, such as I’m not good enough, I don’t have what it takes to …… get the promotion, my dream relationship; and worrisome thoughts about the future cause stress, although nothing external has actually taking place. It is a mental projection into the future. Neuroscience teaches us that thinking alone – coupled with the negative emotions evoked by the negative thoughts – can trigger the fight or flight stress response.

Actually, to be precise, it is not the thoughts as such that trigger stress, but the resultant negative emotions. Any thoughts that don’t cause an emotional reaction will not trigger the fight or flight response.

Evolutionary speaking, the fight or flight response was a beneficial survival mechanism. Modern human beings haven’t been around long enough to alter the fight or flight response. Now it is triggered not just by a predator we need to get away from, as was intended, but by our thoughts alone.

This has very detrimental consequences for our bodies. Our digestion as well as our mental and emotional states suffer, our ability to focus diminishes, our organs endure hardship, and over time we become sick. Many people actually experience stress on a daily basis, with the fight or flight response being triggered.

When my husband fell ill in an extreme crisis situation, with ambulance sirens flaring and life or death surgery, the stress was accordingly extreme. And it stayed extreme over the ensuing eight months of his tragic illness, coupled with repeated surgeries and the not knowing if he would live or not and several against all odds setbacks. I was like an elastic band stretched to its outermost limits. There was no letting up, not even a little loosening of the elastic band. Such continuous, prolonged stress takes a huge toll on the body, who is not designed to withstand a prolonged fight or flight response. The body is out of its equilibrium, ready to run, and other physiological modes such as digestion become secondary. Only they are not meant to be secondary around the clock.

It would have been impossible for me not to be in the fight or flight mode during this extreme life crisis. Faced with the death of my husband my body responded to the crisis, and kept responding for all those months the crisis kept going. I was symbolically chased by a lion.

But we can learn to respond differently to minor and medium stressors and we can address locked-away pain.


Our brain cannot tell the difference between an actual event and an envisaged event. Research has shown that a team of basketball players who only ‘practiced’ with basketball computer games off the field and no time on the field where almost as skilled as another team that practiced their game intensely on the field. Such is the power of our mind.



If you don’t want to become the ‘lunch’ of your own worrisome thinking, and the upsetting emotions this thinking causes, you need to make changes.  


What is the way out? Stress relief will be the topic of my next post.

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change