Is Stress Emotional or Mental?

Stress is a natural part of life, and everyone faces it. 

The adverse effects of stress, when ignored, can lead to significant health problems. By understanding the complexities of emotional or mental stress, you can find ways to keep it from overwhelming you.

Stress can be both emotional and mental. Stress is your body’s natural response to a demand for change. Your body can have an emotional reaction, such as anger or depression, or a mental response, such as confusion or forgetfulness.

The word “stress” can bring up thoughts of overpowering bosses, hectic schedules, and feelings of chaos, but stress isn’t inherently wrong. Emotional and mental stress is your body’s response to something happening. While the effects of stress can be deadly, this type of pressure can also give you power.

What is Stress? Understanding Stress in Detail 

Stress can be emotional, mental, or even both. Despite the word “stress” being groaned about daily, it is a complex topic that is worth digging into. If you want to better manage the stress in your life, you first have to understand what the term means. 

How do we Define Stress?

If asked to define stress, many people would provide an answer about tension or the feeling you associate with having too many demands. These answers aren’t exactly wrong, but they are misconceptions of the actual definition. What people think of as stress and the exact meaning don’t always align.

The technical definition of stress, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change,” was constructed by Hans Selye in 1936. A more straightforward way of defining stress is: what your emotions, mind, or physical body do when change is required.

In everyday speak, people use “stress” as an emotion when, in reality, the word describes how your body reacts to something. 

To make it easier to think about, you can use the term “stress response” instead of just “stress” to refer to your body’s reaction to a demanded change—demanding “change” being the “stressor.” An example of a stressor and a stress response is this: your boss calls you into their office (stressor), and you feel nervous (stress/stress response).

In other words, the feeling you have is nervousness, not stress. The terms stressed, scared, and anxious are not interchangeable, although people often use them that way.

By understanding what stress means, you can then understand how it impacts your life.

Not All Stress is Bad: Eustress and Distress

Most people consider stress to be a negative thing, something to avoid, but once you understand that stress is just a response to a change, you can realize that some types of stress are good for you.

When your body’s stress response is unpleasant or harmful, it is referred to as distress. Conversely, when your body’s stress response is pleasant or beneficial, it is called eustress, which implies euphoria. You can think of distress as “danger,” while eustress means “opportunity.”

A few examples of changes that cause distress are:

  • Getting Fired
  • Losing a Loved One
  • Relationship Problems

A few examples of changes that cause eustress are:

  • A First Kiss
  • Buying a House
  • A Hard Workout

A change that happens, such as retiring, requires you to respond. The way your mind responds can be detrimental, or it can be advantageous. You could react to retirement by falling into a dark pit of depression or feeling a sense of freedom.

Eustress often is short-term, and sometimes you aren’t even aware of it. In our everyday lives, the term “stress” implies distress. This is because distress lasts longer and, if not dealt with, can lead to health problems and possibly death.

One of these two opposing reactions doesn’t always have to be dominant. The World Journal of Medical Science paper explains that some psychologists believe that distress and eustress can coincide. That might explain why some people cry when they are happy or how you can be excited and nervous at the same time. The American Institute of Stress and Mental Help provides more information about eustress and distress.

Understanding Stress Response

Every moment of each day is filled with stressors, both big and small, and not everyone responds to stressors in the same way. For someone, seeing a bear could be terrifying, but it could be exhilarating for someone else. Your body’s response to a demanded change can manifest emotionally, mentally, behaviorally, or physically.

Emotional Stress

When a stressor occurs, whether a crying child, a leaking water heater or buying a new car, your body may respond emotionally. Emotional responses can include:

  • Distress: anxiety, grief, fear, anger, or depression
  • Eustress: motivation, inspiration, or excitement

It isn’t uncommon for these emotions to feed off each other. The frequent recurring anxiety can lead to depression, and intense fear can lash out as anger.

Since everyone responds to stressors in their way, there is no right/wrong or correct/incorrect emotion that you may feel. For example, when Grandma Jo passes away, cousin Sam might cry and feel sad, while Cousin Chris is dry-eyed and angry. 

Both emotional responses are equally acceptable.

Your emotions are yours alone. You are entitled to feel; however, remember that what your body chooses to feel when faced with a stressor may differ from others. Unfortunately, people sometimes don’t understand this and may get upset if you show what they consider the “wrong” emotion. 

Mental Stress

A form of stress that occurs because of how events in one’s external or internal environment are perceived, resulting in the psychological experience of distress and anxiety

Lazarus & Folkman, 1984

It can sometimes be harder to realize when mental stress occurs than emotional stress. A mental stress response can be presented as:

  • Distress: confusion, indecision, nightmares
  • Eustress: more alert, “in the zone,” better concentration

If you find that you are less productive at work or are waking up in the morning feeling like you just came out of a horror film, your body responds mentally to a stressor.

Behavioral Stress

When someone’s behavior changes because of stress, it is sometimes more apparent to others than the person going through it. A few signs of behavioral stress are:

  • Distress: substance abuse, lowered libido, social withdrawal
  • Eustress: improved performance, more activity

If someone in your life comments on how you haven’t been going to the weekly happy hour or that you seem really “in the zone,” you could be responding to stress, maybe without even knowing it.

Physical Stress

Physical stress might be the trickiest way your body responds to stressors. Several common physical stress responses are:

  • Distress: rapid breathing, headaches, nausea, muscle spasms
  • Eustress: increased heart rate, sweating more

If you can’t figure out why you have a chronic stomachache or why your eyelid is twitching, it might be your body’s way of protesting those extra shifts at work or helping with a book report until 2 a.m.

It’s All Connected

When life throws you a curveball, your body may respond with only emotions or with a whole slew of reactions. Stress doesn’t always present itself as just emotional or just mental. Sometimes it is everything all at once. Sometimes your body’s initial response ends up triggering a series of reactions.

If your stress reaction to flying is getting a stomachache, that physical reaction might make you angry, which leads to a behavioral change of yelling at your partner. Your body is one machine, and everything is connected.

Categories of Stressors

Stressors come in all sizes. 

Some are significant such as someone stealing your car, while others are minor such as leaving your coffee at home. Specific stressors will only happen to you once in your life, but others never seem to disappear. Stressors can be split into two groups: acute and chronic.

Acute Stressors

Acute stress is short-term and is triggered by a specific event—something that you can pinpoint. A few examples of acute stressors are:

  • Traffic Jam
  • Giving a Speech
  • An Argument

Your body will have a stress response, but it will dissipate soon. Our bodies are designed to recover from an episode of acute stress quickly.

When mental health experts use the term resilience, they refer to how fast your body returns to normal after experiencing acute stress. The faster you can recover, i.e., your heart rate slowing back down or the sense of panic subsides, the more resilient you are.

Acute stress, while not pleasant, is not typically harmful.

Chronic Stress

When a specific event such as an argument with a spouse becomes repetitive, your body starts to experience chronic stress. Examples of chronic stressors are:

  • Domestic Abuse
  • Racism
  • Illness

As the stress-inducing event becomes more periodic or longer-lasting, your body changes: “…chronic stress creates a new normal inside your body.” This leads to muscle tension, high blood pressure, and increases in resting heart rate. Chronic stress is dangerous and can be life-threatening.

Coping with Mental and Emotional Stress

There is no way to remove all stressors from your life, and if you could, you would miss out on the benefits of eustress. You can make changes to prevent certain things from happening or decrease the effects of the event (i.e., having a savings account may lessen the stress of losing a job). The best thing you can do, though, is to develop coping skills.

Being Familiar with Your Stress Response

No two people have identical stress responses, even to the same stressor. To cope with stress, you must understand how your body is responding. 

Perhaps you get a stomachache and sweaty before giving a presentation at work or get anxious and yell when things feel out of your control. Being hungry can cause distress, too. 

As an adult, people are more aware of their body’s responses. 

Most adults don’t throw tantrums when hungry, but young children often do. Many schools are now including social-emotional learning schools at an early age, and what they are being taught carries across into adulthood. 

Today, some adults understand their body’s reactions better than others. But even if you don’t quite understand your body yet, as an adult, learning to better understand and put a name to your feelings and behaviors is still essential.

Developing Resilient Coping Skills

Like riding a bike, you must learn how to handle your body’s response to stress. You can’t control the occurrence of a stress trigger, but you can develop skills to help you better manage how you deal with those triggers.

You need to learn how to recognize stress triggers. 

The headache and exhaustion you feel when you get home from work are your body’s response to the triggers during the day. Too many phone calls, a messy house, a long commute—whatever your stress triggers are, you need to play detective and discover them.

Once you can recognize your triggers and know how your body responds to them, you can start to develop coping mechanisms. You can’t make the annoying chihuahua next door stop yapping, but you could turn on some music or buy earplugs.

You have a toolbox, figuratively speaking, and the tools inside are what you use when confronted with a stressor. These tools, or coping skills, can be divided into several categories:

  • Quick Stress Relievers – The first line of stress defense calms your mind and body. This may consist of taking a walk, focusing on breathing, relaxing your muscles, writing in a journal, going for a run, etc.
  • Stress Relief Habits – Long-term habits that help build your resiliency. This can include regular exercise, yoga, slowing down, eating healthily, being mindful
  • Changes in Perspective – Shifting how you view the stressors in your life. You can see it as a challenge to overcome, cultivate optimism, develop a sense of humor, etc.

Many books, websites, and social networks are available to help you learn new coping skills. Positive Psychology’s 62 Stress Management Techniques, Strategies & Activities is an excellent place to start.

Learning to manage stress is a lifelong practice, and there are times when it will be frustrating and useless. Even if you’ve failed at it, get up and try again. The more you work at it, the easier it will become. Be open to trying new things and be okay when something isn’t your cup of tea; if yoga makes you see red, try something like kickboxing.

The more aware you are of your emotions, mental state, and physical body, and the things that cause you distress, the more empowered you become. 

You’ve Got Several Tools at Your Disposal

Everyone has stressors in their lives; it’s just that not everyone responds in the same way. Some people can get eustress out of any stressor while other people get flooded with distress. There is no best way to manage stress, so focus on what works for you.

Stress is part of your emotional, mental, and physical health and needs to be cared for. Mental health can be a taboo topic, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Being open and sharing your experiences can help manage your stress.

Talking to Someone

It might be hard to admit, but if you cannot identify stressors or understand your stress reactions on your own, then talking to a professional is an excellent tool. Finding someone you feel comfortable opening up to is crucial, and it might take trying a few therapists on for size before you find the right one.

If you have health insurance, your provider’s website probably has a tool to help you find a mental health specialist. Another option is using online resources such as Talk Space to get in touch with licensed therapists.

Browse the Web

Doing a little research can reveal an abundance of tools and ideas. Remember, distress is not uncommon, and almost everyone wants to find ways to deal with it. A few suggestions for starting your online investigation are:

If you are experiencing chronic stress or want to take charge of yourself when the unexpected happens, learning more is an excellent place to start.

Crisis Resources

Stress can be a serious health matter, and when people feel out of control, they can harm themselves or others. If you or someone in your life is in distress and needs immediate help, the following resources are there to help:

All in All: Is Stress Emotional or Mental? 

Our bodies sometimes feel like they are beyond our control. 

If you are suffering from emotional stress, mental stress, or any other distress, know you are not alone. Finding ways to handle your body’s response to stressors is a journey worth taking. Learning about emotional and mental health is a step in the right direction.

If you are unable to cope with the stress, you might want to consider talking to an expert so that you can explore your issues in a safe space with a trusted expert who can provide you with the right tools to deal with your stress effectively.

Written by Kasia Ciszewski, LPC on

Kasia is a licensed professional counselor servicing the Charleston area. She helps individuals heal, better understand their emotions, energize & become more aware of their inner strength. She specializes in helping teens, adults and seniors and has been able to regularly achieve impressive results for her clients throughout South Carolina. Instagram - Facebook - Pinterest - Twitter - Linkedin

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