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Good vs Bad Stress

April 2, 2014 No comments

How to tell the difference between good and bad stress

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Do you know what stress is? Stress is your body's response to almost anything that needs adapting or adjusting. Pretty broad eh? Stress can be defined on so many levels and categorized into different types. Speaking of levels, stress can be interpreted on the microscopic (cellular) level, or on the macroscopic level (what our bare eyes see). It can be categorized according to time (acute or chronic), intensity (mild, severe), duration (prolonged or short), etc.
Weight on Your Shoulders
This is fairly evident if you try to talk to various professionals in different fields. If you ask a psychologist, you’ll get the definition of psychological stress. Ask a biologist and he may define cellular or oxidative stress for you. There are a lot more. Unfortunately, for most of us, we lean more on the psychological side of stress, how it affects our mood and behaviour. The majority of us are completely unaware of the bad effects of stress (pathological) on our health. We’ll make it simple here and not confuse ourselves with all the fields involved and complex medical terminology.

For practical purposes, we’ll determine stress as either pathological or physiological stress. Simply put, pathological stress is the bad type of stress, the one you’re trying to avoid. On the other hand, physiological stress is the type of stress that’s beneficial or good for your health.

Physiological (healthy) versus Pathological (unhealthy) types of stress:

Physiological Stress Pathological Stress
Also known as Healthy, Good Unhealthy, Bad
Duration
  • Short
  • Your body’s first response to any negative stimuli (or stressor) is ALWAYS a physiological stress
  • Chronic
  • Persistent
  • Anything which stresses you for prolonged periods of time will ALWAYS produce pathological stress
How do you know which of the two you’re experiencing?
  • You recover easily and quickly
  • You can adjust or adapt
  • You immediately go back to your unstressed state
  • The stress is on-going
  • Your body has difficulty adapting or adjusting
  • It interferes with how you live your normal life
  • You need time to recover - this depends on the duration and severity of the stress
Presence of signs or symptoms
  • Absent
  • Physiological stress is rarely noticed
  • Present
  • It’s the signs and symptoms (clues) which show that you already have pathological stress


Any type of physiological stress can become pathological stress when our body can no longer adapt and this results in injury. This injury may be visible on a cellular, organ or systemic level. Most of the pathological stress we experience in our lives is chronic, it persists for a long time.

The effects of pathological stress on different organs/body systems:

Your Body System/Organ Effect of Pathological Stress What Actually Happens (The Things You Perceive)
Brain Brain (Nervous System) Your brain sees every form of stress as a threat to your health. It responds with the fight or flight response. This response tells your adrenal glands to increase production and secretion of cortisol and epinephrine.
  1. Your heart beats faster and stronger (pounding).
  2. Your blood pressure increases.
  3. You feel you have more energy, but as the stress continues fatigue sets in.
Muscles Muscles Prolonged muscle contractions.
  1. Headache
  2. Migraines
  3. An army of musculoskeletal complaints…
Respiratory System Respiratory System
  1. You experience difficulty in breathing normally.
  2. Fast and shallow breathing.
  3. Breathing problems.
  4. If you smoke, feeling stressed usually makes you smoke more.
  1. May trigger a panic attack.
  2. Increased risk for developing lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Cardiovascular System Heart and Blood Vessels (Cardiovascular System) Liver – goes into gluconeogenesis mode (glucose production) to increase blood glucose levels (which leads to inflammatory damage of your blood vessels and heart).
  1. Your heart beats faster and stronger (pounding).
  2. Your blood pressure increases.
  3. Increase incidence of heart attack.
Endocrine System Endocrine System Adrenals – more stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) are released. Eventually the adrenals get burnout. Initially you have more energy, but further down the track fatigue sets in.
Gastrointestinal System Gastrointestinal System Digestive system – “butterflies” in your stomach as they say. Resources are directed away from digestion. Intestines – stress can either speed up or slow down the passage of food through your intestines. Abdominal discomfort, indigestion, nausea. Weight loss or weight gain. Diarrhoea, constipation, poor nutrient absorption leading to nutritional deficiencies.
Signs of Pathological Stress Note: Any type of stress (whether physiological or pathological, big or small) starts with your “fight or flight” response. That’s a fact.During the early stages, the stress brought about by that response is physiological. However it passes a point wherein your body encounters difficulty with recovering or adapting. Numbers This is when injury to various cells, tissues and organs results. It has now become pathological stress.

Let’s Crunch Some Numbers


Before ending this article, here are some statistics which may persuade you to handle your stress much more effectively right away:

    • In the US, the number 1 cause of stress is job pressure. Money and health come in at 2nd and 3rd place respectively.
Stressed about Money
  • Financial issues are the number 1 source of stress in Australia. Up to 50% due to personal finances.
  • Around 40% of Australians have reported that trying to live a healthy lifestyle is a source of stress for them.
  • 1 in every 5 Australian reported that stress was taking a large toll on their physical health.
  • Among New Zealanders, stress is believed to have played an essential role in almost 80% of diseases and absences.


Stress is a vital part of our lives. Every part of your anatomy experiences stress to some degree. Physiological stress is an important and normal part of our lives. It’s necessary for our growth and development and it enables us to manage our daily challenges better. What we don’t want is pathological stress. We all have different types of stress to deal with every single day. Nobody can avoid or escape it (like taxes).

We must be able to recognise the point where physiological stress transforms into pathological stress. Then we can practice managing our stress so that it doesn’t cause cellular and organ damage. Dealing with what stresses us right away is beneficial for most of the stress we encounter every day. We don’t need to put it off until later. Prolonging the stress response isn’t helpful at all. Deal with it as soon as you can and feel better for it. Check out our stress management tips.

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