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What is stress and why does it change your behaviour?

Just about everybody knows what it means to be stressed out. Maybe you’ve had a bad day at work. You’ve got an important job interview or exam coming up. Your baby’s been screaming all night. Or your neighbours are having a loud party again.

You’re almost certainly familiar with stress symptoms and their consequences. You know that stress can make you feel cranky or angry; that it can interfere with sleep or drive you to eat bad food; and that people who are stressed may consume more caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, or even illicit substances.

But what exactly is it about stress that changes how we behave?


Stress and stressors

You know that stressful situations can affect your behaviour. But what’s actually going on in your mind and body that makes it so?

A good place to start is with an understanding of what constitutes stress. A simple definition of stress is that it is an “imbalance between the demands being made on us and our resources to cope with those demands”. A more clinical definition is that “stress is anything that causes the release of stress hormones” (stress hormones are the chemicals our bodies release when we feel that way).

In short, stress can be thought of as any situation that poses enough difficulty to affect your behaviour and thoughts. When you are faced with a stressor (i.e. when you experience stress), it takes one of two forms: physiological stressors and psychological stressors.


Physiological stressors

A physiological stressor is when you experience something physical that causes you to experience stress, such as:

  • Pain or physical discomfort. This could be an injury, headache, or other source of physical pain.
  • Chemicals or drugs. This could include nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, prescription drugs or illicit substances.
  • Sickness like chronic illness, transmittable disease (like flu or gastroenteritis), or serious disease like cancer.
  • Sleep deprivation or broken sleep, whether due to insomnia or interruptions.
  • Extremes in environment such as heat or cold.
  • Loud noises or lights that are sufficiently intense to cause physical discomfort or even damage.


Psychological stressors

A psychological stressor is when you experience a stressful situation that you perceive to be a threat, a difficulty, or a source of danger. It’s important to note that a threat doesn’t simply mean danger to your physical safety — our brains are wired to treat threats and insults to our egos and identity in much the same way.

Examples of psychological stressors include:

  • Being on the receiving end of an unexpected insult or put-down. While there is no physical cause of stress, the perceived harm is nonetheless stressful.
  • The same applies to what we perceive are threats or an invasion of our personal space. A common example is ‘road rage’ anger resulting from the perceived incompetence or lack of consideration of other drivers, or similar feelings on a packed commuter train carriage.
  • Difficult social gatherings or family get-togethers that you would normally avoid.
  • Stress resulting from work. Work stress could include deadlines, tough targets and KPIs, bullying, harassment or incompetence.
  • Organising a wedding, holiday, child’s birthday or other major event. The stress may not necessarily be due to something that has gone wrong, but rather, the stress and anxiety created by the thought that something could go wrong.
  • Financial difficulty or stressing about bills and debt collectors.


Effects of stress

The experience of stress can cause changes in how you feel.

Signs of stress include:

  • Changes to your perception. That is, psychological changes which affect how you see the world.
  • Changes to your body. These are physical changes, from increased heart rate and tensed muscles to narrowed vision and increased perspiration.

It is worth noting that a small amount of stress can actually be beneficial. After all, the stress response is an evolutionary mechanism that has helped us survive. In moderate doses, a small amount of stress can, for example, help you focus during a deadline, increase your concentration while stuck traffic, or push yourself harder during a footy much.

It is when stressful situations are excessively intense (acute) or ongoing (chronic) that they can affect your wellbeing, mental health and even your physical health.


Negative consequences of stress

Common consequences of stress include:

  • Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
  • Anger, aggression or irritability.
  • Sleeping problems. This can be a ‘vicious cycle’ in that poor sleep can result in additionally stressful situations (e.g. irritability, anger or excess caffeine consumption) which can in turn affect sleep.
  • Lack of concentration, poor memory, or difficulty staying focussed.
  • Increased consumption of junk food, alcohol, coffee, soft drinks or even illicit substances. This ‘reward’ is a form of unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Changes in weight. Weight gain is often a consequence of eating unhealthily, although weight loss due to a lack of appetite can also result from stress.
  • Excessive reliance on ‘escapes’ like console gaming, shopping or online spending, gambling or pornography. Again, these are often unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tightening, teeth clenching or even heart problems.
  • There is growing evidence that stress also contributes to an increased likelihood of getting sick.


How to deal with stress

Stress relief can take many forms. Physical activity and exercise, making an effort to get to bed on time, disengaging from your phone and work emails after hours, and talking to a friend or family member are all good ways for coping with stress.

If for whatever reason these aren’t options (or don’t provide relief), one of the best ways to work on stress management is to talk it out with a professional counsellor via free professional counselling over the phone.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.