Wholeness Healing Today

Stress Reactivity versus Stress Response

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. (Victor Frankl)

We all have stress.  Although difficult to define, stress is the psychological, physiological and behavioral response by people when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over a period of time, leads to ill-health.  We all have different stressors that cause us stress.  A “stressor” is defined as a stimulus or event that produces a stress response.  This might mean that a math test, heavy traffic, or having an unreasonable boss may be stressors that cause us “stress”. Unnecessary stress can happen through our perception of the stressor, involving a rapid cascade of nervous system firings and stress hormones.  (Kabat-Zin, 2013)

So, we perceive situations that put pressure on us, appraise the situations (can we manage it?) and then have a reaction to that event. This is all done in a split second.  Usually unconsciously, but none-the-less, we react to it in a very real way. Feeling threatened will trigger our body to react through fight, flight or freeze survival mechanisms which prepares us to confront the situation. This reaction is the body’s sympathetic nervous system releasing hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline as well as a total of 17 different hormones) into our bloodstream to handle the acute stress response. This helps us get through danger. After the danger, our body can let down and rebalance. This acute stress reaction is intended to be short-term.

However, this becomes a problem when we move into chronic stress.  Chronic stress is when there are continuous acute stress reactions keeping the body in this fight, flight or freeze cycle. This ongoing stress response causes the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone).  This ACTH is known as the stress hormone and it stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol. When cortisol production is overstimulated, the levels get disrupted. This can affect our sense of wellbeing in a variety of ways – often first through disruption in sleep, mood and energy level. It can cause physical issues such as migraines, diarrhea or constipation, acid reflux, acne, hives and atherosclerosis. This is just the tip of the ice berg.  These cortisol and other stress-related hormones cause havoc on the body when there is not a letdown and a rebalancing. (This let down should happen as we have moved away from being impacted by stress in the moment.) Over time chronic stress can cause some real damage to our body as we have continuous wear and tear because of the stress reactivity cycle.

Moving from stress reactivity to a stress response is what Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) focuses on teaching us.  This is a core piece of our eight-week Mindful Approach to Living course.  The goal is to become mindful of our stress reactions and patterns and how this reactivity impacts our well-being. We use mindfulness to tune into the body sensations, the emotions, the thoughts and our reactions to the situations.  Through this mindful process, we can become aware of how we are perceiving a situation and the way we are appraising it, which ultimately impacts the reaction to the event.

Stress, in and of itself, isn’t a negative.  Stress can actually benefit us in getting us to pull in resources and put energy into something that is tough.  If we perceive and appraise the stress as something we can handle, it can be a positive for us.  A core tenant of the MBSR course is that it isn’t the potential stressor itself that is the problem, but how we perceive and appraise the situation and how we may or may not be able to handle it.  This will determine whether it will lead to stress.”  (Kabat-Zin, 2013)

We can’t control our environment or the situations happening in our world.  We can learn how to better manage the situations within ourselves.  These automatic reactions to stress may not even be on a conscious level, but our body and mind react in the normal habitual way to stress. This stress reaction is probably the same stress reaction we have used most of our life.  These reactions are automatic and often so habitual that they are unconsciously brought forth in the moment and utilized before we even have a chance to consider options.

The good news is that through learning to use mindfulness practices, we can slow down these automatic reactions by becoming aware of them.  Then as we become aware of them, we can pause and put some space in the moment before we become reactive and then choose a different response.  This is critical.  This is a life-changing event.  We are no longer victims to our inner or outer environments. We can make some shifts and shut the stress reactivity down.  Then our body, mind and spirit can reap the benefits of these choices.  We are then better able to live in the calm, even when there is chaos all around us.

Works Cited

Kabat-Zin, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living. New York City: Bantam Books.






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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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