Recognizing the different levels of stress

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In collaboration with: Eli Bay, Stress Expert
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Stress is a natural response and can be a good thing. But with too much or the wrong kind, our bodies can go into a tailspin. Take better care of yourself by understanding how stress works.

Stress is an automatic reaction that happens in your body when there is a perceived threat. The release of chemicals (such as the hormone adrenalin) sharpens your senses, focuses attention, quickens breathing, dilates blood vessels, increases heart rate and tenses your muscles. This is the “fight or flight” response that prepares us to act quickly to tackle or avoid danger. And that’s a good thing.

On the flip side, it's not as helpful for most day-to-day stresses of modern life, such as never-ending deadlines, nagging traffic jams, financial worries or seemingly endless family responsibilities.

And while a certain amount of the right kind of stress can be a positive force that provides challenge, change and stimulation, excessive, negative or low-grade stress that extends over a long period of time can have a detrimental impact on your physical and mental health, relationships and general enjoyment of life.

Let your body be your guide

We all have our own ways of responding to stress: you may be prone to crying while your partner might become irritable or suffer insomnia.

Because stress is such an individual experience, it's important to let your body be your guide. Learn to recognize the ways that you tend to react, and the events or situations that are likely to cause you to feel stress.

Also know that symptoms tend to escalate if the stress continues. Be aware of where you sit in the stress continuum:

Level 1 - Immediate stress

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Perspiring and sweaty palms
  • Indigestion and nervous stomach

These symptoms occur in response to a stressor that causes fright or nervousness. Your body releases adrenalin to prepare you for action. Examples range from immediate, external danger such as a fire or a car speeding towards you to a self-imposed situation such as a job interview or first date.

Level 2 - Continued stress

  • Feelings of being pressured or driven
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Memory loss
  • Colds and flu
  • Increase in smoking or alcohol and caffeine consumption

These symptoms can occur when there is no relief from a Level 1 stress. Your body begins to release stored sugars and fats, using up its resources. For example, a long-term deadline at work, or a drawn-out divorce may lead to Level 2 stress.

Level 3 - Ongoing stress

  • Insomnia
  • Errors in judgment
  • Personality changes
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Heart disease
  • Mental illness

When a stressful situation is not resolved and carries on for prolonged periods, Level 3 stress can result. Your body cannot produce the energy resources it needs and the on-going strain can cause dysfunctions and breakdowns. An unsatisfying and highly demanding job or caring for a disabled family member could potentially cause this kind of stress.


  • Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Workplace Stress: website
  • Canadian Mental Health Association, Coping with stress: website
  • Capital Health (Edmonton Area), Stress - Link FAQ Dec 23, 2006, How does stress affect my body?: website
  • Here to help, Fact sheets: Stress: website
  • Scientific American Mind, Sussing out stress, by Hermann Englert, January 2004: website

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