Vanessa Bokanowski - Psychologist in Brussels

The psychology of stress: stress in all its forms

I am clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in BrusselsI specialize in stress and trauma-related disorders. 

Also trained in Connected Conscious Breathing, I believe that the combination of psychotherapy and breathing is the method par excellence for overcoming stress, whether temporary or chronic. 

In this article, I talk about the different forms stress can take and the very deleterious impact it can have on our health, both psychologically and physically. 

What is stress?

According to the Federation for Brain Research, stress is: "a set of reactions by our organism to a threatening or new situation" (2024).

We can already see from this definition that modern life is full of situations that can mobilize a stress reaction for each individual over the course of a day. 

We live in a fast-paced society, where we are constantly challenged to perform and deal with a multitude of situations in the course of a day, whether at work, in relationships or at home. 

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Stress is a state of mental tension caused by a situation considered difficult. It is a natural physiological response that calls us to mobilize and meet challenges. 

Faced with this situation, the body mobilizes and our organism produces energy which often enables us to effectively overcome the situation, as it allows us to be more alert and efficient. 

Stress and incessant rumination linked to hyperactivity

Generally, once the situation has passed, the body returns to its normal state. 

However, if we are confronted too often with difficult situations, or if we have been confronted even once with an overly stressful or traumatic situation, our body remains constantly mobilized, even in the absence of danger, and is unable to return to normal. 

It ends up confusing and analyzing every situation as potentially dangerous, and then enters a state of chronic stress where it is no longer possible to relax. 

We become trapped in a negative spiral, where our brain goes into hyperactivity and we feel constantly overwhelmed. This leads to incessant ruminations, and we end up partially losing touch with reality. 

Stress is a complex phenomenon that triggers a chain of reactions in our organism. It is therefore basically an adaptation mechanism that enables the body to rapidly mobilize in the face of a difficult situation. 

However, if this response is called upon too often, we can develop chronic stress, where the body mobilizes in an inappropriate way, but without the stressor.  

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I am clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in BrusselsI specialize in stress and anxiety disorders.

What happens in our bodies during stress?

Faced with a stressful event, our body switches on and triggers hormonal responses that put us on the alert. Adrenalin is released, with an increase in heart rate and blood flow, putting us in a state of tension and preparing our body to react effectively. 

This is the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which also releases cortisol, the ultimate stress hormone. 

Acute stress is mobilizing, triggering a reaction from our sympathetic nervous system and preparing us for an adapted response in record time. The action may be flight, fight or shock, as Claverie and Canini state in their 2023 article, "The biological response to stress".

Diagram of the body's response to stress

Flight and fight are generally considered to be adaptive responses that allow the body to release stress. The most problematic response is sideration in humans, unlike in animals, where the response of trembling after the danger has been extinguished releases the stress. 

Humans don't have this option; if they are stunned, the stress remains anchored in the body, creating hormonal imbalances that can persist. This is the problem of repeated stress situations, or chronic stress. 

What is chronic stress?

According to the Center for the Study of Human Stress (2024), chronic stress results from prolonged and repeated exposure to situations that cause us to secrete the stress hormone cortisol. 

So what are the effects of stress on the body?

The repeated production of cortisol, its deregulation, is extremely deleterious to our body and can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, as well as diabetes or heart disease. depression

Some doctors, such as Dr Gabor Maté, go much further, speaking of prolonged stress situations which are then described as truly traumatic.  

In his book, "Quand le corps dit non" (2019), he explores the role of prolonged stress, such as childhood traumas, where the child is necessarily in a state of sideration, because of dependence, and which in adulthood can induce maladaptive defense behaviors leading to all kinds of diseases such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome and multiple sclerosis. 

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Indeed, the body retains stress and can then later induce all these diseases.

In his book "Le corps n'oublie rien" (2021), leading traumatologist Dr. Bessel Van der Koch talks about trauma, which is ultimately exposure to intense stress during catastrophic events or prolonged stressful situations, and also highlights its extremely deleterious effects on the body and psyche. 

We can't end this paragraph without mentioning the disease of the century, burnout, which is affecting more and more people around the world. 

What is burnout?

According to a study by AXA in 2022, more than half of Belgians (54%) had experienced excess stress in the previous year, and the study links this excess stress to the world of work. Similarly, according to the Courrier International newspaper, burnout in Belgium reached 37.2 % in 2022. 

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The term burnout was first used in 1969 by Harold B Bradley in his article "Community-based treatment for young adult offenders". However, the first theoretical reflections on the subject were introduced by Herbert Freudenberger, in 1974, describing the demotivation of employees at a detoxification center. It was Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at Berkeley, who put the subject on a scientific footing, helping to popularize the concept. In 1981, she contributed to the creation of a burnout measurement scale. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is characterized by "a feeling of intense fatigue, loss of control, and inability to achieve concrete results at work".

Visit burnout is a progressive illness which is generally developed by resilient individuals, capable of withstanding constraints over time. 

Burnout is a collapse of mental and physical resources, because the person concerned has struggled for too long in an adverse environment. The burnout sufferer is always in a state of chronic stress. 

According to a report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, one out of every two cases of absenteeism from work in Europe is caused by chronic stress. 

The most common symptoms of burnout are :

  • Persistent fatigue;
  • Sleep disorders;
  • Weight changes;
  • A feeling of constant tension and alertness;
  • Back pain and muscle tension;
  • A desire to be left alone:
  • Irritability and a constant feeling of anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Disorders of self-esteem with an enormous drop in self-confidence;
  • A permanent feeling of powerlessness;
  • Suicidal ideation in the most severe cases.

If you experience these symptoms, it is essential to consult a psychologist-psychotherapist who can listen to you, assess your situation and help you find solutions as quickly as possible. In the most serious cases, it is also essential to take medication with the help of a psychiatrist. 

How to combat stress

Consulting a psychologist-psychotherapist

If you feel that your stress level is too overwhelming, or if it is 'chronic' or post-traumatic it's essential to consult a psychologist. The psychologist will be able to assess your stress level and help you understand its origins. 

Secondly, it seems important to put in place strategies and life changes to enable you to better adapt and resilience to stress during psychotherapy. 

Too much stress can be very overwhelming, spilling over and creating problems in all areas of your life, which is why it's important to seek help at the first sign of symptoms. 

Physical activity

Physical exercise is an essential natural way to combat stress. 

In fact, physical activity releases serotonin, a hormone that induces a feeling of relaxation and well-being, as well as endorphins, which have a relaxing effect and help combat stress. Physical activity also makes it easier to fall asleep and considerably improves sleep quality. 

The benefits of physical activity on mental activity and stress


In recent years, numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of breathing to combat stress

It's vital to breathe correctly, as poor breathing is strongly correlated with stress. Many people breathe too fast, too shallowly or through the mouth. 

James Nestor, in his bestseller "Breathing: the extraordinary power of breathing" (2022), shows us the extremely deleterious effects of poor breathing on our stress levels. 

the link between breathing and the brain in stress management

Poor breathing increases the activity of our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that puts our body under stress, and this can happen even in the absence of a stressor. This can lead to the development of numerous mental and physical illnesses.

Conscious breathing is the preferred method for regulating the balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It enables us to take our body and mind out of the survival mode in which they can become stuck under stress. 

It is an indispensable complement to stress and trauma therapyThis is because words alone cannot overcome the trauma embedded in our bodies. What has been frozen in the body can only be removed by a method that also focuses on the somatic. 

Focusing on psychic and physical states through a combination of therapy and connected conscious breathing is an extremely effective way of overcoming even the most chronic stress. 

People under chronic stress often become insensitive to life's pleasures, feeling alienated from their bodies and their lives, and becoming passive witnesses to their existence. The mobilization of the body in therapy helps to restore this sensitivity and to break the anaesthesia caused by prolonged stressful situations.