Why do we all respond to stress differently?

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When people hear the word “stress” there is an automatic negative connotation, but there is such thing as good stress (eustress). Stress is defined as our body’s reaction to stimuli both good and bad, and can be characterized by elevated heart rate, increased breathing rate, or flushing of the skin.  

Stress, both pleasant and unpleasant, is an unavoidable fact of life. Stress reactivity refers to the different, individual ways we respond to stressors. This Stress Awareness Month (April), Dr. Ali Weinstein sheds light on lesser-known stressors to be aware of, how to recognize signs the body is experiencing stress, and techniques to better cope with stress. 

Why does everyone react to stress differently?  

When it comes to stress, every individual reacts differently, even to the same stressor. This is attributable to factors ranging from genetics to life experiences. The appraisal of a stressor is central to understanding its impact on individuals. This is the individuals’ evaluation of the significance of the stressor, while coping are individuals’ efforts to manage the stressor. Our reactions to stress (and to stressors) are dependent both on our appraisal of the stressor, as well as the resources that are available to cope with the stress (stressors).  

What are some lesser-known causes of stress to be aware of? 

When most people give examples of the common causes of stress, they refer to specific events: financial-related hardships, relationship troubles, or pressure from one’s job, to name a few. However, not all stressors are as easily recognizable or not even something being experienced in the moment. 

Events of the past, such as having gone through childhood trauma, can be a stressor years after the trauma has occurred. Racial and ethnic minorities are at risk of being exposed to race-based discrimination or violence, which is an example of how daily stressors can be unique to disadvantaged groups. 

Since individuals may have different reactions to stress, it is important to monitor which stressors are particularly triggering.   

What are the consequences of chronic stress? 

Stress is often referred to as the new smoking because of the growing body of research that suggests consistent stress is detrimental to overall health. Exposure to long-term stress is associated with chronic health complications, both physical and psychological. Findings have shown that chronic stress puts people at greater risk for depression, migraines, trouble sleeping, extreme weight gain or loss, and even heart disease.  

What are healthy ways to cope with stress? 

Stress is not something that can be avoided; therefore, what’s important is how we respond to that stress. Unfortunately, many people adopt poor coping skills to combat stress, such as alcohol, smoking, or substance use. Healthier alternatives can be light to moderate exercise, yoga, meditation, getting enough sleep, and, if accessible, therapy. 


Dr. Ali A. Weinstein is a Professor of Global and Community Health (GCH) and a Senior Scholar in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Her research has explored burnout and stress reactivity. She has conducted extensive research on the interactions of biology and behavior in both laboratory and field settings. 

To speak to Weinstein, contact Michelle Thompson at 703-993-3485 or mthomp7@gmu.edu.  

About Mason    

George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public research university, enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity, and commitment to accessibility. In 2022, Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at http://www.gmu.edu.    

About College of Public Health at George Mason University   

The College of Public Health at George Mason University is the first and only College of Public Health in Virginia combining public health transdisciplinary research, education, and practice in the Commonwealth as a national exemplar. The College enrolls more than 1,900 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students in our nationally recognized programs, including six undergraduate degrees, eight master’s degrees, five doctoral degrees, and six professional certificate programs. The College is comprised of the School of Nursing and the Departments of Global and Community Health, Health Administration and Policy, Nutrition and Food Studies, and Social Work.