Stress is a common theme in our culture, identifying the state of many pastors today. It’s rare to find someone in ministry who operates without any stress. And we know stress also pervades most of the Western work culture in general. Studies show 80% of Americans describe their work as stressful.

We can actually trace the diagnosis of “stress” back to 1936, when a Hungarian medical doctor and researcher, Hans Seyle, observed this phenomenon in his patients. Labeled “General Adaptation Syndrome,” Dr. Seyle identified various physical responses of the body (ulcers, high blood pressure, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions) to the external pressures of life. He characterized this occurrence as “stress.”

The term “stress” was mainly used within the engineering industry as “STRuctural Engineering System Solvers,” and referred to the load-bearing capacity of bridges and buildings. How much water could flow under a bridge while it maintained its structural integrity? Would a certain force of wind damage the bridge over time?

These sorts of comparisons began to correspond with the traits Dr. Seyle noticed in his patients. Why were certain external forces causing damage, while the body itself had no underlying biological issues to contribute to the damage? He began to attribute these responses to psychological forces at work. 

The good news is, we have ways to combat the stress we experience. But first, we must be able to identify which of the four kinds of stress we are experiencing. Accurate diagnosis always precedes a clear treatment or recovery plan. Each kind of stress has different characteristics and ways of expressing itself. Once we can identify the specific kind of stress, we can tackle its resolution.

Stress can manifest in the following four ways:

  1. Potent Stress
  2. Persistent Stress 
  3. Perceptual Stress
  4. Pervasive Stress

Potent Stress

Potent stress happens suddenly and abruptly. Its effects are life-altering and jarring. Some examples include: car accidents, unexpected death of a loved one, financial setbacks, learning of a spouse’s unfaithfulness, or many other examples. 

You’ll find your routine suddenly thrown out of whack, and it can be difficult to put pieces back together once potent stress hits. 

While the extremity of this kind of stress can be shocking and painful, potent stress is actually one of the simplest to remedy. The reason for this is, oftentimes, others can easily recognize and acknowledge the stress with you. As others understand and recognize this stress with you, the communication process needed to heal becomes more natural. The empathy, encouragement, support, and prayers from those in our circle of relationships help us carry and slowly recover from what at the time seems to be an unbearable catastrophe. 

Persistent Stress

Persistent stress is a sneaky one. It’s like a constant dripping faucet. It seems harmless and annoying, and yet, when left alone, it can do serious damage. 

Some examples of persistent stress include: an unaffordable monthly mortgage debt, a chronic pain, an unpleasant relationship from which you cannot escape, helping your child day by day overcome a learning disability, providing chronic care to a sick or elderly loved one, dealing with a perfectionist who points out every mistake and flaw in your behavior.

This kind of stress is the most damaging because it is subtle and seemingly nonthreatening. It slowly and nonchalantly depletes you of resilience until your body recognizes the relentless pounding of its rhythm. Persistent stress takes a toll on your physical health by weakening the body’s immune system. It depletes your brain’s pain and anxiety-management systems. It affects the hormones in your body that are responsible to support resilience and mood stability. 

The ability to identify and protect your body from persistent stress is crucial.

Perceptual Stress

Perceptual stress manifests itself by our own perception of life. It’s caused when negative and pessimistic thoughts are allowed to control. Often, it can be when we allow negative perceptions of life to overwhelm our brains, representing the world as worse than it is.

One simplified example is flying in an airplane. Most people know this is the safest form of travel and are able to relax throughout the entirety of the flight. Others deal with anxiety before, during, and after the flight. The risk factor for both types of flyers is identical; it’s the perception of the risk that varies. 

Your thoughts about circumstances can actually be more powerful than the reality of the circumstance itself. Interestingly enough, the organic human brain does not know the difference between a non-factual, vividly imagined reality and an actual or fact-based reality. Our brain reacts as if both are legitimately real. The crippling effects of comparison can also be at play when experiencing perceptual stress. 

Overall, you could relate perceptual stress to someone’s worldview and outlook on life. 

Pervasive Stress

Pervasive stress is a combination of two or even all three stress types working together in your life at the same time. In a perfect storm scenario like this, you will feel so overwhelmed that you’ll need to engage others to help you take defensive or protective action to navigate through the tornado, rising floodwaters, and hailstorm all pounding away at you in the same season.