Definition of Stress
There has been no definition of stress that everyone accepts. Therefore, it’s difficult to measure stress if there is no agreement on what the definition of stress should be.
People have very different ideas with respect to their definition of stress. Probably the most common is, “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension”. Another popular definition of stress is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
Most people consider the definition of stress to be something that causes distress. However, stress is not always harmful since increased stress results in increased productivity. A definition of stress should also embrace this type of healthy stress, which is usually ignored when you ask someone about their definition of stress.
Any definition of stress should also include good stress, or eustress. For example, winning a race or election is just as stressful as losing, or more so. A passionate kiss and contemplating what might follow is stressful, but hardly the same as having root canal work. Any definition of stress should similarly explain the difference between eustress and distress.
The definition of stress for most people tends to focus on the negative feelings and emotions it produces. Almost every definition of stress also discusses certain resultant physical, physiological or biochemical responses that are experienced or observed. A very comprehensive definition of stress that includes these and more is the biopsychosocial model, which, as it name suggests, has three components. This definition of stress distinguishes between an external element, another that is internal, as well as a third that represents the interaction between these two factors.
In the biopsychosocial definition of stress the external component is made up of elements in the external environment. The internal component in this definition of stress consists of physiological and biochemical factors in the internal environment or body. The interaction between these two components in this definition of stress represents the cognitive processes that result from the interaction between external and internal components. Some of the physical reactions experienced during stress include hypertension, headaches, gastrointestinal and skin complaints, etc. Any definition of stress that does include these potentially dangerous physical responses is incomplete.
A definition of stress that does not refer to the role of the hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal axis or stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and adrenalin secretion in the “fight or flight” response should also be considered to be a deficient definition of stress. Since stress is such a subjective phenomenon that differs for each of us, there really is no satisfactory definition of stress that all scientists agree on. The original definition of stress by Hans Selye, who coined the term as it is presently used, was, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. This definition of stress was confusing when Selye’s experimental animal results were extrapolated to humans and stress became a buzzword. For some, the definition of stress was something external, like a bad boss, for others the definition of stress referred to chest or stomach pain or some other disturbing reaction you experienced, but the definition of stress could also be the end result of these responses such as a heart attack or peptic ulcer. Selye subsequently had to create a new word, stressor, to distinguish between stimulus and response. He struggled unsuccessfully to find a satisfactory definition of stress and in his later years suggested that the best definition of stress was “the rate of wear and tear on the body”. He was also unaware that the definition of stress in physics that had been in use for several centuries was the degree of distortion in a malleable metal when it was subjected to an external load. Thus, his original definition of stress was really a description of strain.
- Examples of Eustress and Distress
- Work and Internal Sources of Distress
Eustress vs. DistressWe mentioned it earlier and it bears repeating: stress is not always a bad thing. Stress is simply the body's response to changes that create taxing demands. The previously mentioned Dr. Lazarus (building on Dr. Selye's work) suggested that there is a difference between eustress, which is a term for positive stress, and distress, which refers to negative stress.
In daily life, we often use the term "stress" to describe negative situations.This leads many people to believe that all stress is bad for you, which is not true.
Examples of Eustress and Distress
It is somewhat hard to categorize stressors into objective lists of those that cause eustress and those that cause distress, because different people will have different reactions to particular situations. However, by generalizing, we can compile a list ofstressors that are typically experienced as negative or positive to most people, most of the time.
- The death of a spouse.
- Filing for divorce.
- Losing contact with loved ones.
- The death of a family member.
- Hospitalization (oneself or a family member).
- Injury or illness (oneself or a family member).
- Being abused or neglected.
- Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner.
- Conflict in interpersonal relationships.
- Bankruptcy/Money Problems.
- Sleep problems.
- Children's problems at school.
- Legal problems.
- Receiving a promotion or raise at work.
- Starting a new job.
- Buying a home.
- Having a child.
- Taking a vacation.
- Holiday seasons.
- Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby.
Work and Internal Sources of Distress
Work and employment concerns such as those listed below are also frequent causes of distress:
- Excessive job demands.
- Job insecurity.
- Conflicts with teammates and supervisors.
- Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks.
- Lack of training necessary to do the job.
- Making presentations in front of colleagues or clients.
- Unproductive and time-consuming meetings.
- Commuting and travel schedules.
Stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem. Internal events such as feelings and thoughts and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.
Common internally caused sources of distress include:
- Fears: (e.g., fears of flying, heights, public speaking, chatting with strangers at a party).
- Repetitive Thought Patterns.
- Worrying about future events (e.g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring).
- Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations.
Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to distress include:
- Failing to be assertive.
- Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead.
Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics:
- Motivates, focuses energy.
- Is short-term.
- Is perceived as within our coping abilities.
- Feels exciting.
- Improves performance.
In contrast, Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:
- Causes anxiety or concern.
- Can be short- or long-term.
- Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities.
- Feels unpleasant.
- Decreases performance.
- Can lead to mental and physical problems.