How Do You Define Stress?

"How do you define stress?" Ask 10 people to define stress and you are likely to hear 25 or 30 different definitions! Interestingly, when we are asked for to define stress, most of us describe what causes the stress for us, or the physical symptoms of stress, or the type of stress. And that makes sense because stress is an experience; it isn't a "thing."

True, the physical symptoms of stress are measurable, but one persons racing heart might be caused by excitement to reunite with her husband, returning alive from war. Another's symptoms possibly caused by anxiety and fear over how his amputation and recently diagnosed PTSD is going to affect their relationship and family life. Same expectant wife, same physical symptoms of stress, perhaps the same physical condition of the husband.

  • racing, fluttering heart
  • sweaty palms
  • trembling hands
  • dry mouth
  • rapid breathing
  • flushed face
  • clinching or cramping stomach (butterlies-in-the-stomach)
  • inability to focus on some things

Everyone experiences a different label for the actual "thing" that is "stress."

Some of the same symptoms could happen to two people who are giving a presentation before a big crowd, hitchhiking through a national park, thinking about skydiving, moving to a new city, or going to a social function. One person experiences all those symptoms and might perceive them as the thrill of a positive experience. The other perceives the same symptoms as an absolutely horrible experience to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. The reality is, stress is happening in each situation, but what IS the stress?

So what is stress? According to Davis, Eshelman, and McKay,experts on stress management and authors of The Relaxation and Stress Workbook"stress is defined any change to which you must adapt." And life is all about change; it is an unchangeable (hmmm?) fact of life that change will always happen.

What is astounding is how great the rate of change in our Western World is, and how fast it continues to happen. Such a quickly changing world bombards us with a volume and intensity of change that our grandparents never even dreamed of. I wonder if they ever thought of the concept of stress, even as they lived and parented through World Wars, a Great Depression, a Cold War, and all the other changes that happened in their youth? Is stress such a new phenomenon that we have so much trouble to define stress.