What is the definition of Stress?

Stress is one of those words that means a lot of things. The definition of stress is not very precise.

What it means to a large extent depends on who's using the word.

My purpose here is to give you a definition of stress that will be helpful as you try to manage stress in your life and find stress relief.

Most definitions of stress are inadequate.

I don't think the commonly used stress definitions are very helpful when it comes to managing stress and finding stress relief.

Dictionary definitions of stress emphasize the negative aspects of stress. They present stress as a problem.

Words and phrases that are used by these definitions include…

  • mental tension
  • worry
  • caused by problems
  • anxiety
  • trouble
  • difficulty
  • hassle 
  • disease causation

Focusing only on the negative aspects of stress results in one of the three common mistakes people make that keeps them feeling overwhelmed, stressed-out, and headed for burnout.

All of these words do, in fact, define aspects of stress. But they miss something that is important.  

What they miss is that stress has a good, useful, helpful aspect. There is not only bad stress, there is also good stress.

Hans Selye, one of the first scientists to study stress in humans and animals, used the term eustress for the positive aspects of stress.

Stress works for you. It generates energy, strengthens your body, enhances your performance, and can be fun (Think about riding in a roller-coaster.).  Then it directs that energy to where it will be most useful when you are trying to complete a task, reach a challenge, or meet a need.

As you manage the stress in your life and try to find stress relief, you need to be aware of both the bad stress and the good stress.

Another problem with dictionary definitions of stress is that they emphasize big stress.

The words and phrases that are used include…

  • very demanding circumstances
  • strong feelings
  • intense effort or exertion
  • demands that exceed resources

Stress, as I see it, does include the big things that happen in your life. Having a serious automobile accident is definitely stressful. So is getting married. Getting a promotion at work resulting in increased responsibilities is stressful. So is getting fired.

But then so are the medium sized tasks and challenges. Having a fender-bender will stress you out. Going on a first date with someone you really like is stressful. You will be stressed by being assigned a new project at work.  Preparing your resume to begin a job search brings stress.

Even the small tasks and challenges you encounter are stressful. Getting stuck in traffic on the way to work causes stress. So does meeting someone you are attracted to at a social gathering. Having to work through a break to catch up on your work can cause stress.

I have a better definition of stress.

Here is the definition of stress that I think will be the most helpful to you as you manage stress and try to find stress relief.

Stress is all of the large and small tasks and challenges that you encounter and must respond to and the processes that happen within your body that generate the energy needed to accomplish those tasks, reach those challenges, and meet those needs.

So as you manage stress in your life and try to find stress relief, be aware that you can be stressed-out by…

  • Big tasks and challenges
  • Medium size tasks and challenges
  • Small tasks and challenges
  • Negative, painful events and circumstances
  • Positive, enjoyable events and circumstances

They are all stressful.


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