Stress Defined

Stressed Out?

People talk all the time about being stressed out, or having too much stress, but what, exactly is stress? Stress is what happens when we can't find a way to adapt to change. In fancy medical terms, stress is the disruption of homeostasis via physical or psychological stimuli.

Another way of understanding stress is to see it as the result of a discrepancy between the demands of a situation and our available coping resources. These resources we lack may be social, biological, or psychological. Stress-causing stimuli come in many guises including mental, physiological, physical, and anatomical.

Prior to the 1950's the term "stress" lacked its modern connotations. Dating from the 14th century, the term was used as a reference to hardship or force and bore only a slight tint of its later psychological sense. The word is derived from the Middle English word destresse, which comes from Old French and from the Latin stringere, to draw tight. By this time, the word had long been in use as a physics term referring to the distribution of force as it is exerted on an object.

The first, early references to stress as a psychological state or an unwelcome occurrence were during the 1920s-1930s. The term was by then, in occasional use as a reference to environmental entities that might be illness-producing.

Around this time, endocrinologist Hans Selye used the word stress in relation to the physiological adaptative responses of laboratory animals. Selye was instrumental in the popularization of the concept so that it broadened to include human responses and perceptions as they related to the challenges in their everyday lives.

Accentuate the Positive

As the word has evolved, we have forgotten the positive aspects of stress. Stress can be a positive phenomenon. Challenge is a kind of stress and the adaptive response prompted by a challenging situation activates our internal resources to meet the challenge and achieve realistic goals.

Something that brings on stress is called a stressor. Stressors can be negative or positive. Here are some common categories where stressors are at work along with examples of the stressors in each category:

Environmental-Any lack of control over circumstances that involve issues such as housing, food, health, mobility, or freedom.

Social-Deception, discord, and societal gaps

Responsibility-Poverty and unemployment

Milestone events-Birth, death, marriage, and divorce

Illness- Mental or physical illnesses

Work or study-Deadlines for projects and exams

Lifestyle-Alcohol and substance abuse, not enough sleep, and poor eating habits

Sensory-Pain, bright lights

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