You may think definitions would be easy; but that’s not the case with stress. In fact, scientists can’t agree a single definition. It’s a conundrum that probably dates back to the 1930’s, and its founder Hans seyle, who borrowed the term stress from the world of physics.
In addition, many of the definitions and terms associated with stress have negative connotations, and while some of these can’t be ignored, they don’t paint the full picture of stress.
But thankfully new science is rectifying this and highlighting the many benefits of stress and the stress response.
To this end, the purpose of this article is to present working definitions of stress, which are based on facts, and enable people to make informed choices about their relationship with stress.
So why are definitions important?
I believe definitions are important as they will help provide a more balanced commentary to the phenomenon that is stress. Because for decades, we’ve expended a lot of energy on the negatives of stress, so why not expend some energy towards the positives?
But in order to do so, we need to go back to basics and attempt to provide working definitions of stress that are based on evidence and facts.
In addition, definitions incorporate language, and language is vital to our understanding of concepts. This same language shapes our beliefs, and helps us form a mental framework – a framework which shapes how we perceive and believe.
For example, if definitions include negative words and terms, it generally follows that our perceptions and beliefs will be negative. Which brings us to current definitions of stress, and the fact that stress has become a catch all phrase for anything that causes upset or ailments.
Whether its career, work, parenting business, education or relationships we commonly associate stress with terms such as pressure, overwhelmed, anxiety, worry, tension, sickness and lots more.
As a result, stress is perceived as something that is toxic and should be avoided. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
For starters, stress per sae is a neutral term, used to describe a biological function which responds to challenges we may face.
This is called the stress response. If the response is beyond what we need, or is prolonged in the body, we may experience the downside of the stress response, such as anxiety or sickness. However, this is called distress.
In addition, the new science stress shows us that stress is crucial for performance and protection – and without it – we may not thrive or survive.
My point is this: stress is a normal bodily function with many benefits.
So definitions matter – and if we present stress for what it truly is, by using factual and balanced commentary, and present its benefits (while mitigating against its downside), only then will we start to help people manage and utilise the bodies most effective protection and performance system: stress
The definitions that follow I believe will help us achieve this – and enable us to view stress through a different lens and focus on what stress expert Dr Kelly McGonigal calls: “The Upside of Stress”
So here goes:
One of the best working definitions I have come across is that of Dr Kelly McGonigal’s.
- “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake”.
Kelly also points out an important truth about this definition – one that’s never mentioned when stress is talked about:
“Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.
In other words, stress matters and is not something to be avoided. Yes, it’s important to know that too much stress is bad for you, but that’s the same health warning which applies to many other things in life such as food, exercise and work.
While Dr McGonigal’s will be my overarching definition, I am also comfortable with the following definitions, (depending on context and cohort), which attempt to define stress in anatomical, structural and functional contexts.
- Stress is a biological function primarily conducted via the neurological and endocrine systems.
- Stress is a normal bodily function in response to internal and/or external challenges
- Stress can be negative or positive and can be influenced by our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours
- Stress is a product of the brain and body which helps us meet life’s challenges
And finally, my most concise definition of stress (and one which may give rise to debate):
- Stress is a performance product.
So yes, definitions matter – because language matters. The language we expose people to can shape how they perceive- and by extension – what they believe. If we keep exposing people to negative stress language, they will believe its negative.
On the other hand, if we expose them to the positive’s, we can start to shift beliefs.
And definitions based on facts and evidence will contribute.