What is Stress?

Take action quickly when "cracks" start to appear.

© iStockphoto/kulicki

A lot of research has been conducted into stress over the last hundred years. Some of the theories behind it are now settled and accepted; others are still being researched and debated.

During this time, there seems to have been something approaching open warfare between competing theories and definitions: Views have been passionately held and aggressively defended.

What complicates this is that intuitively we all feel that we know what stress is, as it is something we have all experienced. A definition should therefore be obvious... except that it is not.


Hans Selye was one of the founding fathers of stress research. His view in 1956 was that "stress is not necessarily something bad – it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental." Selye believed that the biochemical effects of stress would be experienced irrespective of whether the situation was positive or negative.

Since then, a great deal of further research has been conducted, and ideas have moved on. Stress is now viewed as a "bad thing", with a range of harmful biochemical and long-term effects. These effects have rarely been observed in positive situations.

The most commonly accepted definition of stress (mainly attributed to Richard S Lazarus) is that 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." In short, it's what we feel when we think we've lost control of events.

This is the main definition used by this section of Mind Tools, although we also recognize that there is an intertwined instinctive stress response to unexpected events. The stress response inside us is therefore part instinct and part to do with the way we think.


Some of the early research on stress (conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932) established the existence of the well-known "fight-or-flight" response. His work showed that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive.

In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. As well as this, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening events.

Not only life-threatening events trigger this reaction: We experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected or something that frustrates our goals. When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation.

Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This actually reduces our ability to work effectively with other people. With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. The intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments by drawing information from many sources. We find ourselves more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions.

There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach.

In the short term, we need to keep this fight-or-flight response under control to be effective in our jobs. In the long term we need to keep it under control to avoid problems of poor health and burnout.

Warning: Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, can cause death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.

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Comments (19)
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Stress is often nothing more than the thoughts we have about things that are happening in our lives. Other times it's very real when we find it difficult to cope or adapt. Whichever way, it has an impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

  • Masika wrote This month
    All I know is that stress is bad once it goes beyond a point of tolerance, it can kill the subject easily.I like the warning clearly "stress can Cause severe health problems"
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Tamsorchid,
    I agree that stress can be both good and bad. Good stress fires you up to take action or do something, whereas bad stress can wear you down. Yet the difference is how you react to what is 'stressful' in your life and what strategies you have in place to deal with it. Sounds like you likely have some good strategies in place!

    Mind Tools Team
  • Tamsorchid wrote Over a month ago
    I agree stress can be good and bad. I am glad I think this ay because with my score I should be dead.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Mark,
    I agree that handling stress is not an easy task, and it takes regular focus and attention to address the triggers and responses.

    These days, my favorite technique is 'grounding and centering' and our article on grounding - http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTCS_83.php - explains this in more detail.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Mark wrote Over a month ago
    Handling stress is not an easy task as it requires both mental commitment and endurance.

    There are various self-help techniques that assist people on how to deal with stress.

    I think stress management techniques like meditation, Yoga, Energy Transmission can help a lot.

    Check out here https://www.trivedimasterwellness.com/stress-management-techniques/

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Trivedi,
    Thanks for adding those synonyms. Stress goes by many different names, yet, essentially means the same thing. I see it as a variation of intensity and being careful with the use one uses.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Trivedi wrote Over a month ago
    Synonyms for stress include: affliction, anxiety, burden, impatience, nervous tension, oppression, tension, trauma, and trial.
    Trivedi Effect
  • Michele wrote Over a month ago
    Hi luperei,

    There is so much change happening in people's lives today, and when you add the need to do more with less found in many organizations, it is no wonder many feel stressed.

    The issue is so important we have a skills area devoted to the topic and a Stress Support Group in the Club Forums.

  • luperei wrote Over a month ago
    thank you for this information. it is very difficult to make the necessary changes to enhance and balance life. Although, the majority of people i work with know the impact of stress, i see too many people not making the changes needed to cope with stress. Please keep writing about it!!!
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