Stress Is... Definitions
This is a dangerous topic!
There have been many different definitions
of what stress is, whether used by psychologists,
medics, management consultants or others.
There seems to have been something approaching
open warfare between competing definitions:
Views have been passionately held and aggressively
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.
Problems of Definition
One problem with a single definition is
that stress is made up of many things: It
is a family of related experiences, pathways,
responses and outcomes caused by a range
of different events or circumstances. Different
people experience different aspects and
identify with different definitions.
Hans Selye (one of the founding fathers
of stress research) identified another part
of this problem when he saw that different
types of definition operate in different
areas of knowledge. To a lawyer or a linguist,
words have very precise, definite and fixed
meanings. In other fields, ideas and definitions
continue evolving as research and knowledge
Selye’s 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
Since then, ideas have moved on. In particular,
the harmful biochemical and long-term effects
of stress have rarely been observed in positive
The current consensus
Now, 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.
People feel little stress when they have
the time, experience and resources to manage
a situation. They feel great stress when
they think they can't handle the demands
put upon them. Stress is therefore a negative
experience. And it is not an inevitable
consequence of an event: It depends a lot
on people's perceptions of a situation and
their real ability to cope with it.
This is the main definition used by this
site, 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.
article explains what stress does to