What is stress?

Why does the experience of stress differ from person to person, and from time to time?
What is stress?

We all experience stress in our everyday lives. Stress can occur in any situation and setting. A child can be stressed about school; a teenager can be stressed about not being accepted by their peers, an adult can be stressed about being successful at work or in a relationship. So, what does stress mean?

When we say that we experience stress, we usually mean that we are finding it challenging to deal with the demands of the situation, or that we feel tense and uncomfortable. Dr William R Lovallo in his book Stress and Health defines stress as a condition that has two components: the physical component, which involves direct bodily changes; and the psychological component, which relates to how individuals perceive circumstances in their lives.

All of us face stress as we cope with life's challenges. There are several situations in our lives that have the the potential to cause stress: from routine events such as driving and cooking; to major events such as preparing for an exam, attending job interviews or moving to a new place; and major crises such as natural calamities or having a serious illness. 

Stress as a stimulus or a response

Being faced with a challenging or threatening event or circumstance can produce feelings of tension. Therefore, stress can either naturally spur us to action (as a stimulus) or may cause a natural reaction (as a response). Stressors are events or circumstances that we normally perceive as stressful, for instance, preparing for and writing an exam, moving to a new house, finding a new job, or any event that requires us to adapt and change. How we respond to an event or situation that is perceived as threatening or challenging determines the physical and psychological strain. This strain is experienced as a tension. When we are tense, we may feel nervous; sometimes, the heart beats faster, the mouth goes dry, or we perspire. In some persons and in certain circumstances this experience of tension can aggravate to a level of panic. 

Stress is a subjective experience

Every now and then, all of us are faced with stress. Without any stress at all, our lives would be monotonous and we would probably not have an opportunity to learn and grow as individuals. Some kinds of stress in life are good, and they enhance our experience of life, such as those accompanied with life transitions—stepping into a school for the first time, starting to work, getting married or becoming a parent. 

Other stressful situations could be:

  • Unexpected events: Accidents, the sudden death of a loved one or unexpected reactions from people whom we value

  • Situations in which we seek clarity: A patient lacking knowledge about their health or treatment

  • Undesirable circumstances: Loss of a loved one, losing belongings or property

  • Situations that seem to be outside our control: Not being able to stop thinking about a traumatic experience

Sometimes we experience stress for a short period of time, and in some situations it continues for a long time. In some situations we may experience stress intensely, at other times we may not experience any stress at all.

Certain experiences that may be stressful for one person (for example, appearing for a test or moving to a new city) may not cause stress, or may even excite others. Therefore, the experience of stress varies from person to person and from time to time. In any given situation, how we experience stress and the level of stress is dependent on how we evaluate a situation based on:

  • Our biopsychosocial resources for coping like the physical state of the body, state of the mind (our thoughts, emotions and behavior) and social support available

  • Demands of the situation 

  • A discrepancy between the demands of the situation and the resources of the person, i.e. high demands and low resources or low demand and high resources.

Though stress is a part and parcel of life, how we assess a situation, make meaning of the situation for our wellbeing, and use our resources, determines our ability to cope with stress.

Reducing the impact of stress

Stress usually cannot be avoided and is something that we all need to cope with. Even if some of us do not have enough resources to cope with stress, some proactive coping methods that can help prevent or minimize the impact are:

  • Enhancing social support: Seeking help and support of others when under stress helps prevent problems caused due to stress

  • Improving our personal control: A good sense of personal control can help us view stressful situations as a challenge and strengthens our self-efficacy 

  • Organizing our life in a better manner: Organizing our worlds can help reduce frustration, wastage of time and the potential for stress. For example, time management and keeping things orderly

  • Taking care of our lifestyle: Eating healthy and on time with regular exercise has beneficial effects on health and coping with stress  

  • Preparing ourselves for stressful events: Being mentally prepared about certain life events that could be stressful can help us cope with them


Health Psychology: Biopsychosocial interactions by Edward P Sarafino and Timothy W Smith

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