Definitions of stress

Scientific views

Those who recognise that a definition is difficult

A difficulty for the study of stress is that the term ‘stress’ has a different meaning for researchers in various disciplines. In the biological literature, it is used in relation to single organisms, populations of organisms, and ecosystems. Biologists refer to things such as heat, cold, and inadequate food supply as being sources of stress. Human biologists add to this microbial infection and taking of toxic substances. Social scientists, for their part, are more concerned about people’s interaction with their environment and the resulting emotional disturbance that can sometimes accompany it.(Hinkle, 1987)

The concept of ‘stress’ is elusive because it is poorly defined. There is no single agreed definition in existence. It is a concept which is familiar to both layman and professional alike. It is understood by all when used in a general context but by very few when a more precise account is required and this seems to be the central problem.(Cox, 1985)

…most researchers have not defined stress before delving into its endocrinological, physiological and psychological effects. Some have skirted the issue by defining stress empirically -but actually circularly- by those effects. This approach…has left the impression that stress can be anything to anyone and that it can contribute to virtually any disease.(Goldstein, 1995)

“Stress, in addition to being itself, and the result of itself, is also the cause of itself”. (Ellis & Thompson,1983)

Those who have a problem with the concept of stress

"Stress is the most grandly imprecise term in the dictionary of science.” (Soderberg, 1967)

The term ‘stress’ had been considerably trivialised and lost an important part of its meaning (Fontaine & Salah, 1991)

Stress is something which is not naturally occurring but is a manufactured concept which has now become a ‘social fact’ (Pollock, 1988)

" as a particular research domain matures, we expect the concept to help us fine tune the theory and to guide us towards sharper differentiation from other concepts and towards more precise measurements. However, it does not appear that in this sense the concept of ‘stress’ has continued to be useful with the greater maturity of the stress and health research domain." (Kasl, 1996)

Those who can't decide

“We immunologists/virologists treat stress as a rather simple concept in our experimental model systems. However, it clearly is not!”
“I guess I have a difficult time understanding the definitions of ‘emotions’ and ‘stress’. Is not stress itself an emotion in response to an environmental stimulus?”
“Basically, we (immunologists/virologists)  consider stress any stimulus that induces activation of the HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system. Perhaps this is too simplistic for psychology folks” (Bonneau, 1998)

Stress to us is a very general term that means somewhat different though related things at different levels of analysis…Each of the levels of stress analysis is partially independent in that it refers to different conditions, concepts, and processes (Lazarus & Launier, 1978)

Somewhere between the stressor and its effects lies the subjective, phenomenological experience of stress itself… such experience lies outside the realm of objective inquiry. Accordingly, behaviors classified as stress effects can also be categorized as the effects of anxiety, the effects of conflict, etc. Insofar as expression of emotion, performance deterioration or symptom manifestations are concerned, stress is interchangeable with these other concepts (Breznitz & Goldberger, 1982)

Stress has sometimes been described as an increase in catecholamine levels, a change in adrenal weight, or as a score on a life event scale or subjective reaction index (Steinberg & Ritzmann, 1990)

Those who feel they know

Psychological stress requires a judgment that environmental and/or internal demands exceed the individual’s resources for managing them(Holroyd & Lazarus, 1982)

Stress is ‘perception.’ It is the demands that are imposed upon us because there are too many alternatives. Stress is caused by being conscientious and hardworking (Selye, 1979)

There is general agreement that stress refers to a response of the organism to a noxious or threatening condition (Pearlin, 1982)

…stress is a familiar concept to us since it is an inescapable part of life. We feel we know what stress is because we experience it in its various forms in everyday life. We recognise it when we are faced with the prospect of having to pay an overdue bill, have an argument with another motorist, become frustrated with the boss, anticipate surgery at the dentist, or await a driving test. We speak of stress in general terms because it incorporates so many areas of our lives (Dobson, 1983)

Stress seems to refer to things that people are exposed to, that they are under (experience?), but in general it seems to be characteristic of situations (Mandler, 1984)

Stress is a cerebral reaction of a particular individual to a stimulus event (Skinner, 1985)

Stress is part of a complex and dynamic system of transaction between the person and his environment (Cox, 1985).

Stress may be viewed as the body’s response to any real or imagined event perceived as requiring some adaptive response and/or producing strain (Eliot, 1988)

Stress can be defined as an underload or overload of matter, energy or information input to, or output from, a living system (Steinberg & Ritzmann, 1990)

Stress is part of an adaptive biological system, where a state is created when a central processor registers an informational discrepancy(Levine & Ursin, 1991)

In essence, stress can be considered as any factor, acting internally or externally, that makes it difficult to adapt and that induces increased effort on the part of the person to maintain a state of equilibrium both internally and with the external environment (Humphrey, 1992)

Stress, a term borrowed from physics by W. Cannon and H. Selye and set to mean the mutual actions of forces that take place across any section of the body is a state of threatened homeostasis (Stratakis & Chrousos, 1995)

The term ‘stress’ may be used in two ways in psychiatry: it may be used to identify events or circumstances that are perceived adversely (‘stressors’) or to describe the state induced by such events or circumstances (the ‘stress reaction’) (Glue, Nut & Coupland, 1993)

Stress is a subset of emotion (Lazarus, 1993)

Stress is a term for certain types of experiences, as well as the body’s responses to such experiences. The term generally refers to challenges, real or implied, to the homeostatic regulatory process of the organism (McEwen & Mendelson, 1993)

The process of coping with life’s pressures and problems and the negative feelings this can generate (Thompson, Murphy and Stradling, 1994).

Stress is caused by a multitude of demands (stressors), such as an inadequate fit between what we need and what we are capable of, and what our environment offers and what it demands of us (Levi, 1996).

Stress is a useless term for pragmatic researchers, because it represents different things to different people, reality is different for each of us, and most importantly, often cannot be measured with any significant degree of accuracy (Rosch, 1996)

Psychosocial stress refers to the socially derived, conditioned, and situated psychological processes that stimulate any or all of the many manifestations of dysphoric affect falling under the rubric of subjective distress (Kaplan, 1996)

Stress is the external pressures and tension the internal pressures (Saunders, 1997)

The sum of biological and psychological disturbances caused by any aggression on the organism (Larousse French dictionary, 1971)

Not So Scientific (popular?) views

Those who have little doubt

“Stress is affecting more and more lives ­ and one of the easiest places to catch it is in the workplace. Of course, there is no such thing as a stress-free life. As one expert puts it, stress is a life circumstance not a pathological condition.” (Rees, Sunday times,1997)

"Stress  designates the aggression itself, leading to discomfort, or the consequences of it. It is our organism’s response to a challenge, be it right or wrong.” (Bernik, Brazilian psychiatrist, 1997)

"Stress is the body’s automatic response to any physical or mental demand placed upon it. When pressures are threatening, the body rushes to supply protection by turning on ‘the juices’ and preparing to defend itself. It’s the ‘flight or fight’ response in action”. (Bowman, natural therapist, 1998)

"Stress is nature’s way of putting your body on red alert—something that can come in handy if, for instance, a lion has just taken a large chunk out of your backside.” (Forbes Magazine,1995)

"Stress is a wonderful word to describe what happens when we humans are assaulted by a difficult, frightening, unpleasant, or anxiety provoking situation.” (Mindell, nutritionist,1997)

If the body is surprised or alarmed from an outside stimulus, the body’s startle system is triggered.  It is the body’s main code for healing and restoring the body to its perfect state” (Morgan, natural therapist, 1998)

“stress is unique and personal to each of us. What is relaxing to one person may be stressful to another. One person may find ‘taking it easy’ at the beach relaxing while another may find it boring” (University of Texas Counseling Services, 1998)

“Stress is any extra demand made on the system”(Arbetter, Current Health,1992)

“Stress comes in all shapes and sizes, and has become so pervasive, that it seems to permeate everything and everybody…. Stress is an unavoidable consequence of life. Without stress, there would be no life”.(The American Institute of Stress (1998)

“Stress is an ever-present reality. You don’t need a ton of data-supporting evidence to know that you’re experiencing it on a daily basis. It hits you in the face, or the gut, or wherever you happen to feel it, often enough. It’s real for you, and that’s all that counts.”( Davidson,1998)

Those who are not so sure

“...a few conceptual difficulties remain: even the experts can’t agree on what stress is, how it works, or what can be done about it”. (Kiechel III, Fortune Magazine,1986)

"We have given that urgency a name. It is called Stress… And why is that? Because we, as a society, have legitimized stress. First we gave it a name. Then we gave it a deluge of publicity. Four years ago, about the time stress hit big, there were 643 articles containing the word ‘stress’ in The Ottawa Citizen. Last year, there were 813…. Last year, there were 67 uses of the word ‘stress’ in headlines in The Toronto Star. That means about every five days a Toronto Star reader would be reminded of the stressfulness of his existence. ...Stress, we read every day, comes from the pressures of everyday life, particularly work life. It is a jungle in there, we are told. The race is to the swift. …In fact, many people probably like the idea of stress. They like to think of themselves as stressed people. It means, according to what our mass communications have been telling them, that they are trying hard, that they are fighting the odds. Conversely, if they are not stressed, it means that they are doing something wrong in their lives. It has been clear for quite some time now that stress is not good for us. But because we have legitimized it, not everyone is going to pay attention to that fact. It is even possible that we have gone beyond legitimizing stress and have romanticized it. Stress is like alcohol and tobacco—recognized as harmful, yet seen as necessary by some. Just as generations of creative writers grew up thinking that alcoholism equaled creativity, so generations of business and professional people, students and athletes have come to think that stress equals effectiveness." (Charles Gordon, Maclean’s1990)

"Anyway, one must look at the word [stress] with much circumspection and when one says that one person out of two encounters an episode of stress at least once a week, it must be understood…that this means nothing. And that we have to be suspicious of these figures that serve to feed the businesses of these merchants of the temple of modern times who would be very much at pains to demonstrate the efficiency of the anti-stress methods they market." (Le soir, Belgian newspaper,1997).[Translated from French].

"The word has had this ambiguity all along. ‘Stress’ began life as a variant on ‘distress’ in the 14th century. It meant the experience of physical hardship, starvation, torture, and pain. These days, however, the term is bandied around so imprecisely that we are almost back with the medieval definition, in which ‘stress’ simply meant ‘hardship’. It will be interesting to see how language adapts to recent scientific developments, which insist that ‘stress’ is actually good for us." (Morrish, the Sunday Telegraph, 1996)

"Among the secular-minded, the belief that stress is to blame for many serious ailments has reached epidemic proportions. Too sophisticated to believe in the wrath of God, many bright people seek equally esoteric explanations for the bad things that afflict their bodies from ulcers to cancers. And stress is the easy candidate. Often it is not a helpful - or sound - explanation... Blaming stress is another way of blaming the victim…Some loving friends, and the raft of self-help books I consulted, strongly suggested that a ‘stressful’ lifestyle doubtless contributed to my condition. As well as that, I should look to my diet. Whatever, it was something I did or ate (or didn’t do or didn’t eat) that had suddenly propelled me into the clutches of surgeons, oncologists and radiologists. Cut down, slow down, drop out ... men who worked 60 or 70 hours a week saw no irony in blaming my cancer on my ‘stressful’ four-day a week job. Stay at home more and I would be cured ... A couple of decades ago, before stress reared its head, people with cancer were burdened with a different character defect: emotional repression. The cure was to get in touch with their rage. Now raging working mothers are told to calm down. Personally, I find the notion of having to ‘live each day as if it could be your last a pain in the neck. And practicing ‘positive thinking’ is a drag. I prefer to get on with the life I loved, stress and all. But I understand the urge of others to ‘battle’ with their cancer, to try every potion and every therapist, to analyse, visualise, psychologise, to change things. If you believe you were responsible, you can also believe you have control, even if in reality, you don’t." (Horin ,The Sydney Morning Herald,1997)

Published in Australia
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Published in the US by
Science & HumanitiesPress
ISBN: 1-888725-36-2
286 pp. includes index,
Table of Contents
ISBN 1-888725-36-2

Biography of Serge Doublet
E-mail Serge Doublet
Definitions of Stress
Causes of Stress
Bibliography on Stress
Highlights of The Stress Myth
Table of Contents The Stress Myth
The Stress Myth- Home page
website -
Science & Humanities Press - US Edition
Ipsilon Publishing - Australian Edition
MacroPrint Books
BeachHouse Books
Heuristic Books
Growing up on Route 66
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