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Stress: Thinking Errors that Hinder Optimism

What Is Stress?

Defining stress isn’t easy. Professionals who’ve spent most of their lives studying stress still have trouble defining the term. As one stress researcher quipped, “Defining stress is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. It’s hard to do!” Despite efforts during the last half century to assign a specific meaning to the term, no satisfactory definition exists.

Defining stress is much like defining happiness. Everyone knows what it is, but no one can agree on a single definition.

Perhaps you always began your high-school English essays with a dictionary definition (“Webster defines tragedy as . . .”), and you still have to start with a definition. Okay, here’s the scientific definition:

Stress describes a condition where an environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity of an organism.

Put in simpler terms, stress is what you experience when you believe you can’t cope effectively with a threatening situation. If you see an event or situation as only mildly challenging, you probably feel only a little stress; however, if you perceive a situation or event as threatening or overwhelming, you probably feel a lot of stress.

So, having to wait for a bus when you have all the time in the world triggers little stress. Waiting for that same bus when you’re late for a plane that will take off without you triggers much more stress.

This difference between the demands of the situation and your perception of how well you can cope with that situation is what determines how much stress you feel.

You may prefer the more tongue-in-cheek definition, commonly seen in business offices, usually taped to a wall in the employee washroom:

Stress is created when your mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some idiot who desperately deserves it.

Stick with the first definition.

Part of the problem with defining stress is the confusing way the word is used. We use the word stress to refer to the thing or circumstance out there that stresses us (stress = the bus that never comes, the deadline, the traffic jam, the sudden noise, and so on).

We then use the same word to describe the physical and emotional discomfort we feel about that situation (stress = anxious, headachy, irritated, and so on). So we end up feeling stress about stress! This can be confusing.

It’s better to use “stressor” or “stress trigger” when referring to a potentially stressful situation or event, and “stress” for your emotional and physical responses.

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