What is “stress”


The concept of stress comes from a biological perspective. Developed by a German physician and scientist, Hans Selye, the term first stood for physiological reactions of an organism that encountered a nocuous (negative) stimulus (Selye, 1956). Selye noticed that, faced with negative stimuli (deprivation, frustration, medical procedures) organisms exhibit a universal response, which he referred to as “General Adaptation Syndrome”. In other words, stress is the reaction to the necessity of adaptation. Note that, as adaptation is inevitable, so are adverse reactions to situational changes. As we’ll see later, this is the first step towards overcoming stress. Hormone changes, and more specifically, the elevation of cortisol levels, are the most important physiological markers of this important concept.

According to Selye, different causes of stress produce the same consequences or universal “ adaptation syndrome”.

Over the years, the concept of stress became more and more interesting to scientists coming from various fields, most importantly from the fields of psychology and medicine. Lazarus broadened the term, believing that, at least in human beings, cognitive evaluation is crucial for the outcome. Truth be told, Selye already proposed the two types of stress- eustress and distress. The former relates to good outcomes and successful adaptation to the environment. The latter refers to the bad outcomes of stressful situations.

Lazarus further developed this stream of thoughts, analyzing the evaluation process in three steps:

  1. In the first step, the person evaluates the type of stimuli:
  2. Irrelevant
  3. Beneficial
  4. Negative
  5. In the second step, the person assesses the exact nature of the stimulus. If the situation has been labeled as “negative”, it is further categorized into one of these 3 groups:
  6. Threat
  7. Challenge
  8. Loss
  9. In the final stage, we evaluate the validity of the first two steps, while considering appropriate coping strategies. It’s important to note that perceiving something as a challenge rather than a threat or loss is more likely to lead towards good outcomes (eustress).

Along with these elaborations changed the definition of stress. In Lazarus’ terms, stress is the aggregate of emotional, cognitive, and physiological reactions to a nocuous stimulus (Lazarus, 2009). Most importantly, he emphasized the role of cognitive factors (the aforementioned steps of evaluation). In other words, stress stopped being only a reaction to environmental changes and became something over which humans have a certain degree of control.

Lazarus’ approach explains extreme variability in stress responses. People react to negative events differently- while some may exhibit significant distress even to most trivial stimuli, others may endure extremely negative things for long periods. To complicate things more, even people who are generally resilient might get struck by events that we would characterize as mild and non-threatening. Individual differences account for this variability of people’s reactions to similar situations. More specifically, one of the 5 universal personality traits, Neuroticism (Piedmont & Aycock, 2007), is to be blamed.

Neuroticism is genetically determined, and one cannot choose the levels of his or her Neuroticism. We can draw one important conclusion from this fact: We mustn’t blame ourselves for our tendency to have nervous reactions, as genes determine the levels of Neuroticism.

Main causes of stress

First, it has to be emphasized that causes of stress are numerous and elude exhaustive categorization. Most importantly, it is impossible to avoid them all, nor is this something we should strive for. Ancient Greeks and Romans were able to fathom this bitter truth, and some of them (like Epicurus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marco Aurelius) developed philosophical systems that are referred to as “stoicism”. Stoics accepted the inevitability of suffering and purported to eliminate negative emotions (pain, fear, and lust) by focusing on the concept of virtue. A modern man can learn a lot from these ancient thinkers. The ideal of Western society is essentially deeply rooted in the material world, however this may sound paradoxical. But, as stoics teach us, material things come and go. The more we love these things when they come to us, the more we hate ourselves (and the world around us) when they leave us. Stoics teach us that bad things will inevitably happen to us, but that we choose how to react to them. As Epictetus has put it: “It is the way we see the world that determines our emotional reaction, not the world itself.”

As one can see, Epictetus statement nicely expresses the essence of Lazarus’ definition of stress.

From what we have said so far, it is clear that causes of stress come from situational changes. Most frequently, causes are chronic. For instance, working 15 hours per day is nothing serious if it happens once a month. On the other hand, working this much for a year will most surely cause a significant amount of distress. In Selye’s terms, working too much leads to constant demands for adaptation. Each day poses new hurdles before you. And when you work overtime, these hurdles become insurmountable. Sometimes, it is the sheer quantity of daily tasks that overwhelms people. Chronicity is one of stress’ “trademarks”. Chronic causes also come from other spheres of life. Living in a dysfunctional family is a frequent trigger for stressful reactions.

Difficulties in one aspect of life might decrease the quality in all the other spheres. For instance, working long hours may lead to bad family life, which then aggravates an already bad work situation. This is the so-called “vicious circle” when stress causes even more stress. In these cases, it’s important to identify the primary cause. In our example, the primary cause was working overtime, while the secondary cause were family disputes. We could go on and on, as the situation can perpetuate even more (with tertiary causes, and so on). Both the primary and secondary cause can interact to produce an even worse outcome. An exhausted businessman who has frequent disputes with wife and children simply doesn’t have the time to address issues such as mental and body health, meeting with acquaintances and friends, hobbies, etc. This often happens when the elimination of the primary cause was postponed for too long.

Stress can also be acute when individuals suddenly encounter what seems to them as an unsolvable problem. In the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, issued by the American Psychiatric Association, Acute Stress Disorder is described as one of the most severe Stress Disorders (alongside PTSD). In this case, the cause of stress is sudden, intense, and unexpected (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). On the other hand, chronic causes may not be so intense and are never sudden, nevertheless, they are equally (if not more) dangerous.

List of the most common causes of stress

Work often become causes of chronic stress

Even if you don’t work overtime, work will still be a significant source of stress. Everything around it- commuting, relationships with the boss and colleagues, due dates and tasks- can cause anxiety, distress, and nervousness. In extreme cases, too much work leads to “burn out syndrome”, which is one of the worst consequences of stress.

Family problems as a causes of mental stress

Living in a cold, emotionally exhausting atmosphere is one of the most common causes of stress. This is why there’s a lot of family psychotherapies which can help with these kinds of problems.

Health as a personal causes of stress

Suffering from a chronic disease will cause some conspicuous signs of distress- tiredness, anxiety, frustration, irritability, etc. The stress resulting from the disease might be as bad as the illness itself. Also, bad habits, such as poor nutrition/overeating, lack of exercise, all aggravate this problem.