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Chapter 2. All About Stress > Stress Defined

Stress Defined

What is stress? When we ask students, employees, employers, and workshop participants this question, they typically respond that it is tension, nervousness, headaches, having deadlines to meet, and so on. Basically what we hear is a list outlining the effects of stress, or specific causes of stress. The official definition of stress is anything that requires an adaptive response on the part of the organism. But what does that mean? It means that anything that requires you to respond, to make a change or an adjustment, is stressful. So when people say they want to get rid of stress, the reality is that this is impossible. That is not to say that you cannot reduce the amount of change or responsibilities you have in your life. Indeed, this is at times recommended as a way of minimizing your stress level. But we want you to understand that even if you hid out on a mountaintop in order to escape the rat race, you would probably eventually get bored—and boredom itself is stressful. The fact is that stress is an inescapable part of modern life.

That is not necessarily as bad as it may sound. One of the best-known experts on stress, a Canadian scientist named Hans Selye, was once quoted as saying that “stress is the spice of life.” Just as spice can make your food tasteful and come alive, stress can give your life meaning and excitement. This depends, of course, on the amount and type of spice you use. We all know that the wrong spice, or too much spice, can make you sick to your stomach (with a possible visit to the porcelain throne). Selye (1956) differentiates between these two types of stress, referring to positive stress as eustress and negative stress as distress. So stress is not all bad. In fact, in one study adult volunteers who were placed in a completely stress-free environment (a sightless, soundless, weightless, motionless liquid heated to body temperature) soon began to manifest disturbances of mood, thought, and action. Most asked to be quickly released. We all need an optimal level of change and stress in our life to keep things interesting—and that level varies from person to person.


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