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Definition of Stress Essay Sample

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Definition of Stress Essay Sample

The word stress is a collective term and is used widely across many professions yet it is not clearly defined and has no limitations. Stress is the new norm, be you a person, pet, practitioner, old or young, stress dominates life and appears in magazines, on television and in newspapers that promise guaranteed cures. My understanding of stress is that it is negative and can be categorised into two major groups; physical stress and mental stress. Within these categories the word stress is used as a condition, minor irritation, and crisis or even as an outcry. The word stress is derived from the Latin verb stringo meaning to draw tight, graze or pluck (Hayward, 2005) and the meaning of stress is forever being expanded. There is some confusion as to an exact definition of stress but it is natural that different people use language differently and belong to different cultures this is what makes us individuals; the different ideas we have and how they are shaped.

The word stress in the future will embrace both the negative and positive aspects of stress, as more focus is directed into positive stress. Current definitions of stress suggest links between physiology, psychology, and immunology however the definition of stress and associated research is dynamic and open to further research.

The word stress was introduced into the English language in the 14th century (Hayward 2005). Hayward gives a brief account of the early uses of the word stress in her paper, ‘Historical Keywords’ (2005). “(it began) as a modified form of distress” which referred to the physical environment. The physical meaning was adopted from the Latin word physica, or Greek word, phusika, and referred to hardship and later injury (Hayward, 2005). It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word stress was used to describe an individual’s well-being (Hayward, 2005). Hayward agrees that it is viewed negatively and supports the response based model of external forces stress(ors) and internal responses (stress). Hayward neglects to acknowledge that stress has a positive role, both physically and mentally, and is part of a healthy life, providing that it is not in excess. He concludes by saying, according to Selye, it is an “unfortunate aspect of our lives”.

Now a look at the current definitions of stress from the Collins Dictionary of the English Language (1979). In linguistics stress is the emphasis on a word and is one of two degrees: primary and secondary and is a common tool in poetry. In physics stress is the internal distribution of pressure and can be measured in Pascals (Pa) or (PSI) Pounds per square inch. In medicine stress refers to stimuli both internal and external, both physiological and psychological, it is in this field that stress becomes ambiguous and very difficult to quantify.

Although the English use of the word stress is applied to many different scenarios I wonder if all languages use the word stress similarly. I speak German and can verify the translation. However, for example, Fijian is very different from English. Based on culture, different social groups classify different foods as being edible/non-edible and as a meal or non-meal by the use of classes of nouns which have different possessives, they even classify cigarettes as food and this is far from acceptable in English (Pollock, 1985).While this isn’t related to stress in any way it shows how the concept of something such as food can be so different in another language. Therefore I must note that this paper only looks at the western views on stress.

Personally stress is a negative part of my everyday life but without stress life would be pretty boring. However it is important that stress is well-balanced because excessive amounts of stress have a negative impact on health and mental status. There are various influences on my view of “stress”; media, peers, family, health professionals and educators shape my dynamic view of stress. Conceptions of those that influence our knowledge shape our views on stress and how we cope with stress. “(employees) reveal that health is not bound to a health facility or wellness program but quite significantly to interaction with peers, superiors and family” (Farrel and Geist-Martin, 2005). The mass media and our peers are even major causes of stress in our daily life! Our knowledge of stress is expanding as new studies are undertaken and new connections are made between stress and other aspects of our lives. As a student of both physiology and psychology I understand stress can be either a physical strain or injury, or a perception of one’s feeling of well-being. In most cases, physical strain will cause personal stress and vice-versa.

I perceive stress on a different scale to many other people, certain situations such as public speaking and examinations of skill do not cause me large amounts of stress, however sailing causes me distress and many physical changes such as hyperventilation, sweating and increased heart rate (even a few tears perhaps). I use the word stress several times a day as a label for emotions, strain and illness. Colloquially I use the word stress to describe insignificant feelings and events and life threatening situations as do most people. Colloquialism aside, I am unaware of any problems associated with the misconception of the word stress.

Stress can be both negative and positive for my performance, too much stress will cause me to burn out but small amounts of stress actually improve my performance. An example is in a job interview; I feel more alert and take care in what I am saying, in comparison to a normal conversation I have performed better due to stress.

The word stress signifies different things to different people. Unlike Hayward, Weiher (2004) believes although stress can be unfortunate some stress can be beneficial to survival of species, without constant stressors species fail to undergo adaptations that ultimately make them stronger. An example of this is fruit flies; Drosophila Melanogaster, which were repeatedly exposed to mild heat stress and improved their lifespan (Parsons, 2001). This idea shows that stress can be viewed negatively or positively. Weiher considers conceptual terms, such as stress, as requiring broad definitions in order for comparisons to be made across areas of study. As cited in Weiher (2004), Koener finds that the word stress should only be used in extreme situations but Weiher classifies stress as sometimes being weak. Weiher suggests that the use of the word cannot be reduced; however the use of a scale or gradient will aid understanding of the severity of stress in a given situation. It is agreed by academics that there is a need for a more organised concept of stress (Shih, 2004), (Weiher, 2004). At the present moment the notion of stress is useless because of its ubiquity (Weiher, 2004), but all that is about to change.

The word stressed is actually desserts backwards, and it would seem that researchers are finally discovering the positive side to stress; eustress. Webster’s Dictionary defines eustress as stress that is deemed healthful or giving one the feeling of fulfilment. Heyworth (2004) defines eustress as a “healthy level of stress” and says it can act as a stimulus to increase work rate and productivity.

Researchers are attempting to implement a more positive approach to stress (Cooper and Nelson, 2005); these sources show that progress is being made to redefine the way stress is viewed. Previously only negative stress, distress, was measured but eustress can now be assessed (Nelson and Cooper, 2005). Some people will find working in an emergency room a eustress and others a distress; it is all relative to your perception of the stressor (Heyworth, 2004).

Day and Livingstone (2003) validate that there are individual and group differences in reactions to stressors in the environment, this is referred to as perception. It is suggested that women perceive stress differently to men (Day and Livingstone, 2003). They conducted a study to examine gender differences in perceptions of the stressfulness relating to one’s family, partner, friends, school, and job. Men were more stressed about finance in comparison to women who incorporated too much into their schedules and received high amounts of stress from interpersonal relationships. Studies performed on rats suggest that perceptions of stressors vary across gender, this was shown in alterations in sympathetic response; i.e. hormone release (Renard et al, 2005). So when males and females perceive stress differently their bodies also react differently.

Anything causing stress is called a stressor; there are two types of stressors, processive stressors and systemic stressors (Day et al, 2004). The connections between stress and physiological responses have been investigated since the work of Selye and the fight-or flight response by Cannon. Processive stressors are perceived as potential dangers; the cerebral cortex processes the information of the attack and sends it to the hypothalamus where activation of the autonomic system occurs. This is what is classically known as the “fight-or-flight”. The fight-or-flight response is also called the acute stress response. Systemic stressors are not about perception at all, they cause direct damage to the body, such as necrosis. Processive and systemic stressors can occur at the same time and both emotions and pain receptors flare! Personally I believe that when faced with either processive or systemic stressors our mind and body works together to get us to safety, it is then that we feel pain and emotion, shock may then set in. As soon as it is safe this pain is a way of immobilising the body so that healing may begin.

There are connections between the central nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system in relation to stress (Galinowski, 2003). Although I believe there are two distinct types of stress, physical and psychological, they are closely related. The body does not distinguish between negative and positive stress: both excitement and anxiety strain the bodily resources and depress the immune system (Silberman, 2005). Stress varies in intensity and duration. Stress that lasts a short period of time can rapidly motivate us. However, a stressor that lasts too long, happens too often, or is too strong may bring us physical, behavioural, and psychological problems. Then it becomes negative stress, distress.

These factors affecting neuroendocrine and immune function; time and intensity exposure to stress are subject to the coping mechanisms that the individual uses to adjust (Maltalka, 2003). A few minutes of stress may improve immune performance but longer exposure to mental stress has detrimental effects that may lead to lowered immune reliability (Matalka, 2003). Sperner-unterweger (2005) at present has no evidence but suggests that immunity has connections to psychology, similar to the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease: a physiological change will be reflected in one’s psychological well being. This means that stress can lower immunity and low immunity can cause stress. “Uncontrollable stressors may ultimately result in disease.” (Sgoifo and Meerlo, 2002), this statement is the topic of much debate. Matalka (2003) supports the notion that more research must be conducted on the relationship between stress and immune changes.

Prior to learning how different personality types may have varying perceptions of stress, I categorised people with poor coping ability for situations that I found easy as weak. Armed with all of this new information it is now clear to me that personality, gender and numerous other factors can contribute to one’s perception of a situation. I agree with Weiher that a scale could help categorise stress for not only therapeutic purposes but on a universal level. I can imagine in the distant future my children describing their day as an overall 5.6 stressor “…but I had 2.1 eustress at lunchtime, how was would you rate your day mum? A 12.5 because you had to take a ferry?” Day and Livingstone (2003) support my theory that a major cause of stress is those whom with we have close relationships. The concept of stress has progressed vastly over the past 600 years (Hayward, 2005) and I can only believe that it will forever be dynamic as more research is undertaken.

The term stress can be narrowed down into divisions of positive and negative stress, eustress and distress. When the word stress is used alone typically it is referring to distress. Stress can affect immunity, sanity and the endocrine system. However stress is subjective and the extent of the effects depends on how it is perceived. There is still uncertainty among academics as to the effects of stress and subsequent research must still be carried out. How we view stress is forever changing and forever will be as new facts come to light. You cannot expect lay people to use stress as would academics but you can always expect them to use stress as a scapegoat, just as you can be sure that the media will always use it as a marketing tool.


Day, A., Livingstone, H., 2003, Gender Differences in Perceptions of Stressors and Utilization of Social Support Among University Students, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. Vol 35, pp. 73-83

Day, C., Campeau, M., Campeau, S., 2004, The pattern of brain c-fos mRNA induced by a component of fox odor, 2,5-dihydro-2,4,5-Trimethylthiazoline (TMT), in rats, suggest noth systemic and possessive characteristics, Brian
Research, vol 1025 Issue 1, pp. 139-151

Collins Dictionary of the English Language, 1979, William Collins Sons and Co. LTD., Sydney

Farrell, A., Geist-Martin, P., 2005, Communicating Social Health: Perceptions of Wellness at Work, Management Communication Quarterly, vol 18, Issue 4, pp. 543-92

Galinowski, A., Loo, H., 2003, Biology of stress, Annales Medico Psychologiques, vol 161 Issue 10, p797

Hayward, R. 2005, Historical keywords, Lancet, Vol. 365 Issue 9462, p839

Heyworth, J., 2004, Stress: A badge of honour in the emergency department?, Emergency Medicine Australia, vol 16, pp.5-6

Matalka, K.Z., 2003, Neuroendocrine and cytokines-induced responses to minutes, hours, and days of mental stress, Neuro Endocrinology Letters, vol 24 Issue 5, pp 283-92

Nelson, D., Cooper, C., 2005, Stress and Health: A Positive Direction, Stress and Health, vol 21, p 735

Nelson, D., Simmons, B., 2003, Health, psychology and work stress: A more positive approach, Handbook of occupational health psychology, vol 17, pp. 97-119

Parsons, P.A., 2002, Lifespan: does the limit to survival depend on metabolic stress?, Biogenonolgy, vol 3, pp. 233-41

Pollock, N.J., 1985, The concept of food in a pacific society: a Fijian example, Ecology of food and nutrition, vol 17, pp. 195-203

Renard, G.M., Suarez, M.M., Levin, G.M., Rivarola, M.A., 2005, Sex
differences in rats: effects of chronic stress on sympathetic system and anxiety, Physiology and Behaviour, vol 85, pp. 363-9

Shih, A.Y., 2004, Stress: A brief History, Stress and Health, vol 20, pp. 239-40

Sgoifo, A., Meerlo, P., 2002, Animal Models of Social Stress: Implications for the Study of Stress Related Pathologies in Humans, Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p1

Sperner-Unterweger, B., 2005, Immunological Aetiology of Major Psychiatric Disorders: Evidence and Therapeutic Implications, Drugs, Vol. 65 Issue 11, p1493-1520

Weiher, E., 2004, Why should we constrain stress and limitation? Why conceptua terms deserve broad definitions, Journal of Vegetation Science, vol 15, pp. 569-71

Webster’s New Millennium® Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.6), 2003 Lexico Publishing Group, LLC

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