What Is Stress?

August 20, 2007 by  
Filed under STRESS

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To most people ‘stress’ brings to mind something unpleasant. But many psychologists write about stress as something that can have positive effects. Why the confusion? The reasons lie in how an individual evaluates his or her own mental and physical state.

Some examples may help to make the point clear. Imagine two people, one a champion skier in the Olympics, the other a college senior about to take a final math test. The skier has been training most of his life for the contest, the senior has hardly studied at all.

From a purely physiological perspective both are going to be experiencing similar effects – rapid heartbeat and breathing, higher metabolism, active sweat glands and so forth. Psychologically, there are also similarities – higher concentration on the present and thoughts about the next few minutes, vivid images and heightened sensitivity to feelings.

But there are key differences, at least psychologically. The skier is exhilarated, ready for the challenge, and eager to show his prowess and win the contest. The senior feels doubt and fear.

In both cases it’s reasonable to say that the two young men are under stress. You could also say they are feeling stressful. But the differences are important. The skier evaluates his situation as presenting a challenge he wants to take on and believes himself ready to tackle. The senior knows he is inadequately prepared and projects the consequences of his likely failure, a lowered grade and maybe the need to retake the class.

In both cases the young men are uncertain about the outcome, but each evaluates the odds of success differently. Each might also judge the outcome of failure differently.

The skier may wind up with only a Silver medal. That might be disappointing but in the Olympics, the number two spot can still lead to lucrative endorsements and a good future. The senior may see his chances for getting into a good graduate school diminishing. He may have to retake the class before he can even graduate.

Of course, the examples are very oversimplified. But the pattern is roughly right. Whether you feel stress or elation can often turn on how you evaluate external circumstances and your own inner state.

So there are actually two meanings of the word ‘stress‘ that sometimes get mixed together. One refers simply to the heightened awareness and the physiological symptoms described above. The other is essentially equivalent to the combination of worry and those symptoms. The latter can have negative health consequences, since those symptoms can be physically harmful. But since humans are both mind and body and the two aspects affect one another, the psychological part is just as important.

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