What exactly is “stress?”

One of our challenges with stress is understanding exactly what it is.

We use the term stress both to describe a traffic delay and a death in the family. 

We say we are stressed when we feel busy, frustrated, anxious, or under pressure.  We might find ourselves “getting stressed out by email, politics, the news, the weather, or our growing to-do list,” Kelly McGonigal writes in The Upside of Stress

“Stress is commonly used to describe trivial irritations, but it’s just as likely to be shorthand for more serious psychological challenges such as depression and anxiety,” Kelly writes.  

Our biggest sources of stress vary widely depending on our circumstances and our season of life.  We might be most stressed about work, parenting, illness, getting out of debt, or going through a divorce. 

The problem is stress has become a “catch-all term for anything we don’t want to experience,” observes Kelly, “and everything that’s wrong with the world.” 

In an effort to be more specific about what stress is, Kelly suggests a new definition: “Stress arises when something you care about is at stake.”

The benefits of this definition include that it is big enough to hold both the frustration over traffic and the grief over a loss. It includes our thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions when we’re feeling stressed, as well as how we choose to cope with situations we’d describe as stressful. 

“This definition also highlights an important truth about stress,” notes Kelly: “Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.”

The link between stress and meaning may help explain why some people don’t view stress as something to be avoided, but rather to be embraced.  When we care about something, we are more likely to take action to overcome or remove the stress. We seek information, help, or advice.  We accept a stressful event has occurred and put together a strategy to deal with it.  

With this mindset, we are more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem.  We gain confidence we can address challenges, and are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.

The research shows people who believe stress is enhancing “are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful,” writes Kelly.  We “have more energy and fewer health problems. We’re happier and more productive at work.” 

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: Consider a current challenge in my life.  Am I addressing it head-on or avoiding it?  What would be a good next step to take?

Action:  Take it.

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