John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Stress (part I)

Here’s a simple definition of stress: When environmental demands exceed our psychological, social, and material resources, we experience stress. Or rather, a stress response.

Unfortunately the word “stress” has become an elastic, all-purpose term. It gets stretched in different directions to cover words like stressor, stress response, anxiety, and indeed the entire stressful person-environment transaction.

For the record, a stressor is typically external to us. A long commute, a whopping bill, a critical boss. We can point to stressors. A stress response, in contrast, is what your body goes through when you experience stress (for instance, stress hormones pouring into the blood stream). Anxiety, which may occur when we are experiencing stress, is more akin to apprehension—but it can occur in the absence of an identifiable stressor.

Back to the definition of stress: ‘’…When demands exceed resources…”

Sometimes when I ask people about stress, it’s easier to ask them about the “demands” that are being placed on them. Who or what in the environment is asking something of you? If your boss wants a project done by tomorrow, that’s a demand. If the road is congested with traffic, that’s a demand. And if a hungry lion shows up in your front yard, that’s a demand, too. The demand side of the stress equation basically means that some person, thing, or situation requires that you respond.

The other side of the stress equation is the resources we need to respond to the demands. The most obvious resource that everybody thinks about is time. But we forget that attention is just as precious as time, as is physical energy. Moreover, competence or skill is a resource (try changing a tire when you don’t know how), as is money, and the emotional support of family and friends. Resources can be psychological, social, physical, or material.

If, when the demands come, we have plenty of resources, we’re in good shape. If you’ve got plenty of money (resource) in the bank when that credit card bill shows up (demand), no problem. If you’re boss wants you to complete a certain project (demand) by a certain deadline, using a certain computer program, and you’ve got plenty of time (resource) and skill with computers (resource), again, no worries. But if you’re aging parent is sick (demand), and you don’t have sufficient time (resource) to attend to them, or enough money (resource) to buy services for them, you’ll experience a stress response.

There are a couple of things to remember about stress. One is that stressors don’t have to be big to count. There are some life events that everybody finds stressful: divorce, death of a loved one, house fire, and so on. But many of the demands that are being placed on you are in fact daily, small events. There is a body of research evidence that indicates that these “daily life hassles” are just as important as large scale stressful life events, if not more-so. Any single hassle may not be all that difficult to cope with, but when you experience several of them over the course of any one day, your store of resources, especially time, attention, and energy, gets depleted.

The second thing to remember is that stress in the short-run isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If that lion really does show up in your front yard, your body’s stress response will be your friend—it’ll help you run faster than you could otherwise. But it’s not short-run stress that hurts us; it’s prolonged stress. When we experience stress for long periods of time, with few opportunities for relief, our minds and bodies suffer. We become preoccupied with the demands, our attentional processes narrow, and we experience fatigue, tension, and finally exhaustion.

Of course, no one escapes stress. The environment is filled with challenges, threats, and demands. But how do we cope? Stayed tuned for part II.