So, What Is Stress?

According to Wikipedia, stress is a term that is commonly used but has become increasingly difficult to define.  Typically, stress describes a negative concept that can have an impact on a person’s mental and physical well-being, but it is unclear what exactly defines stress and whether or not stress is a cause, an effect, or the process connecting the two.

Walter Cannon used the term stress in 1926 and was the first to refer to external factors that disrupted what he called homeostasis.  Homeostasis is a concept central to the idea of stress. In biology, most biochemical processes strive to maintain equilibrium, a steady state that exists more as an ideal and less as an achievable condition.

Environmental factors, internal or external stimuli, continually disrupt homeostasis. Factors causing a person’s condition to waver away from homeostasis can be interpreted as stress. A life-threatening situation, such as a physical injury or prolonged starvation, can greatly disrupt homeostasis.

On the other hand, a person’s effortful attempt at restoring conditions back to or near homeostasis, oftentimes consuming energy and natural resources, can also be interpreted as stress. In such instances, a person’s fight-or-flight response recruits the body’s energy stores and focuses attention to overcome the challenge at hand.  Despite the numerous definitions given to stress, homeostasis appears to lie at its core.

Because stress is ultimately perceived as a subjective experience, it follows that its definition perhaps ought to remain fluid. For a concept so ambiguous and difficult to define, stress nevertheless plays an obvious and predominant role in the everyday lives of humans and nature alike.

Lenay Hall Phillipps

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