What is Stress?

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss various elements and types of stress

Like motivation, stress is a very individual experience. One person can feel extreme pressure and anxiety over a task that is looming, and another might look at the same task and see it as an exciting challenge. In spite of that, we’ve seen an overall jump in the number of people that report stress on the job, and we can see how it’s taking its toll.

Stress is a dynamic condition, and it exists when an individual is confronted with an opportunity, constraint or demand related to what he or she desires, and for which the outcome is perceived to be both uncertain and important.

Stress isn’t necessarily bad, even though it’s usually discussed in a negative context. There’s opportunity in stress, and that’s a good thing because it offers potential gain. For instance, consider Luke Skywalker, piloting his X-Wing fighter, trying to blast his torpedo into that small, little space that was the Death Star’s only weakness. There was plenty of stress, provided by stormtroopers and Darth Vader himself via bullets and explosions, but Luke concentrated, used stress to his advantage, and shot that torpedo right into the exhaust port.

Okay, maybe it was The Force, too. Athletes and performers use stress positively in “clutch” situations, using it to push themselves to their performance maximums. Even ordinary workers in an organization will use an increased workload and responsibilities as a challenge that increases the quality and quantity of their outputs.

Person sitting on the ground covering their face with their handsStress is negative when it’s associated with constraints and demands. Constraints are forces that prevent a person from doing what he or she wants. Demands represent the loss of something desired. They’re the two conditions that are necessary for potential stress to become actual stress. Again, there must be uncertainty over the outcome and the outcome must be important.

Kevin, a student, may feel stress when he is taking a test because he’s facing an opportunity (a passing grade) that includes constraints and demands (in the form of a timed test that features tricky questions). Salomé, a full-time employee, may feel stress when she is confronted with a project because she’s facing an opportunity (a chance to achieve something, make extra money and receive recognition) that includes constraints and demands (long hours, time away from family, a chance that his knowledge and skills aren’t enough to complete the project correctly).

Stress is highest for those who don’t know if they will win or lose and lowest for those that feel that winning (or losing) is an inevitability. Even so, the individual can perceive the winning (or losing) as an inevitability, but if it’s important, the individual is still likely to experience a level of stress.

PRactice Question

What does stress feel like? The symptoms of stress for a person are as individual as the conditions that cause it. Typically, when presented with stress, the body responds with a surge of hormones and chemicals that results in a fight-or-flight response. As the name would indicate, this response allows you to either fight the stressor or run away from it.

The general adaptation syndrome (GAS) describes the three stages that individuals experience when they encounter stressors, respond and try to adapt:

  • Alarm. The physical reaction one experiences when a stressor first presents itself. This could include an elevation of blood pressure, dilated pupils, tensing muscles.
  • Resistance. If the stressor continues to be present, the person fights the threat by preparing to resist, physiologically and psychologically. At first, the stressor will be met with plenty of energy, but if the stressor persists, the individual will start to experience fatigue in fighting it and resistance will wear down.
  • Exhaustion. Continuous, unsuccessful resistance eventually leads to the collapse of physical and mental defenses.

When stress is chronically present, it begins to do damage to a person’s body and his mental state. High blood pressure, higher risk of heart attack and stroke are just some of the physical ramifications. Anxiety and depression are the hallmarks of psychological symptoms of stress, but can also include cognitive symptoms like forgetfulness and indecisiveness. Behaviorally, a person suffering stress might be prone to sudden verbal outbursts, hostility, drug and alcohol abuse and even violence.

Another result of chronic stress and overwork is burnout. The term “burnout” is tossed out by people quite a bit to describe the symptoms of their stress response, but burnout is an authentic condition marked by feelings of exhaustion and powerlessness, leading to apathy, cynicism and complete withdrawal. Burnout is a common condition among those who have chosen careers that serve others or interact heavily with other people—healthcare and teaching among them.

This Wall Street Journal report from 2017 features an interview with a doctor who talks about the symptoms and repercussions of burnout:

Stress is a significant issue for businesses. Now that we know what it is and what it looks like, let’s take a look at the most common causes.


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