The Shorthand of Stress
It seems to me that we could do worse than take some time to consider in a little
more detail what has become a rather overused word - stress.
How often do we hear that somebody is ‘a bit stressed’? So often, I suggest, that we
take for granted what they mean by it and that the person giving the answer expects
us to. In this respect, the word and, by implication, the concept, has come to be
accepted and used as a kind of shorthand. What if we were to follow up with a
further, slightly more challenging question; ‘What do you mean by that?’ It’s a
reasonable enough question to ask, but I’m not sure that the answer would make it
In generally accepted terms, stress is a feeling of strain, anxiety or pressure. It can be
related to the environment or external circumstances but is often caused by internal
feelings of anxiety or discomfort which individuals experience and describe as
‘stressful’. When we don’t believe our resources are enough to deal with what the
circumstances demand, we can feel threatened: this, in turn, can cause us to fear
that we can’t cope. We will then describe that feeling of fear as stress.
Some of the words or phrases that have become synonymous with stress - anxiety,
not coping very well, under too much pressure, overloaded - all have negative
connotations and are probably meant to. When somebody says they’re ‘stressed’
it’s both unlikely and unusual that they mean to convey a positive experience.
Of course, it’s true that excessive stress can be harmful, increasing the risk of
strokes, heart attacks, ulcers and mental illnesses like depression for example. Most
of us acknowledge that very frightening and debilitating panic attacks are a physical
manifestation of psychological stress. There’s no doubt that such situations need to
be taken very seriously and addressed with some urgency.
It is also true, however, that some ‘stress’ - positive stress - is desirable, beneficial
and healthy. It produces adrenalin and enhances performance and motivation.
When we’re faced with a challenging situation and immediately feel those familiar
feelings taking us over, what if we first consider the possibility that what we’re
programmed to interpret as anxiety just might not be stress at all. What if it’s