What Is Stress And Why Is It So Difficult To Define?

February 23, 2017

What Is Stress And Why Is It So Difficult To Define?

Stress is estimated to cost American businesses up to $300 billion a year and has been labelled the 'Health Epidemic of the 21st Century' by the World Health Organisation (G  Fink, 2016). Numerous studies show that job stress is by far the major source of stress for many adults, and in a recent global survey, employers identified stress as the number one health risk factor in nearly all surveyed countries (Towers Watson, 2014). However, stress is not limited to the workplace. Stress can be caused by being stuck in heavy traffic, overdue bills, or feeling threatened by another individual.

Stress is difficult to define.

Stress was defined by Hans Selye, the father of stress, as the non-specific response of the body to any demand. This definition is the most generic. Stress can be described in a medical sense as the rate of wear and tear in the body, or more broadly as an aversive event (physical, mental, or emotional) that threatens the well-being of an individual. Other definitions, detailed by G Fink (2010) are the perception of threat, with resulting anxiety, discomfort, emotional tension, and difficulty in adjustment; and, stress occurs when environmental demands exceed one’s perception of the ability to cope.

Definition of Stress

One definition of stress that stood out to me, was the three-component definition of stress developed by Kim and Diamond (2002). The authors suggest that this definition can be applied broadly across species and paradigms. First, stress requires heightened excitability or arousal (E). Second, the experience must be perceived as aversive (A). Third, there is a lack of control or uncontrollability (U). Thus, stress can be defined as the product of these three factors:    S = E x A x U

Kim and Diamond (2002) suggest that having control over an aversive experience has a profound mitigating influence on how stressful the experience feels. The element of control is the variable that ultimately determines the magnitude of the stress experience and the susceptibility of the individual to develop stress-induced behavioural and physiological conditions. They summarise by defining stress as a condition in which an individual is aroused by an aversive situation – for example, a hostile employer, or an unpaid bill. With the magnitude of stress and its physiological consequences greatly influenced by the individual’s perception of its ability to control the presence or intensity of the situation.


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Fink, G. (2010). Stress: definition and history. Stress science: neuroendocrinology, 3-9.

Fink, G. (2016). Stress concepts and cognition, emotion, and behaviour. (1 ed.). Amsterdam: Academic Press.

Kim, J. J., & Diamond, D. M. (2002). The stressed hippocampus, synaptic plasticity and lost memories. Nat Rev Neurosci, 3(6), 453-462.

Towers Watson. (2014). The business value of a healthy workforce: A global perspective. Retrieved from https://www.towerswatson.com/en/Insights/IC-Types/Survey-Research-Results/2014/02/stayingatwork-report-business-value-of-a-healthy-workforce


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