Introduction to Defining Stress

What you’ll learn to do: describe stress, its impact on the body, and identify common stressors

Man sitting at a desk with his laptop and a coffee, looking over some work papers with his hand on his head, appearing to be stressed out.

Stress is a process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events appraised as overwhelming or threatening to one’s well-being. The scientific study of how stress and emotional factors impact health and well-being is called health psychology, a field devoted to studying the general impact of psychological factors on health. While there are circumstances in which stress can be good, we know that stress can have serious negative consequences on the body.

Stressors can be chronic (long term) or acute (short term), and can include traumatic events, significant life changes, daily hassles, and situations in which people are frequently exposed to challenging and unpleasant events. Many potential stressors include events or situations that require us to make changes in our lives, such as a divorce or moving to a new residence. Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) to measure stress by assigning a number of life change units to life events that typically require some adjustment, including positive events. Although the SRRS has been criticized on a number of grounds, extensive research has shown that the accumulation of many LCUs is associated with increased risk of illness. Many potential stressors also include daily hassles, which are minor irritations and annoyances that can build up over time. In addition, jobs that are especially demanding, offer little control over one’s working environment, or involve unfavorable working conditions can lead to job strain, thereby setting the stage for job burnout.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe various definitions of stress, including the difference between stimulus-based and response-based stress and good stress and bad stress
  • Describe the contributions of Walter Cannon (fight or flight) and Hans Selye (general adaptation syndrome) to the stress research field
  • Explain what occurs in the sympathetic nervous system, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system during stress
  • Describe different types of possible stressors, including major life readjustments and the connection between stressors, job strain, and job burnout


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