Our vernacular leads us to say that something “stresses us out.” Stress is thought of as an external force that puts pressure on us.
When I first learned that I might need a kidney transplant. I was stressed, completely, absolutely, one hundred percent crazy-woman stressed. I thought that kidney disease (an external force) was putting pressure on my psyche and causing stress. I was so very wrong.
Here’s the actual definition of stress, first according to Webster and next according to physics:
Webster’s Definition (I just listed the ones not pertaining to speech)
- A constraining force of influence
- Emphasis, weight
- Intense effort or exertion
A force or systems of forces that tends to strain or deform a body.
When you hear that you may need a transplant there is a constraining force or influence that will cause you to do waaay to many Google searches giving it emphasis or weight. If you ruminate with intense effort on the idea of transplant eventually you will strain your body and feel tired, short of breath and depressed. I know from some embarrassing personal experience.
The definition sounds pretty buttoned up; however, there is one major piece missing.
We tend to think that the stress comes from something external, that the “force” in the physics definition is something outside of ourselves. In reality, the force comes from within. It is the mental effort we exert on life’s challenges that causes stress. The external stuff if just the external stuff. It is the intense mental rumination that creates stress. The “force” is the force we place on the stressor, not what the stressor places on us. This is why people react so differently to the same challenge. It’s not the challenge that determines if there is stress, it’s the reaction to that challenge.
I know this sounds contrary. It means that we are the ones responsible for our own stress level. Not whatever is happening in life. Stress comes from putting focus on things that are out of our control.
I can’t ultimately control what happens with my kidney, I can only control how I respond to it.
With that in mind, here is my working definition of stress:
Putting mental, physical and emotional force against something you cannot change.
I’ll be writing a whole series on stress. We started with the definition. Next week, we’ll look at the symptoms.
How do you define stress?
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