Stress, concept and definitions

Stress, concept and definitions

Stress is a very relevant concept, but also very confusing. This inaccuracy can be observed when distinguishing the concepts of stress, anxiety, anguish, etc. You can differentiate three types of stress definitions, which we will see next.

Stress definitions

We have 3 classic types of definitions of stress In the first place, those based on the individual's response, those based on the stimulus that provokes it and, finally, transactional theories.

1. Definitions of stress based on response (stress as response)

Within this theories, stress is understood as an overexertion in the face of demands of a psychological nature. Your response provides the energy to respond successfully to environmental demands.

In this definition you can frame the traditional psychophysiological research on stress (Selye and his General Adaptation Syndrome; Cannon and his Fight-Flight Response). It is a one-dimensional and nonspecific concept of stress. That is, the stress response would always be the same; We would all react the same to stress.

This type of research has mainly used very intense animals and stressors (eg, physical restraint). As an example of this approach we can cite the General Selye Adaptation Syndrome

General Selye Adaptation Syndrome

This famous syndrome within psychology distinguishes three stages in the confrontation with a stressor:

  1. Alarm Reaction. When the organism is exposed to stimuli to which it is not adapted. It is a general call to the defensive and energetic forces to recover homeostasis and face the challenge, beginning to secrete stress hormones that increase the body's ability to react.
  2. Resistance stage. You can not maintain a constant state of alarm for a long time, the body adapts to the stressor with an improvement and decrease in symptoms of stress and increased resistance.
  3. Exhaustion phase. A chronically stressed organism cannot replenish spent energy. The levels of various hormones and neurotransmitters, especially catecholamines (resulting in depressive symptoms), are being depleted, and the adaptation achieved if the stressor is severe and lasts for a long time is lost. In extreme cases you can reach death. In humans, this last phase could correspond to that found in patients with burnout ("Burn syndrome"), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, states of life exhaustion, etc.

2. Stress definitions based on the stimulus (stress as a stimulus)

Represents the psychosocial approach to stress or vital events. Each person has certain limits of tolerance to negative life events. Above these limits stress begins to become unbearable and causes damage Physiological and psychological.

Psychosocial demands are the main external agents that set off the stress response. Psychosocial demands are a subtype of stress linked to interpersonal and psychosocial factors (vital events, setbacks such as losing a friend or breaking a courtship).

There may also be physical demands (very hard work, overcrowding), natural agents (radiation, heat), artificial (traffic noise, physical restraint), etc. Something important to keep in mind is that a stressor can be associated with both a very high degree of demand and, on the contrary, a very low level of demand (absence of stimulation, monotony, boredom, etc.).

3. Transactional theories of stress

This kind of theories emphasize the cognitive factors that mediate between stressful stimuli and stress responses. External events do not directly affect us.

Rather than external stimuli, emotional and stress responses depend on how they are evaluated. Following Lazarus, three types of evaluation are distinguished:

  1. Primary assessment or the situation (danger, threat, loss, challenge, demand).
  2. Next, the secondary evaluation or of the resources to cope with it (the skills of “coping”, Problem solving, social skills, social support, material resources, family resources, etc.).
  3. Finally, the tertiary evaluation or reevaluation. Feedback process that occurs while facing the stressful event (the situation or the resources themselves can be seen in more positive or negative terms than at the beginning).

This is a multidimensional and specific consideration of stress.. He argues that the stress response would depend on the person, on how specifically the stressful stimulus affects him.

According to this last approach, Stress consists in an imbalance between the demands placed on the body and its resources to meet them. A person will be under stress when faced with demands or demands that are difficult for them to meet.

Definitions of stress: final comments

In conclusion, there is no single definition of stress, because for this, you must support some of the theories described above. Within the cognitive-behavioral models, Transactional Theories (also called stress interactions) are often used, as they are the most complete and have the greatest evidence.

Finally, say that stressful agents usually have any of the following characteristics:

  • Uncertainty (I don't know what will happen, you suspect something bad)
  • The change (it is necessary to adapt to new situations)
  • Lack of information (I do not know what to do)
  • A overload in processing levels or activity (the number of assigned tasks cannot be processed or performed)
  • Wave lack of skills to deal with and handle the situation (That is why we can prevent stress responses by increasing the individual's social and problem-solving skills), etc.

As you can see, several of these characteristics could be summarized in terms of uncontrollability and unpredictability, very relevant concepts in psychology and that in good part explain the negative effects of stress on health. Experimental studies show that these characteristics generate psychophysiological disorders, increased cortisol secretion and immunosuppression. The deprivation of human needs (eg, poor social support) or altered physiological functions (insomnia) can also promote stress.


Alarcón, M. E. B. (2018).Stress and burnout diseases in today's life. Palibrio

Macías, A. B. (2007). The field of stress study: from the Stimulus-Response Research Program to the Person-Environment Research Program. International Journal of Psychology8(02), 1-30.

Regueiro, R., & León, O. G. (2003). Stress in everyday decisions.Psychothema15(4).

Sandín, B. (2003). Stress: an analysis based on the role of social factors. International Journal of clinical and health psychology3(1).

Sierra, J. C. (2003). Anxiety, anguish and stress: three concepts.Subjectivities Magazine3(1), 10-59.

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