My wife said that she was stressed at work yesterday, and I started thinking about the subject. It's a rather vague concept, and over-used, so it seems to me.
Okay, firstly, Google lists 514,000 pages on the subject of stress. And Microsoft's Word defines the word as 'Importance, anxiety, emphasis or pressure' and it has the following synonyms: Importance, emphasis, force, weight, significance and accent.
It is no accident that the definitions of stress seem far removed from the mental and physical state, as the word (in the medical sense) has only been with us since the 1920s onwards. Before this time, stress as an illness was simply not recognised. In the past, you couldn't have gone home and said, 'Oh, what a stressful day in the cotton mill that was.'
The term was borrowed from the world of engineering by Walter Cannon, and then popularised by Hans Seyle some time later. It was supposed to illustrate external forces operating on the body, causing strain and tension.
Stress develops due to over-exposure to the "fight or flight response", which eventually begins to cause damage to the body, weakens it and kills it.
Obviously, we tend to use the word these days for less severe situations, for example a bad day at work. If we had a bad year at work, and started to physically sicken because of it, then perhaps we could justifiably say that we were suffering from stress. In the original definitions of the illness, the agents causing stress were such as extreme cold, extreme heat, fear, ingestion of toxic substances, infection and trauma. Not, for example, an unpleasant boss.
Back the 'old days', people who were suffering from stress would be labelled as having the 'the general syndrome of just being sick', having muscle wasting, weight loss, apathy and tiredness.
As with so many other things, stress is now everywhere and people are told that they have something that they don't really have, but are happy to have a label, which allows them to buy the correct pills to deal with the situation.
I suppose, being kinder, we would say that the definition of the word has expanded, to include everything that makes us worry in life too. But then, what's wrong with the word 'worried'?
Amusingly, the Canadian post office recently published a stamp with Dr. Hans Seyle (the 'father of stress') on it.
A tribute to the man that brought stress into our lives.