In fewer than 50 years, stress went from Selye’s “salt of life” (1956) to global killer disease (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009), and it still lacks a definition. The different perspectives on stress fall into four basic categories: response-based, stimulus-based, cognitive-transactional, and dynamical systems. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Viewing stress through only one of the perspectives provides an incomplete picture that limits adaptability. Still, the dynamical systems perspective seems to provide improved understanding by integrating elements of the other perspectives.
Contemporary stress dialogs tend to focus on the stimulus-response framework, emphasizing the symptoms and damage that can result from extended interaction with distress. Contemporary dialogs tend to ignore the positive aspects of stress, emphasizing the illness that can result when distress is improperly managed. Typical coping strategies recommended by the contemporary framework are to reduce or eliminate stressors before they cause harm, and to consume products, programs, or medications that can treat symptoms of distress.
An important coping strategy from the contemporary framework that contributes to the wellbeing of organisms is to balance the stimulus-response mechanism with the rest-and-relax mechanism. However, this paper has argued that humans are more complex than most organisms, and are capable of interacting with and influencing their environment to actively foster growth and wellbeing, even when dealing with traumatic events. Eliminate-or-die treatments proposed by contemporary stress dialogs may address symptoms. Still, they can exacerbate symptoms by depicting an unrealistic assessment of reality and offering coping strategies that fail to foster individual adaptability and growth in a dynamic environment. The contemporary framework tends to offer dysfunctional strategies that might enrich those who promote them but do not provide people with the proper perspective and resilience to have a functional relationship with stress.
The cognitive-transactional and systems frameworks presented in this paper do not get the same media play as stimulus-response; but, they seem to provide a more realistic assessment of reality, which coincides with the wisdom of ancient philosophy and religion. Under the cognitive-transactional framework, stress becomes an adaptive response to demands on the system that is mediated by individual characteristics and psychological processes. Cognitive-transactional definitions see stress as a dynamic process initiated and maintained by how the individual interprets the environment and the demands on available resources. Stress is not the situation; stress is how people interpret and react to the situation. Although the biological mechanisms of stress are universal among humans, each individual interprets experience and responds to perceived stressors. Mediating characteristics include genetics, culture, personality, cognitive capacity, experience, values, and religion. Environmental demands also tend to influence how one’s characteristics mediate individual responses.
The systems framework recognizes stress as not only a basic mechanism for survival, but also a vital catalyst for development, growth, and evolution of the system. Through the systems framework, stress is life; the absence of stress is death. Within the systems framework, chaos theory uncovers the unpredictability of events in a dynamic environment, emphasizing the importance of developing functional strategies that not only foster coping but that can also help people to more effectively adapt to and influence the interacting factors in a dynamic environment.
Functional stress strategy for humans in a dynamic environment is neither a simple matter of reducing stressors in the environment nor is it just about finding a balance between fight-and-flight and rest-and-relax modes. Functional stress strategy is also about integrating perspectives and behaviors that foster adaptability and growth in dynamic social, economic, and environmental systems. Recognizing the dynamic interaction of environment, events, and context can help people to implement adaptability strategies that use stress as a functional force to foster development and wellness.
Reviewing coping and adaptability philosophies and strategies from ancient to contemporary times introduces an important question: which is right? The resounding answer is, “it depends.” Just as each individual develops his or her coping strategies by interpreting and reacting to experience in different ways, adaptability strategies may be different for each individual. Nevertheless, considering various perspectives, a general framework for understanding the relationship between humans and stress begins to emerge. The resulting dynamic interactive adaptability model of stress neither attempts to define nor measure stress but provides a philosophy or perspective for understanding dynamically interacting factors in environment and organism influence change in both individual and environment.
In short, the consequences of stress are the result of the dynamic interaction of environmental factors, severity, length and association of events, and the individual perception and reaction to those events as moderated by the characteristics and experience of the individual [IMAGE 4]. The environment includes dynamically interacting factors like time, place, people, context, and resources. Events can be isolated; however, individuals are surrounded continuously by multiple, dynamically interacting events that they can perceive as threats or opportunities. The severity of events can be mild, moderate, strong, or extreme. Association of events can be primary, secondary, or tertiary. Primary events are those that the individual experiences. Secondary events are those that the individual vicariously experiences through relations, which can be immediate, related, or distant; tertiary events are those that the individual experiences vicariously through media.
The duration of events can be short, long, or persistent. The perception of events is influenced by the physiological, psychological, and spiritual state of the individual, which are moderated by individual factors such as genetics, characteristics, experience, culture, values, beliefs, and education. Perception determines if the individual considers events as insignificant, an annoyance, a challenge, an opportunity, or a threat. Perception also determines if the individual applies neutral, functional, or dysfunctional coping strategies.
The reaction or pre-action influences the result: if the individual state remains neutral, adapts, or declines. Decline decreases the individual's ability to cope and adapt and threatens damage to the individual's psychological, physiological, and spiritual wellbeing. Neutrality means that the individual maintains a level of homeostasis; however, a prolonged state of homeostasis in a dynamic environment can ultimately wear down the system as it fails to adapt to a changing environment, atrophies, or successfully attains a stress-free state, i.e., dies. Adapting means that the individual learns, grows, or transforms through the experience and fosters wellness.
In conclusion, although a definition for stress is still forthcoming, adequate information exists to help people to develop functional strategies for tapping daily stress as a productive force, for building resilience against severe stressors, for growing through severe stress, adapting continuously to and with a dynamic environment, and enhancing wellness.