A problem with understanding stress is it is so subjective that it “defies definition” (American Institute of Stress, n.d.) [para. 2], thus is difficult to measure. “Stress” means different things to different people, and different people respond differently to stressors or stressful situations. Despite a missing definition, sufficient information exists to provide an understanding of how to tap stress as a productive force for human development. This section will explore definitions of stress through the history of contemporary stress research to identify and understand sources of dysfunctional coping strategies and to lay a foundation for building functional adaptability strategies.

Stress is born

Considered the father of stress (Rosch, 1998) for coining the term in the 1940s, Hans Selye (1956)  provided the foundation for most current definitions of stress by proposing that stress is the emotional and physical response to external stimuli, called stressors. Physiologically, stress is an automatic response to perceived threats that pumps adrenaline and cortisol into muscles, primes memory functions of the brain, and tunes the senses so the system can face or flee danger (Norden, 2007; Hunt & Ellis, 2004).

In short, stress mechanism prepares the body and mind for extraordinary action (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008). This fight-or-flight response is hard-wired into the primitive structures of the brain stem (Hunt & Ellis, 2004; Norden, 2007) and is vital for ensuring survival, increasing performance (Yerkes & Dodson, 2007), and catalyzing development (Bertalanffy, 1972).

Selye (1956) proposed a three-stage general adaptation syndrome through which people cope: initial alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In the initial alarm stage, the body mobilizes all physiological resources to face a threat. In the resistance stage, the body recognizes that not all resources may be necessary, so mobilizes only the resources necessary for dealing with the threat. In the exhaustion stage, the body recognizes that allocated resources are depleted, so attempts another mobilization. If the second effort to mobilize fails, the organism might suffer a disease of adaptation; the inability to adapt can cause damage.

A thing about being human

In most biological systems, the perceived danger triggers the stress mechanism. When the danger is gone, the organism switches from fight-or-flight mode to rest-and-relax mode as the organism restores itself to homeostasis. If the danger is persistent or severe and the organization cannot adapt, the system can suffer harm.

Although the human stress mechanism works the same way, humans can interpret and interact with their environment, and consciously determine their responses to perceived threats. Schwarzer and Taubert (2002) call this process the cognitive-transactional framework through which stress is as an “on-going process, initiated and maintained by the cognitive appraisal of demands and resistance resources” (p. 2).

The cognitive-transactional interaction can have both good and bad consequences. On the good side, humans can control their perceptions and reactions to environmental factors and use creativity to face and grow through challenging situations. On the bad side, humans can generate internal stressors through worry and imagination. Internally generated stress can magnify and distort the severity of the external stressor; make mountains out of molehills.

Similarly, humans have the capacity for compassion, empathy, and sympathy. These feelings can trigger secondary trauma, which can have a more pronounced impact on the secondary sufferer than on those who actually experienced the event. For example, in his analysis of the Columbine shootings and aftermath, David Cullen (2009) observed that many of the students who directly witnessed and experienced the violence would “turn out fine,” while other students who had not even been on campus “would be traumatized for years” (p. 153). The tertiary trauma experienced by students, parents, and communities through global media coverage offers an additional consideration for how humans tend to respond to and dwell on stressful events that neither happened to them nor near them.

A consequence of choice

What often determines the impact of stress is how a person chooses to interpret or respond to events. For example, the person who sees a stressful situation as a challenge to overcome may apply resources toward a creative solution that strengthens emotional, physical, and social wellbeing. Another person may perceive the same situation as an overwhelming threat and cope by fleeing to the local pub to drown brain cells in alcohol.

Emphasizing stress as a consequence or individual perception that can serve as a constructive force,  Johns Hopkins University Psychologist Janet DiPietro told Newsweek that the constant message fed to the public is that stress is always harmful is a toxic message. The reality is that “most people do their best under… stress” (Carmichael, 2009, p. 46). This is because stress can absorb energy and motivation for better meeting immediate demands. Stressful situations can also help individuals and social systems to develop resilience for better facing future events. For example, tracking employees through a company crisis, Salvatore Maddi (2006) found that workers who had grown up in affluent, privileged circumstances tended to suffer more adverse impact from stress than workers who had tough childhoods. Maddi concluded that people who experience and deal with stress in childhood tend to grow into “very hardy people.”

Emerging research also seems to be countering conventional wisdom by showing that babies born to women under moderate stress were more developmentally advanced than babies of women with stress-free pregnancies (DiPetro, Bornstein, Hahn, & Achy-Brou, 2007; Carmichael, 2009). DiPietro and others theorize that a moderately stressful fetal environment may stimulate the baby’s brain and serve an essential function for helping the fetus develop resilience. Even extreme stress can have positive side effects, as is being demonstrated in research that shows cases of posttraumatic growth are the rule, while stress-induced psychiatric disorders are rare (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

Regardless of the benefits of stress, Newsweek General Editor Mary Carmichael (2009) found something interesting when asking psychologists about “good” stress: “many of them said [good stress] essentially didn’t exist.” People who think they benefit from stress are diseased, probably the product of abused childhoods or trauma in the womb.

Differentiating between saber-toothed tigers and bad habits

Highlighting research that shows how chronically activating the stress mechanism can damage the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and the brain, conventional wisdom declares stress as a killer disease (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009). However, this perspective ignores research offers a functional perspective for enhancing wellness when people mediate adverse perceptions of and reactions to events.

Jeanette Norden (2007), a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist, asserted that the way people emotionally experience and interpret the world “has a profound effect on our physical and mental health,” while everyday stressors do not cause harm (pp. 3-152). Brain research is showing the effects stress has on the human system; the damage from stress is caused mostly by internal factors, not by external events.

For example, damaging stress usually results from firing the stress mechanism continuously for everyday events when no real danger exists. Stress results from an individual’s perceptions and reactions to an event; an event does not cause stress. In other words, damaging stress is caused more by people’s habitual reactions to events than by events. Fortunately, neurology is also showing how bad habits that contribute to stress-related illness can be unlearned while demonstrating how people are capable of learning adaptability strategies that can enhance wellness and creative longevity.

False alarms

Arkowitz and Lilienfield (2008) said that people could develop a panic disorder when their fight-or-flight mechanism becomes conditioned to respond to false alarms, which are situations in which no danger exists. For example, a speeding car approaching on a collision course is a danger; sitting in commute traffic is not. However, some people develop a habit of firing the fight-or-flight mechanism throughout uneventful commutes. “When we experience true or false alarms, we tend to associate the biological and psychological reactions they elicit with cues that were present at the time. These associations become ‘learned alarms’ that can evoke further panic” (p. 79). In other words, a common dysfunctional coping strategy modern humans develop is a habit of interpreting insignificant events as if they were impending collisions.

Norden (2007) explained that both genetic and environmental factors influence how people experience, interpret, and react to perceived stressors. Children develop coping skills based on their personality and temperaments; they carry these coping skills into their adult lives. Although coping skills are an individual construct, family, culture, religion, context, and other factors contribute to developing coping strategies. These coping strategies seem to influence how people interpret events as stressful or incidental, and reactions to perceived threats become habitual.

When people respond habitually and continuously to insignificant stressors as though they are extreme events, they are stoking a fire that is designed for short-term use in extraordinary circumstances. This fire needs to be balanced with rest, mediated with perspective, and integrated with functional strategies for successfully adapting to and interacting with a dynamic environment. Norden says that people need to stop reacting to “everyday stressors as though they were saber-toothed tigers” (2007, pp. 3-151).


Unless the event is an extreme stressor—like prolonged physical abuse, imprisonment in a concentration camp, abject poverty, a natural disaster, or combat—the individual’s perception of the event is what causes harm, not the event. The importance of perception seems to be a common theme in literature that supports adaptability strategies. For example, Aldwin (1994) found that a strong and complex link exists between an individual’s ability to cope and stress-related illness. He proposed that life changes brought on by stressful events may be influenced more by how a person faces and deals with the stress than by the event. Likewise, Kreitner and Kinkicki (2008) emphasized research showing that perceptions influence how people interpret, appraise, and categorize situations as irrelevant, positive, or negative.

Individual factors that moderate adverse consequences from stress include coping strategies, control perceptions, self-esteem, and social support. However, these variables may not be universal. Culture, experience, context, and other factors can influence how people perceive, experience, and deal with stress (Aldwin & Revenson, 1987). People who have developed a habit of triggering the stress mechanism for insignificant events can suffer chronic stress that damages the system and restricts their capacity to cope with serious events (Norden, 2007). [See IMAGE 1 for Norden’s Psychological State and Wellness diagram].

New tricks for old dogs

Two key insights from neurology that suggest functional coping strategies are that:

  1. stress is triggered by known events that can be identified and understood within a proper framework, and
  2. much of the stress modern people suffer results from misfiring the fight-or-flight mechanism.

Identifying and understanding the triggers can help to reduce anxiety, provide a sense of predictability, lay a foundation for functional coping, and advance adaptability. The underlying mechanics of conditioning and the stress response helps explain the danger of misfiring the stress system and offers a framework for re-conditioning reactions and behaviors (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2008).

Gaining control

For those who promote or rely on the “I can’t help myself; it’s just the way I am” coping strategy, neurology offers an alternative by showing how the brain is incredibly malleable. In other words, the brain can learn until it achieves a stress-free state--which only exists in death (Bertalanffy, 1972; Selye, 1956; Capra, 1996). This means people can break the stress habit and develop functional adaptability strategies that allow them to manage stress to foster brain development and creative longevity (Cohen, 2006; Fischer & Rose, 1998).

According to Norden (2007): “If we have habits that lead to prolonged stress and if we have a prolonged [and negative]… emotional response to life events, we need to learn other habits” (pp. 3-160). The plasticity of the brain means that people can retrain themselves to have different emotional responses to perceived stressors. People can use emotions to help them make correct choices about how they respond to events. “Some of it is genetic, some is learned; some are just bad habits” that people can change (pp. 3-160).

Good stress bad stress

A vital point that is mostly missing from contemporary dialogs is that stress is not necessarily bad; in fact, stress is vital for the survival, development, and growth of biological systems (Bertalanffy, 1972; Capra, 1996). Just as effectively managing conflict requires understanding the difference between functional and dysfunctional conflict, dealing with stress may require distinguishing between different kinds of stress and reactions to stress.

Selye (1956) echoed the ancients when he called stress “the salt of life.” Differentiating between stressors and stress response, Selye proposed that either a positive or a negative event could trigger the same stress response, which either helps or harms the system. He identified two fundamental kinds of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is stress that can harm the system if managed incorrectly and tends to be the focus of contemporary stress dialogs. Eustress is the result of positively interpreting experience and working through challenging situations. Eustress can strengthen the system by providing motivation, focus, and energy that helps people to achieve goals, adapt to and influence their environments, and succeed in life.

Selye (1956) considered change as a perpetual reality and celebrated that the essence of humanity is the ability to think creatively about and grow from stress. Selye argued that stress could have positive consequences, should not be avoided, and results in death when it is absent. In other words, the father of contemporary stress research reinforces the ancient wisdom. Unfortunately, many who have come after focus only on the dysfunctional aspects of distress without balancing dialog with the functional aspects of eustress and properly managed distress. Contrary to the killer disease label, Selye concluded that stress is vital for the existence, survival, and development of a system. Efforts to eliminate or reduce stress can ultimately be more harmful than developing the capacity to cope with reality.

Performance connections

Another essential point about stress that contemporary dialogs tend to overlook is that people cannot only manage stress but can also learn to harness stress for performance, development, and wellness (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008). Harvard researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson (2007) introduced this concept to modern science in 1909 when they found that rising stress levels increase efficiency and performance. For example, the stress of competition can drive athletes to perform at or beyond peak levels; the stress of a test can enhance a student’s focus and recall, and; the stress of a deadline can focus the attention of an entire department to accomplish a goal. However, the connection between stress and performance/efficiency has a limit. When stress levels go higher or last longer than the system can support performance and efficiency declines.

The Yerkes Dodson Law has received significant support among researchers. The fields of organizational behavior, sports psychology apply stress and motivation research to drive peak performance (Smith & Bar-Eli, 2007). The inverted relationship between stress and performance appears to be an oversimplification of the dynamic processes affecting stress and performance/efficiency. Still, it lends support to the perspective that stress can be a positive force. At the same time, it helps adjust perceptions and behavior for more effective coping.

For example, research conducted on how stress influences learning conducted by LePine, LePine, and Jackson (2004) found that some stress might inhibit learning, while some stress may be necessary for learning to occur. The researchers proposed that stress increases arousal, which increases performance. Performance can lead to strain from over-arousal, then decreased performance. This framework implies that the link between performance and stress can be positive, neutral, or negative depending on the level, kind, and duration of stress. The mixed empirical support for this intuitive model may be because the relationship between stress and performance depends on the nature of the stress (Jex, 2002). For example, role conflict, ambiguity, and obstacle can hinder performance because they are factors over which the individual has little control. However, higher demands and challenging goals can significantly increase satisfaction and performance (LePine, LePine, & Jackson, 2004; Locke & Latham, 2002; Scott & Davis, 2007).

LePine, LePine, and Jackson (2004) proposed a transactional theory of stress, saying that people assess how to cope once they determine whether stress is a hindrance or a challenge. If people perceive that they can change the situation, they implement problem-solving strategies to control coping behaviors. If people perceive that the stressor is a hindrance, they implement cognitive coping strategies. Learners who experience challenge stress think that the situation is positive and changeable, so they will cope with behavioral strategies that involve increasing effort to learn. People tend to increase effort when facing difficult content if they understand clear expectations and believe their efforts will result in learning. On the other hand, learners who face unclear expectations, technical hurdles, or other issues that hinder performance regardless of effort may distance themselves from the situation because they perceive that effort is futile.

In short, hindrance stress inhibits or prevents performance while challenge stress promotes performance. Applied to an educational system, this would mean creating a curriculum that offers challenging workloads with clear objectives and measurable outcomes while reducing ambiguity and administrative frustrations.