What’s the Difference between Stress and Stressors?

by Kalinda Rose Stevenson

How Are You Being Squeezed by Stressors?

The greatest weapon against stress
is our ability
to choose one thought over another.

William James
What is stress? What is a stressor? Definitions matter. How does the knowing the difference between stress and stressor help you turn a stressed-out life into a peaceful life? (The following excerpt is from Stress Relief That Works.)
Stress and Stressors

What Is Stress?

The word stress comes from the Latin strictus. Consider these definitions from Merriam-Webster:

  • Stress means to draw tight.
  • Stress is a force exerted on a body that strains it or deforms its shape.
  • Stress is also the resistance or cohesiveness of a body resisting such force.

The basic meaning of strictus is to squeeze. Think of a boa constrictor. Its name reveals its method of killing. It wraps its body around its prey and then slowly squeezes, squeezes, squeezes the life out of its victim. You experience this kind of constricting pressure when your shoes pinch your feet, your tie feels like a noose around your neck, or your belt is so tight that you can barely breathe.

Strictness applies to inflexible rules, rigid demands, and harsh teachers. In the old days—back when I was in elementary school—teachers were supposed to be strict to teach us to obey the rules and never, ever get out of line. They were harsh, severe, and unsmiling. Strict rules, strict supervision, and strict teachers, parents, and leaders produce constricted lives.

According to the dictionary definitions, stress can refer to the cause—the pressure that squeezes you—and it can also refer to the effect—what it feels like to be squeezed. Although the word stress can be used correctly to refer to both cause and effect, I intend to make clear distinctions between cause and effect. I refer to the cause of stress as a stressor and the effect of the stressor as stress. The revised dictionary definitions then become:

  • A stressor is a force exerted on a body that strains it or deforms its shape.
  • Stress is the resistance or cohesiveness of a body resisting such force.

Stress and Shape

Visualize a balloon on a string. The balloon exists in its natural shape. Now, imagine pushing that balloon through a hole that is smaller than the balloon but big enough to squeeze the balloon through it. The only way to get the balloon through the hole is to deform its shape. You can't get a square block of wood through a smaller round hole, but you can push a pliable balloon through a hole smaller than the balloon.

The significant fact is that the balloon doesn't squeeze itself through the hole. The stressor does that by distorting the balloon and pushing it through the hole. In this example, you're the stressor—the cause of stress to the balloon. The effect on the balloon is stress as it is distorted, squeezed, pushed, and pulled to get through the hole—unless it breaks from the pressure of being squeezed. This is the distinction between a stressor and stress. Stress doesn't just happen. Stress is a reaction to the actions of a stressor.

Stressors distort the shape of something. Under-inflated balloons are flexible enough to be distorted into other shapes—including balloon animals for children's birthday parties. Other objects—such as brick walls that collapse under too much pressure—aren't so flexible.

Flexible objects can adapt to some distortion, but when the force is too great, the stress is intolerable. The hose bursts, the balloon breaks, the wall crumbles. Anything can reach the point of too much pressure, too much strain, too much constriction, too much restriction. This includes the effect of too much pressure on you.

[Original Post October 5, 2015]

If you are feeling stressed-out and want to read the whole book, Stress Relief That Works: How To Think Your Way from Stressed-Out to Peaceful is available on Amazon in either Kindle or paperback versions. Click Buy Now From Amazon to get your copy right away!

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