When asked about stress, we rarely stop to ask ourselves “What exactly is stress?” or “Does stress really exist?”  Doctors routinely tell patients with physical ailments they cannot identify “It must be stress.” My view is that stress does not exist!

Imagine this scenario:  You are in the front seat of your friend’s new small airplane flying and the two of you are enjoying the view, and your friend suddenly goes unconscious. On a scale of 1 to 100, how stressful is this for you?  For most people, this is a clear “100.”  As events goes, this is as stressful as they come, right?  Well, for me, that is not the case. Why?  I am a flight instructor!  It certainly is not a “0” because my friend is unconscious, but it also is not “100,” simply because I happen to have resources that are specific to managing this particular stressor. In my view, “stress” is actually the balance between the stressors we face and the actual resources we have available to cope with those stressors. While certain situations are likely to be stressful for many people, “stress,” in the way that most of us speak about it, does not exist.

That said, we do all have a physical and psychological reaction to situations that make us feel out of control and overwhelmed. That is, we may feel anxious, have a rapid heartbeat, or think we cannot cope when we experience stressors for which we have no adequate coping resources. Stressors can be external. Events in the world, work, school, family, money or other obligations can cause us to experience a “stress reaction.” and they are external to us. Conversely, we can react to internal factors like illness, perfectionism, procrastination, lack of sleep, poor diet, or lack of exercise by “feeling stressed.”  In either case, our bodies react by releasing hormones that prepare us for physical action:  The “flight or fight” response. These hormones make our hearts beat faster and our palms sweat, and over time, they can lead to illnesses such as insomnia, high blood pressure and autoimmune disorders.

So, given that stress is the balance between stressors and resources, how does that help us cope with “stress?”  The answer is to identify the stressors that we face, and consider the range of resources that are appropriate for managing them. Resources, like stressors, can be both external and internal. External resources include money, friends, family, counselors, medications, food or self-help books. Internal resources may include relaxation, meditation, exercise, and improved self-talk,

So, the next time you feel stressed, consider asking yourself what stressors you are aware of, and work toward developing resources that will allow you to cope with them.