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Module 2.1: What is Stress?

The term stress as it relates to the human condition first emerged in scientific literature in the 1930s, but it did not enter the popular vernacular until the 1970s. Today, we often use the term loosely in describing a variety of unpleasant feeling states; for example, we often say we are stressed out when we feel frustrated, angry, conflicted, overwhelmed, or fatigued. Despite the widespread use of the term, stress is a fairly vague concept that is difficult to define with precision.


Figure 2.1 Graduating from college and entering the workforce can be viewed as either a threat (loss of financial support) or a challenge (opportunity for independence and growth). (credit: Timothy Zanker)

Two kinds of appraisals of a stressor are especially important in this regard: primary and secondary appraisals.

A primary appraisal involves judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might entail. (Figure 2.2)

The perception of a threat triggers a secondary appraisal: judgment of the options available to cope with a stressor, as well as perceptions of how effective such options will be (Figure 2.2).

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The Prevalence of Stress

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Figure 2.3 Nearly half of U.S. adults indicated that their stress levels have increased over the last five years (Neelakantan, 2013).

Stress is everywhere and, as shown in Figure 2.3 It has been on the rise over the last several years. Each of us is acquainted with stress—some are more familiar than others. In many ways, stress feels like a load you just can't carry—a feeling you experience when, for example, you have to drive somewhere in a crippling blizzard, when you wake up late the morning of an important job interview, when you run out of money before the next pay period, and before taking an important exam for which you realize you are not fully prepared.

Check Your Knowledge

As you read your assignment for this lesson, pay close attention to the key terms and phrases PDF listed throughout the chapter. These terms and concepts are important to your understanding of the information provided in the lesson.

Link to Learning

A humorous example illustrating lack of supervisory support can be found in the 1999 comedy Office Space. Watch the video below to view a brief excerpt in which a sympathetic character's insufferable boss makes a last-minute demand that he "go ahead and come in" to the office on both Saturday and Sunday.