What is Stress?

May 17, 2022 | 24 comments

In honor of Mental Health Month, welcome to our four-part series on stress hosted by Guest Stress Specialist Russell Semon. Russell will explore four key questions about stress over the next two weeks:

Part 1: What is Stress?

Part 2: How does your body respond to Stress? (Physiology)

Part 3: What role does your mind play in responding to Stress? (Belief / Perception)

Part 4: Is it possible to live a Stress-Free life?

We start today with “What is Stress?” We don’t want to just talk about stress, we want you to understand your stress and resilience and be equipped with resources. Russell is giving away 25 free Cerny Smith Assessments that include the test and a follow-up meeting with him. You can read about the CSA here and enter below. Now, on to today’s article!


What do fidget spinners, squeeze balls, or other sensory toys, have in common? They were all designed with the intention of reducing a person’s nervous energy or stress by distraction or re-focusing your attention. At the height of their popularity, our family bought into the fidget spinner craze, but it was short lived. I personally found the spinners to be too distracting, so I went back to the squeeze ball in my office desk drawer. Maybe you require a more sophisticated response to your stress: aromatherapy, a light box, weighted blanket, a white noise machine, meditation, or inspirational messages. What works for you? 

Now you’re probably thinking, you wished managing your stress was as easy as a fidget spinner or stress ball, and I agree. If you are able to employ simple techniques or tools effectively to adapt to or successfully manage your stress, then your personal resources are sufficient to meet the demands you are facing. The continuum of stressful events spans a wide variety of challenges in life from those that are within our capacity to respond, to those that overwhelm and deplete our personal reserves. Conflict in relationships, natural disasters, isolation, water or electricity inconsistencies, crime and corruption, unmet expectations, loss, failure, day to day challenges, or illnesses, are just a few of the many challenges in life that draw from our physiological, emotional, mental, or spiritual reserves and require more than a fidget spinner to resolve. 

So what is stress? I like the engineering definition of stress.

Stress = P/A

where P is load in pounds and A is area in square inches; thus, Stress = pounds/square inch. I’m a counselor, so humor me a bit, I’m sure an engineer might take me to task over my use of this formula. But this is how I relate to it; my thoughts, emotions, beliefs (spirituality), and my physical body have a certain finite capacity (Area) to hold or manage the “weight” (load) presented by the life challenges described above. 

The strength of my capacity or area (resiliency) can compensate for the weight or load placed on it, but only within certain conditions. For instance, the force with which the weight is applied, the amount of weight, how long the weight remains, and/or the distribution of the weight across the entire area will influence my resiliency. I hope you’re following the analogy!  

Stress is equal to the weight or “load” of life challenges, divided by our personal capacity or “area.”      

Aren’t you thankful though, that;

We don’t have to carry the weight alone? (Matthew 11:28-30)
We can turn our burdens over to God? (Psalm 55:22)
We don’t have to rely on our own strength? (Isaiah 40:28-31) and
That God’s Grace is sufficient? (2 Corinthians 12:9) 

For today, remember that your thoughts, emotions, beliefs (spirituality) and your physical body have a certain finite capacity to hold or manage the “weight” presented by the life challenges described above. In the next article, we’ll move away from the engineering analogy to consider how our bodies respond to stress and what happens when stress exceeds our capacity.

Leave a comment on today’s post and you’ll be entered to win one of the FIVE CSA’s available today. Winners from this post have been drawn and notified … but have no fear, you still have three opportunities to win a CSA. Go to https://globaltrellis.com/articles/ for the latest article in this series and you can comment there and be entered to win!

To be sure you don’t miss one of the posts in this series, subscribe to them here.

Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

Russell Semon

Husband, Father, Counselor, Stress Specialist, Fan of life-long learning

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24 Comments

  1. Stephanie Gutierrez

    Thank you for this helpful article! I haven’t heard stressed described in this way and I really appreciate it this perspective. Thinking about how this applies to myself and to the people in my life!

    Reply
    • Russell

      I’m glad you found it helpful. I’ve always found it helpful to understand things when I’m able to see similarities from a different context.

      Reply
    • Ash

      Thanks for this short analogy. Hope to hear more of how to hear more of managing stress. I agree with someone’s comment above… sometime’s we use all our resiliency before we even get going during a day with all the unexpected. Feeling that hard in these first 6 months.

      Reply
  2. Mikayla

    I like this formula for stress. It helps me picture it better in my mind. I’m hoping to hear more about how to build resiliency because mine is feeling pretty low right now.

    Reply
  3. Rebekah

    My organisation used the example of a handful of spoons to illustrate our limited capacity to deal with events or stresses – i.e. certain activities require a certain number of spoons, the more difficult the activity the more of your spoons it requires. In their illustration the person planned how she was going to use her spoons that day, but then certain unexpected circumstances arose and she’d used up almost all her spoons before even starting the planned activities!! There was no answer of what to do when you don’t have enough spoons though … !

    Reply
    • Russell

      I like the analogy. I wonder how the story might change if one acknowledged that they were God’s spoons ?

      Reply
  4. Angelica

    Stress = P/A reminds me of the analogy of tensile strength a pastor of mine uses. Essentially, with consistent practice the strength is increased. Like lifting weights to fatigue, not failure. It strengthens the muscles and increases the ability to carry a heavier load. Intertwined with proper rest and recovery.

    Reply
    • Russell

      Ditto the concept of intertwined with rest and recovery !

      Reply
    • Sarah

      So helpful…. Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Suriati

    I am reminded that my thoughts, emotions, beliefs (spirituality) and my physical body have a certain finite capacity to hold or manage the “weight” presented by the life challenges. Praise the Lord for His sufficient grace. He is always present to help me carry my burden.

    Reply
  6. Jimmy

    Our organization does the CSA but I’ve only ever gotten a brief report the 2 previous times I’ve done it. In six years of being overseas, I’ve never had a coaching call around the results. Hoping I’m a lucky winner for one of those!

    Reply
  7. Esther H

    This is the second time today I’ve been reminded that trusting God means putting my “weight” on him, just like I trust the chair I’m sitting in to hold my body weight.

    Reply
  8. Sarah Leonard

    I would love to know if there is a way to increase our capacity, or if it is moreso about managing our stress so that it does not impede our capacity. I appreciated your explanation of stress.

    Reply
  9. Paulette

    Thank you for reminding us that although we have a finite capacity to handle stress, we serve an infinite God who carries our burdens.

    The engineering analogy was helpful.

    I am really looking forward to your next article, as my body is currently struggling to recover from what was apparently more stress than it had capacity to handle. 🙂 Too bad we can’t measure stressors with pounds and inches to know ahead of time exactly what the limit is, so we could always avoid reaching the point where resilience no longer compensates for all the stress. Thankfully God’s sustaining grace and strength are still there for us during these seasons.

    And the CSA analyzes specific life stresses and helps manage them, right? So it would probably be very helpful in this area of increasing resilience and moving forward after we have overloaded our stress capacity?

    Reply
    • Russell

      Paulette, yes the version of the Cerny Smith that I use most provides a 10 page report identifying one’s stress across five domains (Organizational, Cultural, Relational, Resilience, and Foundational), with each domain consisting of 3 specific scales. The CS system algorithms also generate suggestions for enhancing your strengths (top 3), and addressing your challenges (also top 3). As Jimmy commented above, there is a shorter version of this report, a brief version, six pages I think. I’ve just found the 10 page report with follow up coaching to be more helpful, beneficial.

      Reply
  10. JL

    This is a helpful analogy to think about stress. It’s so important to remember we are finite but so easy to think we can do more than we really can or need to do!

    Reply
  11. Jenn S

    That is a great definition of stress and so helpful to remember that we all have differing capacities. Something that is stressful to someone might not be stressful for someone else. Definitely following along with these posts this week.

    Reply
    • MaDonna Maurer

      Thank you for this timely article. I resonated with your formula because stress does feel very heavy and “weighted” at times. I’m amazed that I don’t always feel the weight until the stress is gone and I realize how heavy something was. Some of this is because I internalize stress, but as I’ve learned more about it I am able to read my body to know when I’m started to carry it. Looking forward to you upcoming article.

      Reply
      • Russell

        Good for you. We are definitely “wonderfully made” and yet so often don’t listen or read what our body is telling us as stress begins to impact our capacity. More on this in Part 2.

        Reply
  12. Karen

    I appreciate this description of stress as well. When I’m getting over-stressed, I often think I’m going along just fine, but also have to admit that my first reaction to any knock on the door or ringing of my cell phone is annoyance. Even if the other person has no idea … I don’t like being that way. And I’ve found that if I manage to lower the stress level somehow, then I don’t have the same feeling of annoyance when something unexpected comes along.

    Reply
  13. Jordan

    I love that engineering analogy! Helps me understand why even little things can build up to cause heavy stress.

    Reply
    • Russell

      Jordan, Your comment reminded me of a humorous but relevant question, “Which weighs more a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks ?” You are correct, even little things can build up to impact our capacity to handle stress.

      Reply
  14. Chris Moore

    I loved the summarization… “For today, remember that your thoughts, emotions, beliefs (spirituality) and your physical body have a certain finite capacity to hold or manage the “weight” presented by the life challenges described above.” Very helpful for me and I am eager to learn how to build up resiliency.

    Reply
  15. Neal Pirolo

    I like this translation of I Peter 5:7: “Throw the entire weight of your anxieties on Him, for you are His personal concern!” Couple that with Philippians 4:6-7: “Tell God the details of your needs in fervent and thankful prayer and the peace of Christ will guard your hearts and minds as they rest in Him.”

    Reply

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