The American Psychological Association defines stress as "demands placed on you — such as work, school or relationships — [that] exceed your ability to cope." But people apply the word "stress" to simple annoyances and irritants. We call the sound of the train passing by stressful, coming down with a cold is stressful, a traffic jam is stressful, wearing an outfit that we think is not flattering is stressful, not having everyone home for the holidays is stressful, having a lot of work is stressful. But the truth is, what we label as stress does become stressful.
We've become frivolous regarding our use of the word "stress," using it anytime we feel the least bit uncomfortable. Stress has even become a badge of honour: When we're asked "How are you?" we reply "I'm stressed," or "I'm crazy busy (stressed in disguise)." Labelling mundane, negative experiences as stressful is like shooting a mouse with an elephant gun: We've taken an everyday experience, such as the sound of the passing train, and labelled it with the elephant gun of stress.
Here's a Google chart of how our use of the word "stress" has increased over time:
When we label mundane experiences as stressful, we make the stress personal, pervasive, and permanent (or at least long term). Personal means that it's about us. Pervasive means that it applies to all areas of our life. Permanent means that we think it will last forever. This is how we create chronic stress, with all its negative health consequences: Chronic stress increases proinflammatory cytokines causing inflammation. The proinflammatory cytokines cross the blood-brain barrier and inflammation in the brain causes changes in brain structure and function.
What If We Used Other, More Precise Words?
But we could use words other than "stress" to describe negative events. The sound of the passing train could become annoying rather than stressful; a cold could become unpleasant; being cut off in traffic could be irritating; wearing unflattering clothing could be regrettable; missing family members during the holidays could be disappointing; having a lot of work could be being busy.
Using different words to label an experience changes our emotional reaction to the it. We've taken it from the personal, pervasive and permanent to the impersonal, limited, and temporary. Do you see how the words "annoying," "unpleasant," "irritating, "regrettable," "disappointing," and "busy" have less of an emotional charge than the word "stressful?" Labelling every negative experience as stressful wears us down, leaving us with little energy to address the really stressful things.
Words are powerful. Changing the labels we use reduces our stress and builds resilience.