Where did the word “Stress” come from?

by | Sep 15, 2021 | Resources

We all seem to use word “stress” quite frequently these days, and it’s become quite a common word in books and articles about psychology and mental wellbeing. Stress, as a concept, appears to have found its way into our lives, and it doesn’t seem to feel like leaving us anytime soon.

Since stress appears to be an ever-present element of modern life, wouldn’t you like to find out more about it? Have you ever wondered where the word “stress” actually came from, and where it was used initially? Let’s embark upon a brief expedition through time, where I will share with you what I have learned about the history of “stress”.

The term “stress” is actually relatively new. Moreover, when it started to be commonly used it had little to do with emotions, feelings, or even with people whatsoever. When the word started to be commonly used, around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution at the end of 18th century, it described only physical attributes of materials – and when we check physics book for mechanics of materials, we can find that stress is described as the measure of an external force, such as a tension, compression or bending, which acts over an object.

So, in other words, we can say that if we apply some tension to an object – let’s say a metal plate – then the object is “stressed”. Interesting… It’s therefore little wonder we often say “I am so stressed recently, because I have a lot of tension at work”; it seems we’ve all become experts in physics, without even knowing it.

Of course, this is very simplified description. Although our brains are physical objects, our minds are not, and therefore they work in slightly different way.

Throughout our lives, when we encounter a situation our mind interprets as an immediate or indirect threat to us or to our loved ones, our Autonomic Nervous System switches to our fight / flight / faint mode to deal with it. During this time, we can feel as if an external force puts a pressure on us, and we may feel tense. It was Walter Bradford Cannon who first described this mechanism and coined the term “fight or flight” in his book Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement – and it was not that long ago, in 1915. Of course, people before that date had been experiencing what today we call stress, however back then word stress was simply not in use in this context.

Knowing how the term stress is used and described in both the mechanics of materials in physics and in the mechanics of psychology has helped me to understand better where the word comes from, and why psychology “borrowed” the term – and I hope that this explanation has helped you understand a little better, too.