Is there any interesting philosophy about stress?

Being stress free 24 hours a day isn't necessarily a good thing - don't people need a little stress to keep going? We aren't used to a stress free world, but we're not used to an overly stressed environment either. Some amount of stress is good: a challenge to overcome, etc.

We stress other people routinely: our parents, our children, our employees and our bosses and our lovers. It's what we do.

And we routinely stress animals to some extent by curbing their undesirable behavior. We don't let dogs run freely on busy streets, even though they're inclined to run in those open avenues and chase cars, and negating those instincts seem OK, but to put a dog in a cage for a long time seems like it's imparting too much stress.

Stress is unavoidable, and we mostly accept that, but sometimes inducing stress is "evil", like when you torture or imprison someone "unjustly". And we engineer contests (popular sports) in which extreme stress is a traditional and honorable component. And we engineer economic and political systems in which the high paying and powerful roles are presumed to come with extraordinary stress.

We can say "we shouldn't be evil", and that's easy, but we can't say "we shouldn't induce stress". We know to stress beyond a certain point converges on evil and we can say "we shouldn't induce too much stress." So I think it's obvious that there's a line there, a vague line of course. Are there any philosophical thinkers talking about that line?

  • My philosophy of stress: 1. If thinking about something causes you to worry, preempt the problem by taking measures beforehand to ensure that you can deal with it when it arises. 2. Identify people you can speak to who can help solve the problem and deliberately speak to them about it before you are overwhelmed by it. 3. Stock up on whiskey for the duration of the problem in order to control fear. Fear will utterly destroy your ability to make rational decisions.
    – user8029
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 7:29
  • "Interesting" is very subjective.
    – user132181
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 9:13
  • "don't people need a little stress to keep going?" - perhaps the word 'stimulus' is better here for its positive connotations? Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 11:12
  • 2
    This question appears to be off-topic because it fails to explain its philosophical relevance.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 19:31
  • 3
    @iphigenie it strikes me as more asking whether the theme is relevant to philosophers... And while themes of disappointment, fatigue, exhaustion, etc., definitely are relevant to philosophy today, it's a little less clear to me what the philosophical implications of "stress" construed generically might involve -- certainly there would be critical readings, e.g. Crary, of certain stress-intensive, sleep-deprived capitalist modes of existence, but the primary theme there would likely not be stress per se, but rather time, labor, rest, freedom, etc...
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 22:52

5 Answers 5


Stress is a medical term; it

had none of its contemporary connotations before the 1920s It is a form of the Middle English destresse, derived via Old French from the Latin stringere, "to draw tight."

and originated from usage

in physics to refer to the internal distribution of a force exerted on a material body, resulting in strain. In the 1920s and 1930s, biological and psychological circles occasionally used the term to refer to a mental strain or to a harmful environmental agent that could cause illness.

In this form, one can relate it in Buddhist Philosophy to the important notion of dukkha and is

commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "stress", or "unsatisfactoriness"...[its] commonly explained according to three different categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying. [This dukkha that relates phenomenologicaly to mortality; and our consciousness of this].

  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing. [This is dukkha that relates the externals of life - relationships, family, friends; labour, work and politics]

  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. [This dukkha that relates to the metaphysics of existence itself]

One notices a threefold expansion of the transitoriness or impermanence from life, to society to the world. One of the principal practices is to control dukkha.

In contemporary European philosophy, following on from the Frankfurt school; and developing a notion from Marx - alienation - is to remove himself from the rhythm of Nature to that of the Factory; to thus divide his being; to alienate himself from himself and to aloows himself to be remolded into a commodity; one understands early Capitalism as the industrialisation of the Body; and middle Capitalism as the industrialisation of the Mind; in the situationist analysis of Guy Debord one becomes distracted by the Spectacle; Simone Weil wrote of the rootlessness of the peoples of Europe (L'Enracinement); and Hannah Arendt diagnosed the arrival of mass society as a melting down of particularities (The Human Coindition); similar sentiments have been also diagnosed by poets; for example the disenchantment of the world by the erasure of traditional Christianity in the reactive counter-enlightment has Matthew Arnold predicting in Dover Beach that

ignorant armies clash by night

and Yeats recognised the validity of Nietzsches diagnosis that filled him with forboding, as he wrote in the second coming

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

The broad nature of the question makes it easy to align other philosophies that in a broad sense also discuss this subject - for example in Antiquity there was the Roman philosophy of Stoicism, this in many ways is aligned with Buddhism; and the Greek philosophy of Epicurus; and here one might usefully recall Budai or the laughing Buddha and also the Ruba'iyyat of Omar Khayyam, the Persian Islamic Poet who wrotes the quatrains:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness -

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

since he says:

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise

To talk. One thing is certain, that Life flies

One thing is certain and the rest is Lies

The Rose that once has blown for ever dies


The Stoic school of thought certainly is somewhat related:

The Stoics distinguish two primary passions: appetite and fear. These arise in relation to what appears to us to be good or bad. They are associated with two other passions: pleasure and distress. These result when we get or fail to avoid the objects of the first two passions.

According to the Stoics, we feel stress/distress because of our inability to obtain something. In some cases, this is warranted, as in the case of someone anxious to obtain virtue. In other cases though, stressing after "positive indifferents" is a state of moral disorder. Rightly or wrongly, this turns part of your question on it's head - rather than worrying about the one who causes stress or suffering, the Stoics often concerned themselves with the one who experienced the stress or suffering. See as a specific example, a quote from Marcus Aurelius:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Meditations, 8.47


Take a look at Why don't zebras get ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. It's a popular science book about biology of stress, but it can serve as inspiration for philosophical thought. It describes how stress can influence your cognition (for example, causing learned helplessness or John Henryism). Also it describes a connection between socioeconomic status and psychological stress. So, for instance, after combining these two it's evident there is certain biologically-grounded link between where are you in society and your worldview (or what I'd call cognitive paradigm).


Let's not forget the existentialists -- Heidegger, Sartre -- for whom anxiety plays a crucial role in the passage from existence to essence.


See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eustress

Eustress is a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye. The word eustress consists of two parts. The prefix eu- derives from the Greek word meaning either "well" or "good." When attached to the word stress, it literally means "good stress".

Eustress was originally explored in a stress model by Richard Lazarus, it is the positive cognitive response to stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feelings. Selye created the term as a subgroup of stress to differentiate the wide variety of stressors and manifestations of stress.

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