Is Stress Relative?

Dylan Sapienza
5 min readApr 11, 2018

It is certainly uncommon to find something that is definitively universal. Across any society, race, religion or what you may, one thing is sure to be there, stress. The dualistic nature of stress allows it to be the immolating fire that motivates and inspires, while also being the perpetrator of anxiety. Stress can turn simple tasks like public speaking into a new form which is suddenly much more difficult and nerve-racking. Now whether or not stress is ultimately beneficial or not, is not what is being discussed. Here I would like to discuss the idea of stress’ relativity. I believe that stress is relative. In my opinion there is no escape from it. As I see it there is no feasible way to escape it and somehow lead a “stress free” life. First, we must discuss stress in purely the evolutionary reasons of why it exists. Stress’ existence comes from this idea of the fight or flight response. A response that may have helped ancient ancestors, but now it seems to create more problems that it solves. This is because as humans we have evolved past it. Fortunate people no longer have to deal with the reasons of why stress existed in the first place, survival. Was that a branch falling from a tree? Or Was it a hungry bear getting prepared to enjoy its delectable treat? These ideas and situations are why stress exists. Stress does not exist in order to bring fear and anxiety to students preparing for school exams, yet somehow it is still here. These problems we have now may seem trivial, and maybe even nearly impossible to explain to our forefathers.

So, why does stress still exist? Why does something as inconsequential as a bad grade on a math quiz elicit the same response as the fear of death from a predator? Well, because quite simply it is relative. Relative in the sense that it scales. I believe there is some definitive range of stress that follows everyone. This is why it’s inescapable. If we consider the difference in the magnitude in the previous example it becomes certain which one is more deserving of the stress, yet whether it is deserving of it or not the same stress is dealt out. Now, obviously the levels of stress may vary, but only slightly. There are people who can become stressed about certain inconsequential things to the point where you would think they were diagnosed with a terminal illness. But if stress is relative, then we are all victims of these gross overreactions. It is easy to think, “well I don’t think I have ever been that stressed” but stress is powerful. It has the ability of bringing up the feeling of impending doom upon us that feels truly inevitable.

So, here is the question now. Does a multi-millionaire living in the lapse of luxury experience the same level of stress as a regular person working a 9-to-5 job? Now the answer to the question may seem obvious, but I would beg to differ. I would dare to say that in terms of the levels of stress they experience it would still persist and be same across both “occupations”. This may seem ridiculous to some. How could someone whose sole existence is to relax and lounge have anywhere similar levels of stress to someone who works 9-to-5 every weekday? Well, the answer lies in the fact that they have different stressors. While the regular worker stresses all week over his upcoming due dates of his reports, the multi-millionaire stresses all week over what outfit he will wear to his next dinner party. Now, any sane human being would be quick to say that “Well the stress that the worker feels is obviously in larger magnitude” because it has real definitive consequences, these being losing his job, dealing with his boss etc. but, I say well couldn’t you say a similar thing in the defense of the multi-millionaire. He has real definitive consequences too, these being humiliation, and a loss of respect from others. Even if you dismiss this point you can still make the link back to stress’ origin. How is losing a job, something of a social construct, anywhere near as life threatening as being chased by a tiger? Yet, as previously stated the same stress can still be present in both cases. So if we can make the leap between losing a job, which is minuscule in comparison to, escaping death, why can’t we make this much shorter leap between the loss of a job and deciding on an outfit? So if we accept this to be true, then why are we all so quick to judge others based on their stress? You hear it take form all the time, whether it be an innocent “I wish I was you” or a “You have no idea the amount of stress I have to deal with”. I can vividly remember this one day. I was 6 years old at the time, an age some would like to think exists before “real stress” sets in. I was in a car and a friends mother who was driving the vehicle and supervising decided to grab something from inside the house. Now, I can’t exactly explain why, but this deeply unsettled me. I was all of a sudden drowning in stress. Eyes locked on the front door of the house I was begging and pleading internally that she would step out of the house and relieve all this stress. As the time passed I became more and more stressed to the point where I actually felt like I HAD to do something. After trying to fight this mental anguish I decided to concede. I unlocked the door and stepped out of the vehicle and just as I did that she was at the front door leaving the house. Now the point of this story was to express that I can remember that moment and can look back and explain that this stress I experienced 11 years ago is no different than the stress I face now. For some reason now though the stress I experience now is understood and justified because the stress I have now has a point. People are too quick to dismiss others stress just because they don’t understand it. This is why we can’t empathize with the multi-millionaire, but can completely understand the regular worker. We just don’t have a grasp on the things can cause the stress. People may wish that they could swap stressors with others, but would that always yield a less stressful life? Soon they may learn about these new stressors and all the troubles that came with them and be right back where they were in the beginning. This now begs the question as to why do we believe that money and the material will make any sort of difference in living a stress-free life. Just won the lottery? Oh sure the first couple of weeks may be nice, heck maybe even months but soon our good ol’ friend stress will return and we will realize these truths whether we like it or not.