According to Mind, a UK-based mental health charity organization, "stress" is really hard to define even in the medical field. For those of us who are not professional doctors or mental health counselors, most of us think that stress is the specific"situations or events that put pressure on us" or "our reaction to being placed under pressure." Essentially, stress has to do with either an external event or negative feelings.
While those are very common ways for us to think about stress, for many people of color, we may talk about stress like this:
"I am having a lot of pressure from work these days. My shoulders are really sore/tense."
"Why can't you do what I asked you to do? You are giving me such a headache."
"You are having a lot of acne... Are you under a lot of pressure???"
"Wow, your shoulders are very tense. You must be stressed."
(Note: Massages are very common in Asian cultures, and it is normal to give massages to your close friends.)
And these phrases are often in contrast to how most Caucasians would talk about stress:
"I am feeling a lot of stress, and I don't know what to do..."
"My boss always gives me a lot of work. I need to set better boundaries with him."
"Be nice to her. She is really stressed these days."
"You seemed stressed last night when you left. Is there something I can do to help?"
You will notice that just like how stress is defined by Mind, Westerners will try to lower someone's stress by trying to address either the situation itself or the person's feelings. They also tend to identify that someone is stressed by noticing how their behaviors or moods have changed.
On the other hand for non-Westerners, physical pains or symptoms are often part of the language when talking about stress in addition to the situation and the feelings. Sometimes, we might not even "feel stressed." One of Emily's Asian friends once told her that she has always known about the concept of stress, but she never felt it. Instead, when she is stressed, she starts experiencing some hearing loss. Similarly for Emily, she used to grow a lot of acne due to stress, but she also similarly never thought she "felt stressed" at the time. It was always confusing for her when a few strangers would tell her that her acne was the result of her experiencing stress.
Sadly as these stories have shown, most of us did not grow up knowing that physical pains and symptoms may not just be physical problems but also psychological problems. That is why Emily’s mother always sent her to painful massages or acupuncture in hope of healing her acne through these physical treatments as opposed to psychological ones for stress management.
All this is to say that the next time when you are or your friend is experiencing non-injury-based pains or physical problems, you might want to consider stress to be the reason and learn better ways to manage it. For those of you who are TCKs, you can check out our previous blog post by Esta Gracia who gave many tips on how to handle cross-cultural or transitional stress.
Written by: Emily Chuang