What is the difference between a trial and a stressor?


Words matter. The words you use to describe an event really do shape how you will view it and how you will respond to it. For counselors, the words they use to conceptualize a client/case will shape how they see clients and how they will attempt to intervene. This is why I take considerable time in my Practicum class to practice case conceptualization.

Most beginning counselors are good at collecting information. But, for most, that data might well be a hopelessly knotted  ball of twine.  Where to start pulling? How do we make sense of the various pieces of data? And since data never comes to us uninterpreted, which “data” do we tend to gravitate to? Behaviors? Family history? Motivations? Biology? Environment? Client beliefs? But even more confusing are the words we use to describe these sectors of life–and the meaning they convey!

Stressor v. Trial?

Here’s how language influences case conceptualization. Your client experiences long-term family discord due to an adult child with schizophrenia. The family member routinely goes off medications and the police have to be called in order to transport him or her to the hospital after threatening self-harm. Your client comes to counseling to seek support for handling this difficult situation. As you can imagine, the client feels alone, worn down, and wondering how to keep going despite no sense that the situation will get better any time soon.

What do you imagine might be the impact of calling this family situation a trial? And how might you view it differently if you called it a stressor. Notice any differences? Benefits of each? Drawbacks of either? In your mind, are they equivalent? (See Eric Johnson’s brief discussion of these two words and their similarities/differences in regard to Christian psychology in his Foundations for Soul Care, p. 240)

Here is my thinking. Within Christian tradition, a “trial” signifies a difficult time or season but from a spiritual or divine perspective. It conveys a purpose–a testing or proofing of one’s faith. We tend to view trials (or desire to at least) from an eternal point of view, “testing of your faith produces perseverance…”  (Jas 1:3). Notice that while “trial” does signify difficulty, the focus is largely on the purpose it serves.

On the other hand, a “stressor” is something that causes stress or distress in a person’s life. Notice that this word carries no sense of eternity, divine value or purpose. It merely describes a facet of life that is troubling a person’s life.

Imagine with me a counselor who uses “trial” to describe the distress in the life of the client mentioned above. How do you expect that might shape the counselor’s view of the situation and thus response sets to that client? Would our counselor be more likely to view the trial as something to endure, more likely to engage in spiritual conversations so as to find comfort and peace in the middle of the storm? Would their conversations tend toward the hope of heaven? Is it possible that using the language of trials might cause a counselor to ignore the real-time experience of distress?

Now imagine the counselor who uses “stressor” to describe the same distress. Would this counselor be more likely to discuss in detail the physical, psychological impact of living with a mentally ill and unstable family member? Would this counselor then be more focused on finding ways to decrease the moment-by-moment stress levels? Is it possible that using the language of stressor might cause a counselor to ignore an eternal perspective?

Hopefully, you can see the value of both word meanings and the interventions described. It is possible to use the language of trials and focus in on the details of how that trial impacts the client. And it is possible to use the language of stressors and keep in mind an eternal perspective. Whatever language, the interventions off stress education and reduction and hope building are necessary interventions.

If you are a counselor or counseling student, observe the language you use to describe your clients and their lives. How does that language influence your view of them and the interventions you might use with them?

6 Comments

Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, Uncategorized

6 responses to “What is the difference between a trial and a stressor?

  1. D. Stevenson

    How about using the word “tribulation?” Wouldn’t that sound funky if talking to a secular psychologist about our client! 🙂

    Seriously though, I think possible connotations are also important. I don’t think I would use either of those words. Why?
    to me…
    Trial – carries idea of judgment, easier for me to be judging/judgmental, as if I am God to know what this means in their life. Focuses my attention away from the clients pain and suffering. Also, seems to categorize spirituality, some things are trials, some things are stressors. Again, even if this were true, I am playing God to decide which is what. I am putting on my holiness hat. Stressor – seems to downplay the person’s suffering, minimizing it as if it is only a pesky fly. Aren’t all trials stressful? Isn’t all of our life to be lived for God and thus any stressor a trial? With both words it seems as if I am assessing judgment on how difficult it is for the person. How can I know what it is like for the person, even if I’ve had the same kind of experience? Although, particularly regarding use of the word “trial” –perhaps it is just my antipathy to Christianeze and/or the way others have used it in my life.

    What would I use? “suffering” “it’s really rough” “tough time” “painful” “difficult” — I suppose even those carry connotations of some sort. I’ll stick with “suffering”…, or “tribulation” 😉

  2. D. Stevenson

    forgot to do – posting this so I can get follow-up comments in my email

  3. Scott Knapp

    I like the distinction between the two, but I would add that chronic “stressors” do have a purpose for eternity, in that all stress serves to remind us that we’re a) built for another world, a stress-free world, b) we’re not there, and possibly won’t be there for some time, and c) we need resources greater than what humanity can summon to adequately deal with them effectively. Since God is able to use any and all things to lead us to Himself, it makes sense to think stress, a ubiquitous condition experienced outside of the Garden, would serve that purpose as well. And while I as a therapist may not necessarily interpret every stress management session as an evangelistic opportunity, I should definitely keep my eyes and ears open for when it is divinely intended to be one!

  4. Brooke

    If we didnt have trials…we wouldnt have stressors. A trial can be a stressor and a stressor can be a trial. Believer or not.
    Just best to stay away from particular words when talking to client; as they can be very sensitive and highly intuned to words used in context of them; even at times paranoid….just my perspective a good thought provoker.

  5. Kim S.

    I love this distinction– as it allows me to put aside potential Christian jargon for the sake of getting to a deeper understanding with the client. And yes of course Romans 8:28 always comes into play with our incredible God, but the client isn’t always ready to hear that right off.

  6. Will H

    I prefer the term “struggle” because it’s somewhat in between the two terms. We use the term both with “spiritual struggles” and with “daily struggles” so it seems to be a good compromise between focusing on heaven and focusing on the daily tension.

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