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?