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In continuum mechanics, stress is a physical quantity that expresses the internal forces that neighbouring particles of a continuous material exert on each other. For example, when a solid vertical bar is supporting a weight, each particle in the bar pulls on the particles immediately above and below it. When a liquid is under pressure, each particle gets pushed inwards by all the surrounding particles, and, in reaction, pushes them outwards. These macroscopic forces are actually the average of a very large number of intermolecular forces and collisions between the particles in those molecules.

Stress inside a body may arise by various mechanisms, such as reaction to external forces applied to the bulk material (like gravity) or to its surface (like contact forces, external pressure, or friction). Any strain (deformation) of a solid material generates an internal elastic stress, analogous to the reaction force of a spring, that tends to restore the material to its original undeformed state. In liquids and gases, only deformations that change the volume generate persistent elastic stress. However, if the deformation is gradually changing with time, even in fluids there will usually be some viscous stress, opposing that change. Elastic and viscous stresses are usually combined under the name mechanical stress.

Significant stress may exist even when deformation is negligible or non-existent (a common assumption when modeling the flow of water). Stress may exist in the absence of external forces; such built-in stress is important, for example, in prestressed concrete and tempered glass. Stress may also be imposed on a material without the application of net forces, for example by changes in temperature or chemical composition, or by external electromagnetic fields (as in piezoelectric and magnetostrictive materials).

Quantitatively, the stress is expressed by the Cauchy traction vector T defined as the traction force F between adjacent parts of the material across an imaginary separating surface S, divided by the area of S. In a fluid at rest the force is perpendicular to the surface, and is the familiar pressure. In a solid, or in a flow of viscous liquid, the force F may not be perpendicular to S; hence the stress across a surface must be regarded a vector quantity, not a scalar. Moreover, the direction and magnitude generally depend on the orientation of S. Thus the stress state of the material must be described by a tensor, called the (Cauchy) stress tensor; which is a linear function that relates the normal vector n of a surface S to the stress T across S. With respect to any chosen coordinate system, the Cauchy stress tensor can be represented as a symmetric matrix of 3x3 real numbers. Even within a homogeneous body, the stress tensor may vary from place to place, and may change over time; therefore, the stress within a material is, in general, a time-varying tensor field.

The relation between mechanical stress, deformation, and the rate of change of deformation can be quite complicated, although a linear approximation may be adequate in practice if the quantities are small enough. Stress that exceeds certain strength limits of the material will result in permanent deformation (such as plastic flow, fracture, cavitation) or even change its crystal structure and chemical composition.

In some branches of engineering, the term stress is occasionally used in a looser sense as a synonym of "internal force". For example, in the analysis of trusses, it may refer to the total traction or compression force acting on a beam, rather than the force divided by the area of its cross-section.

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