The purpose of this work was to test the hypothesis that stress relaxation (SR) in vascular smooth muscle is related to the amount of contractile activity (developed stress) and perhaps a property of the contractile element (CE). Using medial-intimal strips from the hog carotid artery, a strain (Δ1/l₀, where l₀ equals optimal length for force development) of 2% was applied at two different rates in the presence of various levels of developed or passive stress. Developed stress was altered either by changing the extracellular K-ion concentration with the strip length equal to l₀ or by stimulating with a salt solution containing 30 mil KCl at various strip lengths. Passive stress was altered by varying strip length. At each level of developed or passive stress the magnitude of the increment in stress due to the strain (induced stress) and the SR were noted. SR varied directly with the magnitude of the developed stress, but there was a small and relatively unchanging amount of SR when passive stress was varied. At a given level of developed stress, the magnitude of SR was greater at a strain rate of 0.016 than at 0.001 l₀/sec. When developed stress was altered, the magnitude of SR was essentially equal to the amount of induced stress; however, when passive stress was varied, SR was always less than induced stress. These observations are consistent with the hypothesis that, in the presence of developed stress, a large fraction of the SR represents the lengthening of the CE. This increased CE length allows a reequilibration of stress between the series elastic element and the contractile element. In the absence of developed stress, SR may represent a passive, physical property of this heterogeneous tissue.