The topic of stress was touched on briefly in the chapter concerned with emotion regulation. The point was made that stress is difficult to define and, indeed, has been through many definitions over the years. This is, perhaps, because it is something that is both within and without the person. Certainly, some circumstances (such as losing one's job, a marriage break-up, moving house, having a child with a chronic illness, retiring, etc.) are stressful to many people. But all of these events are not necessarily stressful to everyone and nor are they stressful to the same degree in everyone. So, there are large individual differences in stress reactions. Stress is the result of an interaction between the individual and the environment, and for a highly readable analysis of stress, see Overton (2005).
An obvious cause of stress reactions is disasters, single, cataclysmic events either for the group (an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, etc.) or for the individual (major traffic accident, shooting, rape, etc.). Such events can have a major impact on both the immune system and emotional reactions and general psychological functioning (lack of sleep, inability to concentrate, etc.). Major life events can also have similar effects, although, again, it should be emphasised that there are large individual differences in reactivity.
Disasters and major life events are obvious. Less obvious as background conditions or causes of stress reactions are daily hassles, events such as losing keys or wallet or handbag, being stuck in rush-hour traffic, having a succession of minor problems with the car or with the plumbing or with electronic equipment. Again, such events can, in some cases, lead to a greater propensity to illness, presumably through lowered immune function. They also might have indirect effects on health by leading to increased likelihood of smoking and over-eating and decreased likelihood of exercising.
Whether stress is acute or chronic makes a difference. For example, to have to work extra hours during the course of one week in order to get a particular job done is very different from having to work extra hours over a period of months or years. Even with chronic stressors, though, there are large individual differences in reaction. Some people become quite used to living with chronic stressors, such as poverty, over-crowding, noise, and even vast and enduring overwork. In this context, it is also important to realise that stress is not always negative. To have some stress in life is, for many people, positively motivating.
The particular type of chronic stress mentioned above, that which comes from enduring overwork, can lead to burnout. This is similar to depression. The individual feels emotionally exhausted and, as part of this, emotionally distant from other people, particularly at work. There is difficulty in sleeping and appetite may be disturbed. There is a clear sense of being unable to achieve anything that should be achieved or that the person used to achieve, in the job.
Stress, then, even though it is difficult to define, has both bodily and psychological aspects. The physiological reactions in stress were best demonstrated in broad terms by Hans Selye (1956) with what he termed the general adaptation syndrome. He described this as the typical reaction to stressful circumstances. It has three phases:
1 Alarm. This is the emergency phase in which the fight or flight system kicks in. The body is reacting to deal with the threat.
2 Resistance. Chemical changes have occurred and the body is coping, although at this point its vulnerability to other stressors is increased.
3 Exhaustion. Bodily resources are now run down and there is increased proneness to illness or even death, depending on the severity of the circumstances.
While all of this is going on at the bodily level, psychologically the individual is also finding methods of coping with the stress. These methods are based on initial appraisals of: what does the event mean for me, will it be harmful? And, then, will I be able to deal with it? Dealing with it means either (or, more usually, both) emotion-focused or problem-focused coping. That is, faced with, say, a particularly stressful problem at work, the person might evaluate it and decide whether or not he or she can solve it as a problem. Can I change the work circumstances so that the problem goes away? If not, if there is nothing that can be done (for example, being stuck with a recently appointed boss who seems to have a personal bias against you, or having to continue to work long hours in order to hang onto your job), then the question is: what can I do to change the way I am reacting emotionally to this? As already mentioned, most stressful situations are dealt with by a mixture of these two types of coping.
Take another situation that some people find stressful - facing a difficult examination. A problem-focused approach would be to be systematic about the work done towards the exam, talk the work over with other people, go to all possible support groups and tutorials, and so on. An emotion-focused approach would be to try to reduce your anxiety about the exam by using relaxation techniques or by playing sport or by seeking social support by having friends to commiserate with you about it. Again, in this type of situation, many people would cope by using a mixture of the two methods.
Also, of course, some of the coping methods might have other consequences. For example, some people eat, drink and smoke more as a type of emotion-focused coping. This might have short-term gains but there are obvious longer-term negative consequences. Alternatively, a person might cope with the stress of an impending exam by thinking of something else or by talking to the people about anything else, or by going to the movies, or even by praying. Although, perhaps, emotionally comforting and acting to reduce the anxiety that the individual would otherwise feel, none of these strategies is likely to make performance better in the exam.
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