Stress and Its Effects
Many circumstances can create stress in people’s lives. Stress comes in all sorts of packages;
large and small, pretty and ugly, simple and complex. All too often, the package is a surprise.
The Nature of Stress
Stress is neither a stimulus nor a response but a special stimulus-response transaction in which
one feels threatened or experiences loss or harm.
Stress – is any circumstances that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and
thereby tax one’s coping abilities.
Stress is an Everyday Event:
It is a noun (we have stress), an adjective (he has a stressful job), an adverb (she acts
stressed), and a verb (writing a paper stresses me). For many of us stress levels are high and
are on the rise.
Stress is associated with overwhelming, traumatic crises such as hijacking, floods,
earthquakes, and nuclear accidents. However, these are just the tip of the iceberg. Many
everyday events such as waiting in line, having car trouble, misplacing your keys, large bills, are
also stressful. A major stressful event such as getting a divorce can trigger minor stressors,
such as looking for an attorney.
Researchers found that scores on a scale measuring minor daily hassles were more
strongly related to participant’s mental health than the scores of major life events. Theorists
believe that stressful events can have a cumulative or additive impact – stress adds up.
Not everyone becomes overwhelmed by stress from daily hassles. Individuals
perception are important in how people experience stress.
Stress Lies in the Eye of the Beholder:
Events that are stressful for one person maybe routine for another.
Primary appraisal is an initial evaluation of whether an event is (1) irrelevant to you, (2)
relevant but not threatening, or (3) stressful.
When you view an even as stressful, you are likely to make a secondary appraisal, which is an
evaluation of your coping resources and options for dealing with stress.
Negative interpretations of events are often associated with increased distress
surrounding these events.
People are rarely objective in their appraisals of potentially stressful events – classic study of
hospital patients awaiting surgery. Anxious, neurotic people are more likely to make threat
appraisals and report more stress than people with less anxiety.
Stress May be Embedded in the Environment:
Although the perception of stress is a highly personal matter, many kinds of stress come from
the environmental circumstances that individuals share with others. Ambient stress consists of
chronic environmental conditions that, although not urgent, are negatively valued and place
adaptive demands on people. Features of the environment such as excessive noise, traffic, and
pollutions can be threatening.
Crowding is a major source of environmental stress. Can be crowding in trains during
commute, but mainly crowding as residential density. High density is associated with increased
physiological arousal, psychological distress, and social withdrawal.
1 There are also repercussions of living in areas that are at risk for disease. People, who live near
nuclear power plants... etc, experience high levels of distress. Residents in areas prone to
earthquakes or hurricanes may also experience increased stress.
There is considerable evidence that exposure to community violence, either as a victim
or witness, is associated with anxiety, depression, anger and aggression among urban youth.
- Children who report recent exposure to traumatic events show increased stress
Stress is influenced by Culture:
Culture sets the context in which people experience and appraise stress. The potential
importance of culture is illustrated by the substantial body of evidence that cultural change –
such as increased modernization and urbanization and shifting values and customs – has been
a major source of stress in many societies around the world.
In some cases, a specific cultural group may be exposed to pervasive stress that is unique to
Racial discrimination negatively effects mental health and well-being – this racial
discrimination is said to be stressful.
Everyday discrimination can take many forms, including verbal insults, negative
evaluations, avoidance, denial of equal treatment, threats of aggression.
- Minority group members may experience stress greatly.
- It can be subtle
Perceived discrimination has been linked to greater psychological distress, higher levels of
depression, and decreased well-being for a variety of minority groups including sexual
For immigrants, acculturation, or changing to adapt to a new culture, is a major source
of stress related to reduced well-being. This even holds for children. The discrepancy between
what individuals expect before immigrating and what they actually experience once they do
immigrate is related to the amount of acculturation stress they report.
Major Sources of Stress
Acute stressors are threatening events that have a relatively short duration and a clear end
Chronic stressors are threatening events that have a relatively long duration and no readily
apparent time limit.
Anticipatory stressors are upcoming or future events that are perceived to be threatening.
Thus, we anticipate the impact of the event even though it has not happened yet.
Four major sources of stress:
Frustration occurs in any situation in which the pursuit of some goal is thwarted. You
experience frustration when you want something and can’t have it. Everyone deals with this
virtually every day. Frustration often leads to aggression. Some frustration such as failures and
losses, can be sources of significant stress. Fortunately, more frustrations are brief and
insignificant. Frustration appears to be the culprit at work when people feel troubled by
environmental stress. Frustration in the workplace often results in burnout.
Internal Conflict: “Should I or shouldn’t I?”
2 Internal conflict occurs when two or more incompatible motivations or behavioural impulses
compete for expression. Internal conflict generates considerable psychological distress. Conflict
comes in three types: approach-approach conflict, a choice must be made between two
attractive goals. This conflict tends to be the less stressful. You typically have a reasonably
happy ending, whichever way you decide to go. However, in avoidance-avoidance conflict, a
choice must be made between two unattractive goals. Here you are “caught between a rock and
a hard wall.” This conflict is most unpleasant and highly stressful and people delay their decision
as long as possible. In approach-avoidance conflict, a choice must be made about whether to
pursue a single goal that has both attractive and unattractive aspects. This conflict is common,
and highly stressful. This conflict also often produces vacillation that is people go back and
forth, beset by indecision that can create stress.
Life changes are any noticeable alterations in one’s living circumstances that require
readjustment. Why would positive events, such as moving to a nice home, produce stress? It is
because they produce change. Disruption of daily routines are stressful.
Holmes and Rahe developed to Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) to measure
life changes as a form of stress. The person adds up the numbers associated with each event
checked. This sum is an index of the amount of change-related stress the person has recently
experienced. People with higher scores on the SRRS tend to be more vulnerable to many kinds
of physical illness and psychological problems.
Experts argue that the SRRS does not measure change exclusively. The list of SRRS is
dominated by negative events which will generate great frustration.
Pressure involved expectations or demands that one behave in a certain way. Pressure can be
divided into two subtypes: the pressure to perform and the pressure to conform.
Pressure has turned out to be more strongly related to measures of mental health than
the SRRS and other established measures of stress. Academic pressure, common for students,
are related to increased anxiety and depression and affects students motivation and
concentration. Stress resulting from academic pressure may actually impede academic
performance and lead to problematic escape behaviours such as drinking.
Pressure is not necessarily something imposed from outside forces, rather it is often
self-imposed. For example, signing up for extra classes to get through school quickly, or seeking
additional leadership positions, or rapidly climbing the corporate ladder.
Responding to Stress
When you groan in reaction to the traffic report, you’re experiencing an emotional response to
stress, annoyance or anger. When your pulse quickens and your stomach knots up, you’re
exhibiting physiological responses to stress. When you shout insults at another driver, your
verbal aggression is a behavioural response to the stress at hand.
Emotions are powerful, largely uncontrollable feelings, accompanied by physiological changes.
When people are under stress they often react emotionally – tends to elicit unpleasant emotions
There are strong links between specific cognitive reactions to stress and specific emotions. (Self
blame- guilt, helplessness- sadness, etc).
3 Common negative emotional responses to stress:
• Annoyance, anger and rage
• Apprehension, anxiety, and fear
• Dejection, sadness, and grief
Richard Lazarus also mentions five other negative emotions that often figure prominently in
reactions to stress: guilt, shame, envy, jealousy and disgust.
Positive emotions also occur during periods of stress
- Study done on gay men with partners containing AIDS.
- The aftermath of 9/11 brought many negative emotions, but within this “dense cloud of
anguish,” positive emotions also emerged. People felt gratitude for their safety of their
loved ones, many accounted their blessings, some accounted renewed love for their
family and friends.
Frequency of pleasant emotions correlated positively with a measure of subject’s resilience,
whereas unpleasant emotions correlated negatively with resilience.
- “Positive emotions in the aftermath of crises buffer resilient people against depression
and fuel thriving.”
Positive emotions appear to play a key role in helping people bounce back from the negative
emotions associated with stress
Effects of Emotional Arousal
Emotional responses are a natural and normal part of life. Even unpleasant emotions serve as
important purposes. Like physical pain, painful emotions can serve as warnings that one needs
to take action. However, strong emotional arousal can sometimes hamper efforts to cope with
Test anxiety illustrates how emotional arousal can hurt performance. (Students who
display high test anxiety tend to score low on exams). This is due to a lack of or disruption of
attention to the test. Test anxiety can deplete one’s capacity for self-control, increasing the
likelihood of poor performance – this tendency is related to a concept known as ego deletion.
The Inverted-U hypothesis predicts that task performance should improve with
increased emotional arousal – up to a point, after which further increases in arousal become
disruptive and performance deteriorates. The level of arousal at which performance peaks is
characterized as the optimal level of arousal for a task.
The conventional wisdom is that as a task becomes more complex, the optimal level of arousal
tends to decrease
- The inverted-U hypothesis provides a plausible model of how emotional arousal could
have either beneficial or disruptive effects on coping, depending on the nature of the
Emotional responses bring about physiological changes.
The “Fight-or-Flight” Response
The “Fight-or-Flight” response is a physiological reaction to threat that mobilizes an organism
for attacking (fight) or fleeing (flight) an enemy. When you see a threatening figure, your heart
rate increases, blood pressure rises, respiration increases, digestion slow – all things that
prepare you to act and that are evolutionary advantageous. These responses occur in the
body’s autonomic nervous system. The ANS is made up of the nerves that connect the heart,
blood vessels, smooth muscles, and glands. The ANS is controlled involuntarily.
The ANS can be broken down into two divisions. The parasympathetic division of the
NS generally conserves bodily resources. It slows HR and promotes digestion to help the body
store energy. The fight-or-flight response however is mediated by the sympathetic division of
4 the ANS – it mobilizes bodily resources for emergencies, with an increase in HR and breathing
rate but a decrease in digestion.
- There’s been research to see whether the fight-or-flight model applies equally well to
both males and females. Because females have more responsibility for the care of
young offspring than males do, they believe that it might be less adaptive for females, as
both responses may endanger offspring and thus reduce the likelihood of an animal
passing on its genes.
- Therefore females are given a “tend and befriend” response to stress. Therefore in
reacting to stress, females allocate more effort to the care of offspring and to seeking
help and support.
- Similarly, in infants response the threat, when frightened, female infants showed more
approach to their mothers than the male infants did. This is said because the hormone
oxytocin signals the need for affiliation in females in of social distress.
In our modern world, the fight-or-flight response may be less adaptive for human functioning
than it was thousands of generations ago.
The General Adaptation Syndrome
Selye concludes that stress reactions are non specific; they do not vary according to the specific
type of circumstances encountered. To capture the general pattern all species exhibit when
responding to stress, Selye formulates a seminal theory called the general adaptation
syndrome – which is a model of the body’s stress response, consisting of three stages: alarm,
resistance, and exhaustion.
1. Alarm reaction occurs when an organism recognizes the existence of a threat.
Physiological arousal increases – similar to the fight-or-flight response.
2. Selye took his investigation a step further and further exposed the laboratory
animals to prolonges stress. If stress continues, the organism may progress to the second
phase of general adaptation syndrome; stage of resistance. The physiological arousal
continues to be higher but may level off as the organism becomes accustomed to the
3. If the stress continues over a sub