Stress is the combination of psychological, physiological, and behavioral reactions that people have in response to events that threaten or challenge them. Stress can be good or bad. Sometimes, stress is helpful, providing people with the extra energy or alertness they need. Stress could give a runner the edge he or she needs to persevere in a marathon, for example. This good kind of stress is called eustress. Unfortunately, stress is often not helpful and can even be harmful when not managed effectively. Stress could make a salesperson buckle under the pressure while trying to make a sales pitch at an important business meeting, for example. Moreover, stress can increase the risk of developing health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and anxiety disorders. This bad kind of stress is called distress, the kind of stress that people usually are referring to when they use the word stress.
A convenient way to think about stress is in terms of stressors and stress responses. Stressors are events that threaten or challenge people. They are the sources of stress, such as having to make decisions, getting married, and natural disasters. Stress responses are psychological, physiological, and behavioral reactions to stressors. Anxiety, depression, concentration difficulties, and muscle tension are all examples of stress responses.
The connection between stressors and stress responses, however, is not as straight forward as it may seem. Mediating processes, for instance, stand in between stressors and stress responses. Whether stressors lead to stress responses depends on mediating processes like how people appraise potential stressors and how well people are able to cope with the negative impact of stressors. Furthermore, a number of moderating factors, such as personality traits and health habits, influence the the links between stressors and stress responses. These mediating processes and moderating factors help determine whether people experience stress-related problems like burnout, mental disorders, and physical illness and are the focus of many stress management techniques that emphasize cognitive-behavioral approaches, relaxation, exercise, diet and nutrition, and medication.
II. Sources of Stress
Stressors, the sources of stress, include three types of events, referred to as daily hassles, major life events, and catastrophes. Additionally, specific types of stressors occur within certain domains in life, such as family, work, and school.
Daily hassles are the little hassles or annoyances that occur practically everyday, such as having to make decisions, arguing with friends and family, trying to meet deadlines at school or work, and stepping on a piece of bubble gum that someone carelessly spitted out. Although a wide variety of daily hassles can be sources of stress, they often involve conflicts between behaviors people may or may not want to do. If someone is experiencing an approach-approach conflict, that person has to choose between two attractive alternatives, such as going on vacation or buying a new computer. If someone is experiencing an avoidance-avoidance conflict, that person has to choose between two unattractive alternatives, such as having a pet “put to sleep” or spending the money on an expensive surgical procedure for it. If someone is experiencing an approach-avoidance
conflict, that person has to choose whether to engage in an activity that has both attractive and unattractive qualities, such as mowing the lawn, an activity that would result in a nice lawn but would not be enjoyable to do.
In general, major life events do not appear to be significant sources of stress. Accordingly, major life events generally do not tend to be related to the health problems that accompany stress. Under some circumstances, however, major life events can be sources of stress.
Whether major life events involve positive or negative feelings, for instance, is relevant. Major life events that are positive tend to have either trivially stressful or actually beneficial effects, but major life events that are negative can be stressful and are associated with medical problems. Examples of major life events are getting married,
getting divorced, and being fired from a job.
Although they do not happen very often, when catastrophes do occur, they can be tremendous sources of stress. One major type of catastrophe is natural disasters. After people are exposed to natural disasters, they are more anxious, have more bodily
complaints, drink more alcohol, and have more phobias. A group of Stanford University students who completed a survey before and after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, for example, were more stressed afterwards than they were before hand. War is another type of catastrophe.
It is one of the most stressful catastrophes that you could ever endure. Between 16% and 19% of the veterans who served during Operation Desert Storm, for example, had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as recurrent memories, nightmares, restricted emotions, sleep disturbances, and irritability. PTSD is a mental disorder characterized by the re-experiencing of stress responses associated with an earlier traumatic event like withstanding a natural disaster or being assaulted.
Compared to the impact of other types of events, the cumulative effect of daily hassles over time are probably the most significant sources of stress. An obvious reason why major life events and catastrophes are probably less significant sources of stress is that people just do not experience them as often. It is not every day that a person spends time in
prison or retires from a job, for instance. Likewise, people do not have to and possibly never will face the repercussions of a nuclear war, for instance, on a daily basis.
B. Life Domains
Specific types of stressors that family members are exposed to through their family include a lack of parent-child emotional bonding, parental workload, misbehavior of children, teenage pregnancy, lack of emotional closeness between spouses, poor
communication between spouses, tension between spouses, divorce, remarriage, and maternal depression. Additionally, a family member’s job can interfere with his or her home life.
Marital conflict is a good example of a daily hassle that is specifically related to the family. Marital conflict tends to occur when spouses come from different social and economic backgrounds and the spouse of higher status emphasizes his or her superiority.
Marital conflict often occurs in the context of unequal occupational statuses, for instance.
Teenage pregnancy, particularly the unplanned pregnancy of an unmarried, teenage daughter, is a good example of a major life crisis that is specifically related to the family. Regarding teenagers who follow through with the pregnancy, this event leads to
several premature role transitions, such as the teenager becoming a young mother and the mother becoming a young grandmother. These kinds of role transitions tend to be sources of distress in the family if new mothers are still teenagers but sources of eustress if new mothers are age 20 or older. In cases in which teenagers terminate the pregnancy, they tend to find it especially stressful if they perceive a lack of support from their parents or the father of the child, are less sure of their decision and coping abilities beforehand, blame themselves for the pregnancy, or delay until the second trimester.
The specific types of stressors that employees are exposed to in the workplace fall into four categories of demands: task demands, interpersonal demands, role demands, and physical demands. Among these categories, work overload, boundary extension, role ambiguity, role conflict, and career development are particularly relevant stressors. Additionally, an employee’s home-life can interfere with his or her job.
Work overload is a good example of a daily hassle that is particularly relevant in the workplace. When employees feel overwhelmed from trying to work on more tasks than they can handle or from trying to work on tasks that are too difficult for them, they are suffering from work overload. Work overload is common after layoffs among the remaining workers who are assigned more tasks. It is also common among newly appointed managers who feel unprepared for their new, unfamiliar roles.
Boundary extension is another good example of a daily hassle that is particularly relevant in the workplace. Some jobs, such as public relations and sales, require employees to work with people in other occupational settings. Such boundary extension can be difficult for employees, especially if it involves any of the following difficulties:
Dealing with very diverse organizations
Maintaining frequent and long-term relations with people in other organizations
Interacting in complex and dynamic environments
Not having screening mechanisms like secretaries or voice mail
Participating in non-routine activities
Trying to meet demanding performance standards (139)
Two more good examples of daily hassles that are particularly relevant in the workplace are role ambiguity and role conflict. When employees are unsure about what is expected of them, how to perform their job, or what the consequences of their job
performance are, they are experiencing role ambiguity. When employees finds it difficult to perform their job effectively because of the multiple explanations about their job performance, they are experiencing role conflict. Role conflict takes place in five basic
Receiving conflicting or incompatible expectations from another employee
Receiving different expectations from two or more other employees
Receiving expectations that lead to incompatible roles
Receiving too many expectations, expectations leading to too many roles, or expectations leading to roles that are too
Having values and beliefs that conflict with expectations (139)
Career development is a good example of a major life event specifically related to work. Changing jobs or occupations can be stressful. People may feel frustrated and afraid, for example, after being laid off or fired from their job. Similarly, employees may
feel belittled or embarrassed after being demoted. These feeling may be even more damaging for employees if such changes in ccupational status interfere with their family life.
As with work, work overload, role ambiguity, and role conflict are daily hassles that are particularly relevant to students. Students incollege, for instance, often feel overwhelmed from having too many assignments or assignments that are too difficult.Additionally, they sometimes experience role ambiguity in poorly designed courses or from poor instructors and sometimesexperience role conflict from instructors who seem to believe that the students in their classes are not taking any other classes.According to two surveys, the following stressors are particularly relevant for college students:
Study for examinations
Among children and adolescents, transitions from one stage of schooling to another are major life events that can be significantstressors. The transition from elementary school to junior high or middle school, for instance, can be a significant stressor.
III. Stress Responses
Although the presence of stressors does not mean that stress responses will necessarily follow, when they do, stress responsesare the way in which people react to stressors. They are the experience of being stressed. Stress responses can be divided into
three categories: psychological responses, physiological responses, and behavioral responses.
A. Psychological Responses
When people react to stressors, a wide variety of cognitive and emotional responses can occur. Examples of cognitiveresponses are as follows:
Sensitivity to criticism
B. Physiological Responses
Physiological responses follow what is called the general adaptation syndrome. The GAS has three stages:alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
The first stage, aarm, is basically the fight-or-flight response, the various physiological changes that prepare the body to attack r to flee a threatening situation. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated and prompts the release of two catecholamines, epinephrine and norepinephrine, from the adrenal medulla.Additionally, glucocorticoids like cortisol are releasedfrom the adrenal cortex.
The following examples of physiological changes characterizes the alarm stage:
Increased heart rate
Increased blood pressure
Rapid or irregular breathing
Increased blood sugar levels
In the second stage, resistance, the body tries to calm itself and restrain the fight-or-flight response from the alarm stage. These changes allow people to deal with stressors more effectively over a longer period of time.
When the body eventually runs out of energy from trying to resist stressors, the exhaustion stage takes over. In this stage, the body admits defeat and suffers the negative consequences of the stressors, such as a decreased capacity to function correctly, less sleep, or even death.
C. Behavioral Responses
People act differently when they are reacting to stressors. Sometimes, the behaviors are somewhat subtle, such as the following responses:
Strained facial expressions
A shaky voice
Tremors or spasms
Overeating or loss of appetite
Behavioral responses are more obvious when people take advantage of the preparatory physiological responses of the fight-or-flight response. One side of the fight-or-flight response is that it prepares people to “fight”, and people sometimes take
advantage of that feature and behave aggressively toward other people. Unfortunately, this aggression is often direct toward family members. After Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992, for example, reports of domestic violence doubled. The other side of the fight-or-flight response is that it prepares people for “flight” .
The following behavioral responses are examples of how people try to escape threatening situations:
Dropping out of school
Abusing alcohol or other drugs
Committing crimes (23; 116; 129)
IV. The Connection Between Stressors and Stress Responses
Stressors prompt stress responses, right? Well, it depends. A number of conscious and unconscious things occur in our inner world that determine whether a stressor in the external world will trigger our stress response. These inner world happenings are
referred to as mediating processes and moderating factors.
A. Mediating Processes
Mediating processes in our inner mind/body world begin to influence the quality and intensity of our stress response from the moment we are exposed to a stressor. Consider, for example, a person who discovers that his or her cat neglected to use the litter box. Whether or not this person appraises the problem as something he or she can establish control over may help determine whether he or she becomes angry. Mediating processes include appraisal and coping.
Once people become aware of a stressor, the next step is appraisal. How a stressor is appraised influences the extent to which stress responses follow it. In fact, many stressors are not inherently stressful. Stressors can be interpreted as harm or loss, as threats, or as challenges. When stressors have not already led to harm or loss but have the potential to do so, it is usually less stressful for people if the stressors are seen positively as challenges rather than negatively as threats. The influence of appraisal does have its limits, though. For example, although people who suffer from chronic pain tend to be able to enjoy more physical activity if they view their pain as a challenge they can overcome, appraisal does not matter if the pain is severe.
Moreover, thinking negatively about the influence of past stressors is associated with a greater vulnerability to future stressors. Consider, for example, people with PTSD. Among victims of sexual or physical assault with PTSD, those who have trouble recovering tend to have more negative appraisals of their actions during the assault, of others’ reactions after the assault, and of their initial PTSD symptoms.
An important aspect of appraisal is how predictable and controllable a stressor is judged to be. Regarding predictability, not knowing if or when a stressor will come usually makes it more stressful, especially if it is intense and of a short duration. After a spouse passes away, for example, the other spouse tends to feel more disbelief, anxiety, and depression if the death was sudden than if it was anticipated weeks or months in advance. Similarly, during the Vietnam War, for example, wives of soldiers who were missing in action felt worse than did wives of soldiers who were prisoners of war or had been killed. Regarding control, believing that a stressor is uncontrollable usually makes it more stressful. Alternatively, believing that a stressor is controllable, even if it really is not, tends to make it less stressful. When people are exposed to loud noises, for example, they tend to see it as less stressful when they are able to stop it, even if they do not bother to stop it.
How much more stressful a stressor becomes from feeling a lack of control over it depends, however, on the extent to which the cause of the stressor is seen as stable or unstable, global or specific, and internal or external. Stable and unstable causes represent causes that are enduring and temporary, respectively. Global and specific causes represent causes that are relevant to many events and relevant to a single occasion, respectively. Internal or external causes represent causes that are the result of personal characteristics and behaviors or the result of environmental forces, respectively. The more stable and global the cause of a stressor seems, the more people feel and behave as though they are helpless. Likewise, the more internal the cause of a stressor seems, the worse people feel about themselves. Together, these feelings and behaviors contribute to a depressive
reaction to the stressor.
Consider, for example, a case in which a guy’s girlfriend breaks up with him and he thinks that his love life is always in the dumps, that nobody really cares about him, and that he must not be a dateable guy. Such an interpretation could contribute to a depressive reaction, such as him coming to the conclusion that he might as well not try because there is nothing he can do about it and that he is pretty much a lost cause.
After a stressor has been appraised, the next step, if necessary, is coping. How well people are able to cope with stressors influences the extent to which stress responses follow them. Coping strategies can be divided into two broad categories: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping involves trying to manage or to alter
stressors, and emotion-focused coping involves trying to regulate the emotional responses to stressors. Although people tend to use both forms of coping in most cases, the relative use of each of these forms of coping largely depends on the context. Problem-focused coping is more appropriate for problems in which a constructive solution can be found, such as family-related or work-related problems. Alternatively, emotion-focused coping is more appropriate for problems that just have to be accepted,
such as physical health problems.
B. Moderating Factors
Moderating factors influence the strength of the stress responses induced by stressors or the direction of the relation between stressors and stress responses. Regarding the previous example about the cat and the litter box, how angry the person becomes
after finding out that his or her cat neglected to use the litter box may depend on, for instance, how anxious or tense he or she is in general. Mediating processes include appraisal and coping. Moderating factors include personality traits, health habits, coping skills, social support, material resources, genetics and early family experiences, demographic variables, and preexisting stressors.
1. Personality Traits
Two general personality traits, positive affectivity and negative affectivity, are particularly relevant to stress. People who are high in positive affectivity tend to have positive feelings like enthusiasm and energy, feelings that characterize eustress. People who are high in negative affectivity tend to have negative feelings like anxiety and depression, feelings that characterize distress. In particular, negative affectivity is associated with the ineffective use of coping strategies and susceptibility to daily stressors.
Another personality trait relevant to stress is optimism, a general tendency to expect that things will work out for the best. Optimism is associated with stress resistance. Students who are optimistic, for example, tend to have fewer physical responses to stressors at the end of an academic term than do students who are pessimistic. Even when taking into account other personality traits like negative affectivity, perceived control, and self-esteem, optimism is still associated with a lack of stress responses like depression.
As stated previously, appraising the causes of a stressor as stable, global, and internal contributes to a depressive reaction to the stressor. Such appraisals are usually made by people who have a general tendency for this kind of appraisal, referred to as a
pessimistic explanatory style or a depressive explanatory style. Such people tend to have more depressive reactions to stressors in general.
Hardiness is composed of a set of three related personality traits: control, commitment, and challenge. Control refers to the belief in people that they can influence their internal states and behavior, influence their environment, and bring about desired
outcomes. Commitment refers to the tendency for people to involve themselves in what they encounter. Challenge refers to the willingness in people to change and try new activities, which provides opportunities for personal growth. Hardiness is associated with stress resistance. In particular, hardiness is associated with favorable appraisals of potential stressors and effective use of coping strategies. Of the three personality traits that comprise hardiness, control appears to be the most important. For instance, when people feel unable to control their environment, cortisol levels rise in the body. This process can take place in response to crowding, for example, in places like high-density residential neighborhoods, prisons, and college dormitories.
Self-esteem, how people tend to feel about themselves, is another personality trait that is relevant to stress. Self-esteem is one factor that can influence the relation between daily hassles and emotional responses to stressors. Additionally, low self-esteem is associated with increased blood pressure in response to stressors and other physiological responses that often occur in response to stressors, such as trembling hands, pounding heart, pressures or pains in the head, sweating hands, and dizziness. Low self-esteem also has an important role in depression .
Burnout is an increasingly intense pattern of psychological, physiological, and behavioral dysfunction in response to a continuous flow of stressors or chronic stress. It is commonly found among employees and professionals who have a high degree of personal investment in work and high performance expectations. In the initial stages, people often have a variety of physiological and behavioral symptoms and lose interest and confidence in their work. The following physiological symptoms may occur:
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite or weight
Fatigue and exhaustion
The following behavioral symptoms may occur:
Lack of interest in fellow employees
In the later stages, people often do the following things:
Abuse alcohol and other drugs
Drink more caffeinated beverages
Become more rigid in their thinking
Lose faith in the abilities of co-workers, management, the organization, and themselves
Become less productive (117)
Another concept, ego depletion, is very similar to burnout. In fact, it may represent an underlying feature of burnout. The idea behind ego depletion is that acts of volitionmaking choices and decisions, taking responsibility, initiating and inhibiting behavior,
and making plans of action and carrying them outdraw on a limited supply of volitional energy that is available inside people. Consequently, if people deplete this resource too much, it is no longer very easy to do what they need to do to handle stress, such
as trying to use coping strategies in response to stressors.
B. Mental Disorders
Mental disorders are the result of a varying combination of sources, one of which being stress. Examples of other sources are as follows:
Early learning experiences
People sometimes have symptoms of mental disorders, but they usually do not meet the criteria or are not clinically significant, severe enough to necessitate treatment. Before a person can be diagnosed with a mental disorder, his or her problematic thoughts, feelings, and actions must meet the criteria for the mental disorder and must prevent adequate social, occupation, or other forms of functioning.
Stress may play a causal role in a wide variety of mental disorders. Some of the mental disorders in which stress appears to have a causal role are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and substance-related disorders.