86 What Is Stress?
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Differentiate between stimulus-based and response-based definitions of stress
- Define stress as a process
- Differentiate between good stress and bad stress
- Describe the early contributions of Walter Cannon and Hans Selye to the stress research field
- Understand the physiological basis of stress and describe the general adaptation syndrome
The term stress as it relates to the human condition first emerged in scientific literature in the 1930s, but it did not enter the popular vernacular until the 1970s (Lyon, 2012). Today, we often use the term loosely in describing a variety of unpleasant feeling states; for example, we often say we are stressed out when we feel frustrated, angry, conflicted, overwhelmed, or fatigued. Despite the widespread use of the term, stress is a fairly vague concept that is difficult to define with precision.
Researchers have had a difficult time agreeing on an acceptable definition of stress. Some have conceptualized stress as a demanding or threatening event or situation (e.g., a high-stress job, overcrowding, and long commutes to work). Such conceptualizations are known as stimulus-based definitions because they characterize stress as a stimulus that causes certain reactions. Stimulus-based definitions of stress are problematic, however, because they fail to recognize that people differ in how they view and react to challenging life events and situations. For example, a conscientious student who has studied diligently all semester would likely experience less stress during final exams week than would a less responsible, unprepared student.
Others have conceptualized stress in ways that emphasize the physiological responses that occur when faced with demanding or threatening situations (e.g., increased arousal). These conceptualizations are referred to as response-based definitions because they describe stress as a response to environmental conditions. For example, the endocrinologist Hans Selye, a famous stress researcher, once defined stress as the “response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions” (Selye, 1976, p. 74). Selye’s definition of stress is response-based in that it conceptualizes stress chiefly in terms of the body’s physiological reaction to any demand that is placed on it. Neither stimulus-based nor response-based definitions provide a complete definition of stress. Many of the physiological reactions that occur when faced with demanding situations (e.g., accelerated heart rate) can also occur in response to things that most people would not consider to be genuinely stressful, such as receiving unanticipated good news: an unexpected promotion or raise.
A useful way to conceptualize stress is to view it as a process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that he appraises as overwhelming or threatening to his well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). A critical element of this definition is that it emphasizes the importance of how we appraise—that is, judge—demanding or threatening events (often referred to as stressors); these appraisals, in turn, influence our reactions to such events. Two kinds of appraisals of a stressor are especially important in this regard: primary and secondary appraisals. A primary appraisal involves judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might entail. A stressor would likely be appraised as a threat if one anticipates that it could lead to some kind of harm, loss, or other negative consequence; conversely, a stressor would likely be appraised as a challenge if one believes that it carries the potential for gain or personal growth. For example, an employee who is promoted to a leadership position would likely perceive the promotion as a much greater threat if she believed the promotion would lead to excessive work demands than if she viewed it as an opportunity to gain new skills and grow professionally. Similarly, a college student on the cusp of graduation may face the change as a threat or a challenge ([link]).
The perception of a threat triggers a secondary appraisal: judgment of the options available to cope with a stressor, as well as perceptions of how effective such options will be (Lyon, 2012) ([link]). As you may recall from what you learned about self-efficacy, an individual’s belief in his ability to complete a task is important (Bandura, 1994). A threat tends to be viewed as less catastrophic if one believes something can be done about it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Imagine that two middle-aged women, Robin and Maria, perform breast self-examinations one morning and each woman notices a lump on the lower region of her left breast. Although both women view the breast lump as a potential threat (primary appraisal), their secondary appraisals differ considerably. In considering the breast lump, some of the thoughts racing through Robin’s mind are, “Oh my God, I could have breast cancer! What if the cancer has spread to the rest of my body and I cannot recover? What if I have to go through chemotherapy? I’ve heard that experience is awful! What if I have to quit my job? My husband and I won’t have enough money to pay the mortgage. Oh, this is just horrible…I can’t deal with it!” On the other hand, Maria thinks, “Hmm, this may not be good. Although most times these things turn out to be benign, I need to have it checked out. If it turns out to be breast cancer, there are doctors who can take care of it because the medical technology today is quite advanced. I’ll have a lot of different options, and I’ll be just fine.” Clearly, Robin and Maria have different outlooks on what might turn out to be a very serious situation: Robin seems to think that little could be done about it, whereas Maria believes that, worst case scenario, a number of options that are likely to be effective would be available. As such, Robin would clearly experience greater stress than would Maria.
To be sure, some stressors are inherently more stressful than others in that they are more threatening and leave less potential for variation in cognitive appraisals (e.g., objective threats to one’s health or safety). Nevertheless, appraisal will still play a role in augmenting or diminishing our reactions to such events (Everly & Lating, 2002).
If a person appraises an event as harmful and believes that the demands imposed by the event exceed the available resources to manage or adapt to it, the person will subjectively experience a state of stress. In contrast, if one does not appraise the same event as harmful or threatening, she is unlikely to experience stress. According to this definition, environmental events trigger stress reactions by the way they are interpreted and the meanings they are assigned. In short, stress is largely in the eye of the beholder: it’s not so much what happens to you as it is how you respond (Selye, 1976).
Although stress carries a negative connotation, at times it may be of some benefit. Stress can motivate us to do things in our best interests, such as study for exams, visit the doctor regularly, exercise, and perform to the best of our ability at work. Indeed, Selye (1974) pointed out that not all stress is harmful. He argued that stress can sometimes be a positive, motivating force that can improve the quality of our lives. This kind of stress, which Selye called eustress (from the Greek eu = “good”), is a good kind of stress associated with positive feelings, optimal health, and performance. A moderate amount of stress can be beneficial in challenging situations. For example, athletes may be motivated and energized by pregame stress, and students may experience similar beneficial stress before a major exam. Indeed, research shows that moderate stress can enhance both immediate and delayed recall of educational material. Male participants in one study who memorized a scientific text passage showed improved memory of the passage immediately after exposure to a mild stressor as well as one day following exposure to the stressor (Hupbach & Fieman, 2012).
Increasing one’s level of stress will cause performance to change in a predictable way. As shown in [link], as stress increases, so do performance and general well-being (eustress); when stress levels reach an optimal level (the highest point of the curve), performance reaches its peak. A person at this stress level is colloquially at the top of his game, meaning he feels fully energized, focused, and can work with minimal effort and maximum efficiency. But when stress exceeds this optimal level, it is no longer a positive force—it becomes excessive and debilitating, or what Selye termed distress (from the Latin dis = “bad”). People who reach this level of stress feel burned out; they are fatigued, exhausted, and their performance begins to decline. If the stress remains excessive, health may begin to erode as well (Everly & Lating, 2002).
THE PREVALENCE OF STRESS
Stress is everywhere and, as shown in [link], it has been on the rise over the last several years. Each of us is acquainted with stress—some are more familiar than others. In many ways, stress feels like a load you just can’t carry—a feeling you experience when, for example, you have to drive somewhere in a crippling blizzard, when you wake up late the morning of an important job interview, when you run out of money before the next pay period, and before taking an important exam for which you realize you are not fully prepared.
Stress is an experience that evokes a variety of responses, including those that are physiological (e.g., accelerated heart rate, headaches, or gastrointestinal problems), cognitive (e.g., difficulty concentrating or making decisions), and behavioral (e.g., drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking actions directed at eliminating the cause of the stress). Although stress can be positive at times, it can have deleterious health implications, contributing to the onset and progression of a variety of physical illnesses and diseases (Cohen & Herbert, 1996).
The scientific study of how stress and other psychological factors impact health falls within the realm of health psychology, a subfield of psychology devoted to understanding the importance of psychological influences on health, illness, and how people respond when they become ill (Taylor, 1999). Health psychology emerged as a discipline in the 1970s, a time during which there was increasing awareness of the role behavioral and lifestyle factors play in the development of illnesses and diseases (Straub, 2007). In addition to studying the connection between stress and illness, health psychologists investigate issues such as why people make certain lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking or eating unhealthy food despite knowing the potential adverse health implications of such behaviors). Health psychologists also design and investigate the effectiveness of interventions aimed at changing unhealthy behaviors. Perhaps one of the more fundamental tasks of health psychologists is to identify which groups of people are especially at risk for negative health outcomes, based on psychological or behavioral factors. For example, measuring differences in stress levels among demographic groups and how these levels change over time can help identify populations who may have an increased risk for illness or disease.
[link] depicts the results of three national surveys in which several thousand individuals from different demographic groups completed a brief stress questionnaire; the surveys were administered in 1983, 2006, and 2009 (Cohen & Janicki-Deverts, 2012). All three surveys demonstrated higher stress in women than in men. Unemployed individuals reported high levels of stress in all three surveys, as did those with less education and income; retired persons reported the lowest stress levels. However, from 2006 to 2009 the greatest increase in stress levels occurred among men, Whites, people aged 45–64, college graduates, and those with full-time employment. One interpretation of these findings is that concerns surrounding the 2008–2009 economic downturn (e.g., threat of or actual job loss and substantial loss of retirement savings) may have been especially stressful to White, college-educated, employed men with limited time remaining in their working careers.
THE PHYSIOLOGICAL BASIS OF STRESS
What goes on inside our bodies when we experience stress? The physiological mechanisms of stress are extremely complex, but they generally involve the work of two systems—the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When a person first perceives something as stressful, the sympathetic nervous system triggers arousal via the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands. Release of these hormones activates the fight-or-flight responses to stress, such as accelerated heart rate and respiration. At the same time, the HPA axis, which is primarily endocrine in nature, becomes especially active, although it works much more slowly than the sympathetic nervous system. In response to stress, the hypothalamus (one of the limbic structures in the brain) releases corticotrophin-releasing factor, a hormone that causes the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) ([link]). The ACTH then activates the adrenal glands to secrete a number of hormones into the bloodstream; an important one is cortisol, which can affect virtually every organ within the body. Cortisol is commonly known as a stress hormone and helps provide that boost of energy when we first encounter a stressor, preparing us to run away or fight. However, sustained elevated levels of cortisol weaken the immune system.
In short bursts, this process can have some favorable effects, such as providing extra energy, improving immune system functioning temporarily, and decreasing pain sensitivity. However, extended release of cortisol—as would happen with prolonged or chronic stress—often comes at a high price. High levels of cortisol have been shown to produce a number of harmful effects. For example, increases in cortisol can significantly weaken our immune system (Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005), and high levels are frequently observed among depressed individuals (Geoffroy, Hertzman, Li, & Power, 2013). In summary, a stressful event causes a variety of physiological reactions that activate the adrenal glands, which in turn release epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones affect a number of bodily processes in ways that prepare the stressed person to take direct action, but also in ways that may heighten the potential for illness.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) distinguished two fundamental kinds of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. In problem-focused coping, one attempts to manage or alter the problem that is causing one to experience stress (i.e., the stressor). Problem-focused coping strategies are similar to strategies used in everyday problem-solving: they typically involve identifying the problem, considering possible solutions, weighing the costs and benefits of these solutions, and then selecting an alternative (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). As an example, suppose Bradford receives a midterm notice that he is failing statistics class. If Bradford adopts a problem-focused coping approach to managing his stress, he would be proactive in trying to alleviate the source of the stress. He might contact his professor to discuss what must be done to raise his grade, he might also decide to set aside two hours daily to study statistics assignments, and he may seek tutoring assistance. A problem-focused approach to managing stress means we actively try to do things to address the problem.
Emotion-focused coping, in contrast, consists of efforts to change or reduce the negative emotions associated with stress. These efforts may include avoiding, minimizing, or distancing oneself from the problem, or positive comparisons with others (“I’m not as bad off as she is”), or seeking something positive in a negative event (“Now that I’ve been fired, I can sleep in for a few days”). In some cases, emotion-focused coping strategies involve reappraisal, whereby the stressor is construed differently (and somewhat self-deceptively) without changing its objective level of threat (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For example, a person sentenced to federal prison who thinks, “This will give me a great chance to network with others,” is using reappraisal. If Bradford adopted an emotion-focused approach to managing his midterm deficiency stress, he might watch a comedy movie, play video games, or spend hours on Twitter to take his mind off the situation. In a certain sense, emotion-focused coping can be thought of as treating the symptoms rather than the actual cause.
While many stressors elicit both kinds of coping strategies, problem-focused coping is more likely to occur when encountering stressors we perceive as controllable, while emotion-focused coping is more likely to predominate when faced with stressors that we believe we are powerless to change (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Clearly, emotion-focused coping is more effective in dealing with uncontrollable stressors. For example, if at midnight you are stressing over a 40-page paper due in the morning that you have not yet started, you are probably better off recognizing the hopelessness of the situation and doing something to take your mind off it; taking a problem-focused approach by trying to accomplish this task would only lead to frustration, anxiety, and even more stress.
Fortunately, most stressors we encounter can be modified and are, to varying degrees, controllable. A person who cannot stand her job can quit and look for work elsewhere; a middle-aged divorcee can find another potential partner; the freshman who fails an exam can study harder next time, and a breast lump does not necessarily mean that one is fated to die of breast cancer.
Stress is a process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events appraised as overwhelming or threatening to one’s well-being. The scientific study of how stress and emotional factors impact health and well-being is called health psychology, a field devoted to studying the general impact of psychological factors on health. The body’s primary physiological response during stress, the fight-or-flight response, was first identified in the early 20th century by Walter Cannon. The fight-or-flight response involves the coordinated activity of both the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Hans Selye, a noted endocrinologist, referred to these physiological reactions to stress as part of general adaptation syndrome, which occurs in three stages: alarm reaction (fight-or-flight reactions begin), resistance (the body begins to adapt to continuing stress), and exhaustion (adaptive energy is depleted, and stress begins to take a physical toll).
Negative effects of stress are most likely to be experienced when an event is perceived as ________.
- negative, but it is likely to affect one’s friends rather than oneself
- threatening, and no clear options for dealing with it are apparent
Between 2006 and 2009, the greatest increases in stress levels were found to occur among ________.
- those aged 45–64
- the unemployed
- those without college degrees
At which stage of Selye’s general adaptation syndrome is a person especially vulnerable to illness?
- alarm reaction
During an encounter judged as stressful, cortisol is released by the ________.
- sympathetic nervous system
- pituitary gland
- adrenal glands
Critical Thinking Questions
Provide an example (other than the one described earlier) of a situation or event that could be appraised as either threatening or challenging.
Answers will vary. One example is divorce. People may perceive a divorce as a threat if they believe it will result in loneliness, change of lifestyle (due to loss of additional income), or humiliation in the eyes of their family. However, divorce may be perceived as a challenge if they view it as an opportunity to find somebody more compatible, and if they consider the process of finding a new partner a pleasant one, perhaps involving mystery and excitement.
Provide an example of a stressful situation that may cause a person to become seriously ill. How would Selye’s general adaptation syndrome explain this occurrence?
Answers will vary. One example is when somebody’s spouse dies or is unexpectedly diagnosed with a fatal disease. In both cases, the stress experienced by the surviving spouse would be intense, continuous, and—according the general adaptation syndrome—would eventually increase vulnerability to illness or disease (exhaustion stage).
Personal Application Question
Think of a time in which you and others you know (family members, friends, and classmates) experienced an event that some viewed as threatening and others viewed as challenging. What were some of the differences in the reactions of those who experienced the event as threatening compared to those who viewed the event as challenging? Why do you think there were differences in how these individuals judged the same event?
- alarm reaction
- first stage of the general adaptation syndrome; characterized as the body’s immediate physiological reaction to a threatening situation or some other emergency; analogous to the fight-or-flight response
- stress hormone released by the adrenal glands when encountering a stressor; helps to provide a boost of energy, thereby preparing the individual to take action
- bad form of stress; usually high in intensity; often leads to exhaustion, fatigue, feeling burned out; associated with erosions in performance and health
- good form of stress; low to moderate in intensity; associated with positive feelings, as well as optimal health and performance
- fight-or-flight response
- set of physiological reactions (increases in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate, and sweat) that occur when an individual encounters a perceived threat; these reactions are produced by activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system
- general adaptation syndrome
- Hans Selye’s three-stage model of the body’s physiological reactions to stress and the process of stress adaptation: alarm reaction, stage of resistance, and stage of exhaustion
- health psychology
- subfield of psychology devoted to studying psychological influences on health, illness, and how people respond when they become ill
- hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis
- set of structures found in both the limbic system (hypothalamus) and the endocrine system (pituitary gland and adrenal glands) that regulate many of the body’s physiological reactions to stress through the release of hormones
- primary appraisal
- judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might entail
- secondary appraisal
- judgment of options available to cope with a stressor and their potential effectiveness
- stage of exhaustion
- third stage of the general adaptation syndrome; the body’s ability to resist stress becomes depleted; illness, disease, and even death may occur
- stage of resistance
- second stage of the general adaptation syndrome; the body adapts to a stressor for a period of time
- process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that one appraises as overwhelming or threatening to one’s well-being
- environmental events that may be judged as threatening or demanding; stimuli that initiate the stress process