The challenge posed by examinations is common to all students. You are perhaps, already thinking about a career. What if you are denied this choice? Will you give up? Life poses challenges all the time. Think of a child who loses her/his parents at a young age with no one to take care of her/him; a young woman who loses her husband in a car accident ; parents who bring up children who are physically or mentally challenged’ young girls/boys who have to spend long nights in call centres and then catch up on their sleep during the day time. Look around yourself and you will find that life is a big challenge. All of us try to meet these challenges in our own way. Some of us succeed while others succumb to such life stresses. Life challenges are not necessarily stressful. Much depends on how a challenge is viewed.
Meaning of Stress
Stress is a physical , mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stress is a from of response towards an event or stimuli. It may disturb the psychological stability of a person and diminish his/her ability. All the challenges, problems and difficult circumstances are responsible for stress. the word stress is originated from the Latin word strictus, meaning tight or narrow. These words reflect the internal feelings of tightness and constriction (tightening) of the muscles and breathing reported by many people under stress.
Stress increases human activity and affects performance as well. However, high stress can produce unpleasant effects and can deteriorate our performance.
Eustress is the term used to describe the level of stress that is good for you. It is bet for achieving peak performance and managing minor crisis. Eustress, however, has the potential of turning into ‘distress’. Stress includes all those environmental and personal events, which challenge or threaten the well-being of a person.
Stressors are events that cause our body to give the stress response. Such events include noise, crowding, conflict, frustration, a bad relationship or the daily commuting to school or office. The reaction to external stressors is called strain.
Nature, Types and Sources of Stress
Nature of Stress
Hans Style , the father of modern stress research, defined stress as the non-specific response of the body to any demand. Despite the cause of the threat , the individual will respond with the same physiological pattern of reactions.
Many researchers do not agree with this definitions. They think that the stress is not nearly as general and non-specific as Selye suggests. Different stressors may produce somewhat different patterns stress reaction.
Different individuals may have different characteristic modes of response. Each one of use see the situation from our own perspective and it is our brain to meet them and this will determine whether we are feeling ‘stressed’ or not.
Stress is not a factor that resides in the individual or the environment. It is embedded (fixed) in an ongoing process that involves individuals transacting with their social and cultural environments and attempting to cope with the issues that arise. Stress is dynamic mental/cognitive state.
Cognitive Theory of Stress
This theory was propounded by Lazarus and his colleagues. According to this, the perception of stress is dependent upon the individual’s cognitive appraisal of events and the resources available to deal with them. An individual’s response to a stressful situation largely depends upon the perceived events and how they are interpreted or appraised.
There are two types of appraisal according to Lazarus:
(i) Primary Appraisal : It refers to to perception of a new or changing environment as positive, neutral or negative in its consequences. Negative events are appraised for their possible harm, threat or challenge.
Harm is the assessment of the damage that has already been done by an event. Threat is the assessment of possible future damage that may be brought about by the event. Challenge appraisals are associated with more confident expectations. It has the ability to cope with the stressful event and the potential to overcome and even profit from the event.
(ii) Secondary Appraisal : It is the assessment of one’s coping abilities and resources and assessing whether they will be sufficient to meet the harm, threat or challenge of the event. These resources may be mental, physical, personal or social. If one thinks that one has a positive attitude, health, skills and social support to deal with the crises, she/he will fell less stressed.
Two two-level appraisal process determines not only our cognitive and behavioural responses but also our emotional and psychological responses to external events. These appraisals are very subjective and will depend on many factors such as:
- Past Experience : If one has handled similar situations very successfully in the past, they would be less threatening for her/him.
- Controllable : It examines whether one has mastery or control over a situation. A person who believes that she/he can control the onset of a negative situation or in adverse consequences, will experience less amount of stress than those who have no such sense of personal control.
For example, a sense of self-confidence can determine whether the person is like to handle the situation as a threat or a challenge. The experience and outcome of a stressor vary from person to person.
These stressor can be external, i.e. environmental (noise, air, pollution) , social (loneliness, break-up with a close friend), psychological (conflict, frustration) within the individual.
Reactions to Stress
Stressors result in a variety of stress reactions, which may be physiological, behavioral, emotional and cognitive.
Physiological Reactions : At the physiological level, arousal (physical activity) plays a key role in stress related behaviours.
The hypothalamus (part of brain) initiates action along two pathways:
(i) The first pathway involves the autonomic nervous system. The adrenal gland releases large amount of catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) into the blood stream.
This leads to physiological changes seen in fight-or-flight response. It is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a harmful event, attack or threat to survival.
(ii) The second pathway involves the pituitary gland, which secretes the corticosteroid (cortisol) that provides energy.
Emotional Reactions : The emotional reactions to experience stress include negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, embarrassment, anger, depression or even denial.
Behavioural Reactions : The behavioral reactions are virtually limitless, depending on the nature of the stressful event. Confrontative action (opposition) against the stressor (fight) or withdrawal from the threatening event (flight) are two general categories of behavioral responses.
Cognitive Reactions : Cognitive reactions include beliefs about the harm or threat an event poses and beliefs about its causes or controllability. These include responses such as inability to concentrate and intrusive, repetitive or morbid thoughts.
Changes in Stress
The stresses which people experience vary in terms of :
- intensity (low intensity vs high intensity)
- duration (short-term vs long term)
- complexity (less complex vs more complex)
- predictability (unexpected vs predictable)
The outcome of stress depends on the position of a particular stressful experience along these dimensions. An individual’s experiences of stress depend on the physiological strength of that person. Thus, individuals with poor physical health and weak constitution would more vulnerable than those who enjoy good health.
Psychological characteristics like mental health, temperament and self-concept are relevant to the experience of stress. The stress experience will be determined by the resources of the person, such as money, social skills, coping style, support networks, etc.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Everyone has their own pattern of stress response. Our response to stress varies depending upon our personality, early upbringing and life experiences. The symptoms of stress can be physical, emotional and behavioural. Any symptom can indicate a degree of stress which, if left unresolved , might have serious implications.
Types of Stress
There are three major types of stresses. All three types of stress are interrelated and are given below:
1. Physical and Environmental
Physical stresses are demands that change the state of our body. We feel strained when we overexert ourselves physically, lack a nutritious diet, suffer in injury or fail to get enough sleep.
Environmental stresses are aspects of our surroundings that are often unavoidable such as air pollution, crowding, noise, heat of the summer, winter cold, etc. Another group of environmental stresses are catastrophic events or disasters as fire, earthquake, floods etc.
2. Psychological Stress
These are internal sources of stress that we generate ourselves in our minds. These are personal and unique to the person experiencing them. Some of the important sources of psychological stress are:
(i) Frustration : It results from the blocking of needs and motives by something or someone that blocking us from achieving a desired goal. There could be a number of causes of frustration such as social discrimination, interpersonal hurt, low grades in school, etc.
(ii) Conflicts : It may occur between two or more incompatible needs or motives, e.g. whether to study dance or psychology. You may want to continue studies or take up a job. There may be a conflict of values when you are pressurised to take any action that may be against the values held by you.
(iii) Internal Pressures : It occurs from beliefs based upon expectations from inside us to ourselves. Such expectations can only lead to disappointment. Many of us drive ourselves ruthlessly towards achieving unrealistically high standards in achieving our goals.
(iv) Social Pressures : It may be brought about from people who make excessive demands on us. This can cause even greater pressure when we have to work with them. There are also people with whom we face personality clash.
3. Social Stress
These are produced externally and result from our interaction with other people. Social events like death or illness in the family, strained relationships, trouble with neighbours are some examples of social stresses. These social stresses vary widely from person to person.
Sources of Stress
Stress can be generated by events and conditions. Among the most important of these are major stressful life events, such as death of a loved one or personal injury, the annoying frequent hassles (problems) of everyday life, traumatic events that affect our lives.
Major life events can be stressful, because they disturb our routine and cause upheaval. If several of these life events that are planned (e.g. moving into a new house) or unpredicted (e.g. break-up of a long-term relationship) occur within a short period of time, we find it difficult to cope with them and will be more prone to the symptoms of stress.
These are the personal stresses we experience as individuals, due to the happenings in our daily life, such as noisy surroundings, commuting, quarrelsome neighbours, electricity and water shortage, traffic snarls. There are some jobs in which daily hassles are very frequent. These daily hassles may sometimes have devastating consequences for the individual. The more stress people face daily, the poorer is their psychological well-being.
These events include extreme events such as a fire, train or road accident, robbery, earthquake, tsunami, etc. The effects of these events may occur after some lapse of time and sometimes persist as symptoms of anxiety, flashbacks, dreams and intrusive thoughts, etc. Severe trauma can also strain relationships. Professional help will be needed to cope with them if they persist for many months after the event is over.
Effects of Stress on Psychological Functioning and Health
Many of the effects of stress are physiological in nature. There are four major effects of stress associated with the stressed state. These are as follows:
Those who suffer from stress are likely to experience mood swings and show erratic behaviour that may alienate them from family and friends. In some cases, this can lead decreasing confidence, leading to more serious emotional problems. For example, feeling of anxiety and depression, increased physical tension, increased psychological tension and mood swings.
When the human body is placed under physical or psychological stress, it increases the production of certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones produce marked changes in heart rate, blood pressure levels, metabolism and physical activity.
This physical reaction will help us to function more effectively when we are under pressure for short period of time, but it can be extremely damaging to the body in the long-term effects. Examples of physiological effects are release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, slowing down of the digestive system, expansion of air passages in the lungs, increased heart rate and constriction of blood vessels.
If pressures due to stress continue, one may suffer from mental overload. This suffering from high level of stress can rapidly cause individuals to lose their ability to make decisions. Faulty decisions made at home, in career or at workplace may lead to arguments, failure, financial loss, loss of job etc. Cognitive effects of stress are poor concentration and reduced short-term memory capacity.
Stress affects our behaviour in the form of eating less nutritious food, increasing intake of stimulants such as caffeine, excessive consumption of cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs such as tranquilisers, etc. Tranquilisers can be addictive and have side effects such as loss of concentration, poor coordination and dizziness. Some of the typical behavioural effects of stress seen are disrupted sleep patterns, increased absenteeism and reduced work performance.
Stress and Health
When stress is continued, it affects physical health and impairs psychological functioning. People experience exhaustion and attitudinal problems when the stress due to demands from the environment and constraints are too high and little support is available from family and friends. The physical exhaustion is seen in the signs of chronic fatigue, weakness and low energy. The mental exhaustion appears in the form of irritability, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
This state of physical , emotional and psychological exhaustion is known as burnout. Stress can produce changes in the immune system which results in illness. Stress has been implicated in the development of cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure, as well as psychosomatic disorders including ulcers, asthma, allergies and headaches. Researchers estimate that stress plays an important role in fifty to seventy per cent of all physical illness. Sixty per cent of medical visits are primarily for stress-related symptoms.
Stress and the Immune System
Stress can cause illness by impairing the working of the immune system. The immune system guards the body against attackers, both from within and outside the body. Psychoneuroimmunology focuses on the links between the mind , the brain and the immune system. It studies the effects of stress on the immune system.
The white blood cells (leucocytes) within the immune system identify and destroy foreign bodies (antigens) such as viruses. It also leads to the production of antibodies. Some of the white blood cells are:
- T cells which destroy invaders, T-helper cells which increase immunological activity. T-helper cells are attacked by the HIV virus which causes AIDS.
- B cells which produce antibodies.
- Natural killer cells which involves in the fight against both viruses and tumours.
Stress can affect natural killer cell cytotoxicity which is of major importance in the defence against various infections and cancer. Reduced levels of natural killer cell cytotoxicity have been found in people who are highly stressed.
Research reveals that immune functioning is better in individuals who receive social support. Psychological stress is accompanied by negative emotions and associated behaviours like depression, hostility, anger and aggression. Long term stress produces obsessive behaviours, panic attacks etc. Painful physical sensation sometimes is misunderstood as heart attack.
People under prolonged stress are more prone to irrational fears, mood swings, phobias, depression, anger, irritability etc. These negative emotions deeply affect our immune system. How negative emotions weaker our immune system is explained in the following figure.
Stress can lead to unhealthy lifestyle or health damaging behaviour. Lifestyle is the overall pattern of decisions and behaviours that determine a person’s health and quality of life. Stressed individuals may be more likely to expose themselves to pathogens, which are agents causing physical illness. People who are stressed have poor nutritional habits, sleep less and are likely to engage in other health risking behaviours like smoking and alcohol abuse.
Research reveals that health promoting behaviour like balanced diet, regular exercise, family support etc. play an important role in good health. Low fat diet, regular exercise and positive thinking enhance health and longevity. Modern life style affects our total health.
Coping with Stress
Coping refers to constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to master, reduce or tolerate the internal or external demands that are created by the stressful transaction. Coping serves to allow the individual to manage or alter a problem and regulate the emotional response to that problem.
Coping is a dynamic situation-specific reaction to stress. It is a set of responses to stressful situations or events that are intended to resolve the problem and reduce stress. The way we cope with stress often depends on rigid deep-seated beliefs, based on experience.
For example, when we get caught in a traffic jam, we feel angry, because we believe that the traffic should move faster. To manage stress we need to reassess the way we think and learn coping strategies. There is variation among individuals in coping strategies to handle stressful situations.
Coping strategies include both overt (clear) and covert (private) activities. The three coping strategies given by Endler and Parker are as follows:
(i) Task-oriented Strategy : This involves obtaining information about the stressful situation and about alternative courses of action and their probable outcome. It also involves deciding priorities and acting, so as to deal directly with the stressful situation. For example, schedule my time better or think about how I have solved similar problems.
(ii) Emotion-oriented Strategy : This involves efforts to maintain hope and to control one’s emotions. It also involves releasing feelings of anger and frustration or deciding that nothing can be done to change things. For example, tell myself that it is not really happening to me or worry about what I am going to do.
(iii) Avoidance-oriented Strategy : This involves denying or minimising the seriousness of the situation. It also involves conscious suppression of stressful thoughts and their replacement by self-protective thoughts. Examples of this are watching TV, phone up a friend or try to be with other people.
Strategies given by Lazarus and Folkman
Lazarus and Folkman has conceptualised coping as a dynamic process rather than an individual trait. According to them, coping responses can be divided into two types of responses:
(i) Problem-Focussed Strategies
It attacks the problem itself, with behaviours designed to gain information, to alter the event and to alter belief and commitments. They increase the person’s awareness, level of knowledge and range of behavioural and cognitive coping options. They can act to reduce the threat value of the event. For example, ‘I made a plan of action and followed it’.
(ii) Emotional-Focuseed Strategies
It calls for psychological changes designed primarily to limit the degree of emotional disruption caused by an event, with minimal effort to alter the event itself. For example, ‘I did something to let it out of my system.’ People generally tend to se the former more often than the latter.
Stress Management Techniques
Stress is a silent killer which plays a significant role in physical illness and disease. Hypertension, heart disease, ulcers, diabetes and even cancer are liked to stress.
Stress is increasing due to changing lifestyle. Therefore schools, others institutions, offices and communities are concerned about knowing techniques to manage stress. Some of these techniques are:
It is an active skill that reduces symptoms of stress and decreases the incidence of illness such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Relaxation starts from the lower part of the body and progresses up to the facial muscles in such a way that the whole body is relaxed. Deep breathing is used along with muscle relaxation to calm the mind and relax the body.
The yogic method of meditation consists of a sequence of learned techniques for refocusing of attention that brings about an altered state of consciousness.
It involves such a thorough concentration that the meditator becomes unaware of any outside stimulation and reaches a different state of consciousness.
It is a procedure to monitor and reduce the physiological aspects of stress by providing feedback about current physiological activity and is often accompanied by relaxation training.
Biofeedback training involves three stages:
(i) Developing an awareness of the particular physiological response, e.g. heart rate.
(ii) Learning ways of controlling physiological response in quiet conditions.
(iii) Transferring control into the conditions of everyday life.
It is an effective technique for dealing with stress. It is a subjective experience that uses imagery and imagination. Before visualising one must set oneself a realistic goal, as it helps to build confidence.
It is easier to visualise if one’s mind is quiet, body relaxed and eyes are closed. This reduces the risk of interference from unbidden thoughts and provides the creative energy needed for tuning an imagined scene into reality.
Cognitive Behavioural Techniques
These techniques aim to inoculate (treat) people against stress. Stress inoculation training is an effective method. It is developed by Meichenbaum. The importance of this approach is to replace negative and irrational thoughts with positive and rational ones.
There are three main phases in this technique:
(i) Assessment : It involves discussing the nature of the problem and seeing it from the viewpoint of the person/client.
(ii) Stress Reduction : It involves learning the techniques of reducing stress such as relaxation and self-instruction.
It can provide an active outlet for the physiological arousal experienced in response to stress. Regular exercise improves the efficiency of the heart, enhances the function of the lungs, maintains good circulation, lowers blood pressure, reduces fat in the blood and improves the body’s immune system. Swimming, walking, running, cycling, skipping, etc. help to reduce stress.
Promoting Positive Health and Well-Being
It is unlikely that we will go through life without some experience of personal crises causing acute pressure for a while. Many people sail through and rebuild their lives very positively. They are likely to have constructive attitudes and also have lots of emotional and social support of various kinds available to them.
When we find ways of managing these pressures and can use the energy to create something positive out of the situation, then we will have learned to survive healthily and this will leave us more stress fit for future crises. It is like being immunised against the dangers of unhealthy stress.
Stress Resistant Personality
According to Kobasa, people with high levels of stress but low levels of illness share three characteristics. These are referred to as personality traits of hardiness. It consists of ‘the three C’s, i.e. commitment, control and challenge.
Hardiness is a set of beliefs about oneself, the world and how they interact. Stress resistant personalities have control which is a sense of purpose and direction in life, commitment to work, family, hobbies and social life and challenge, i.e. to see changes in life as normal and positive rather than as a threat.
These are abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.
Our ability to cope depends on who well we are prepared to deal with and keep equilibrium in our lives. These life skills can be learned or improved upon. Some life skills that will help to meet the challenges of life are:
It is a behaviour or skill that helps to communicate clearly and confidently, our feelings, needs, wants and thoughts. It is the ability to say no to a request, to state an opinion without being self-conscious or to express emotions such as love, anger, etc. openly.
The major way to reduce time stress is to change one’s perception of time. The central principle of time management is to spend one’s time through doing the things that one value or that help one to achieve one’s goals. It depends on being realistic and do a particular work within an certain time period.
Many stress-related problems occur as a result of distorted thinking. Thinking and feeling are closely connected. When we are stressed, we recall to negative thoughts and images from the past, which effect our perception of the present and the future.
Some of the principles of rational thinking are:
- Challenging distorted thinking and irrational beliefs.
- Driving out potentially intrusive negative anxiety and provoking thoughts.
- Making positive statements.
The key to an effective relationship is communication which consists of three essential skills i.e.:
(i) listening to what the other person is saying.
(ii) expressing how you feel and what you think
(iii) accepting the other person’s opinions and feelings, even if they are different from your own.
Jealousy and sulking (bad mood) behaviour should be avoided to improve relationships.
The better way to prepare physically and emotionally and to tackle the stresses of everyday life is by keeping ourselves healthy, fit and relaxed. Our breathing patterns reflect our state of mind and emotions. When we are stressed or anxious, we tend towards rapid and shallow breathing from high in the chest, with frequent sighs.
The most relaxed breathing is slow, stomach-centered breathing from the diaphragm, i.e. a dome like muscle between the chest and the abdominal cavity.
Environmental stresses like noise, pollution, space, light, colour, etc. can all exert an influence on our mood. These have a noticeable effect on our ability to cope with stress and well-being.
Overcoming Unhelpful Habits
Unhelpful habits such as perfectionism, avoidance, procrastination, etc. are strategies that help to cope in the short-term stress.
- Perfectionists : These are persons who have to get everything just right. They have difficulty in varying standards according to factors such as time available, consequences of not being able to stop work and the effort needed.
- Avoidance : It prevents something bad from happening and refuse to accept or face it.
- Procrastination : It means the action of delaying or postponing something. People who procrastinate, deliberately avoid confronting their fears of failure or rejection.
Development of Positive Health
Health is a state of complete physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Various factors have been identified which facilitate the development of positive health.
Positive health comprises the following constructs:
- a healthy body
- high quality of personal relationships
- a sense of purpose in life
- mastery of life’s tasks
- resiliance (the ability of people to feel better quickly after something unpleasant) to stress, trauma and change.
Factors that act as stress buffers and facilitate positive health are:
A balanced diet can lift one’s mood, give more energy, feed muscles, improve circulation, prevent illness, strengthen the immune system and make one feel better to cope with stresses of life. The key to healthy living is to eat three main meals a day and eat a varied well-balanced diet.
Quantity of nutrition required for healthy living depends on one’s activity level, genetic make-up, climate and health history. Some people are able to maintain a healthy diet and weight, while others become obese. When we are stressed, we seek ‘comfort foods’ which are high in fats, salt and sugar.
It is the lifestyle change with the widest popular approval. Regular exercise plays an important role in managing weight and stress and it has a positive effect on reducing tension anxiety and depression.
Physical exercises that are essential for good health are stretching exercises such as yogic asanas and aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming, cycling, etc. The stretching exercises have a calming effect and aerobic exercises increase the arousal level of the body.
Studies suggest that fitness permits individuals to maintain general mental and physical well-being even in the face of negative life events.
Positive health and well-being can be realised by having a positive attitude. Some of the factors leading to a positive attitude are:
- having a fairly accurate perception of reality.
- a sense of purpose in life and reponsibility.
- acceptance and tolerance for different viewpoints of others.
- taking credit for success and accepting blame for failure
- being open to new ideas and having a sense of humour with the ability to laugh at oneself which help us to remain centered and see things in a proper perspective.
The power of positive thinking has been increasingly recognised in reducing and coping with stress. Optimisim has been linked to psychological and physical well-being. People differ in the manner in which they cope. For example, optimists (positive thinkers) tend to assume that adversity can be handled successfully, whereas pessimists (person who expects bad outcome) anticipate disasters.
Optimists use more problem coping strategies and seek advice and help from others while pessimists ignore the problem or source of stress.
Social support is defined as the existence and availability of people on whom we can rely upon and people who care, value and love us. Someone who believes that she/he belongs to a social network of communication and mutual obligation experiences social support.
Perceived support, i.e. the quality of social support is positively related to health and well-being. Social network i.e. the quantity of social support is unrelated to well-being. It is very time consuming and demanding to maintain a large social network.
Social support can help to provide protection against stress. People with high levels of social support from family and friends may experience and they may cope with it more successfully.
Social support may be in the form of tangible support or assistance involving material aid, such as money, goods, services, etc. For example, a child gives class notes to his friend who was absent in the class due to sickness.
In stressful events informational support is provided by family members and friends. For example, a student faces a difficult board examination who was previously informed by his friend about the difficult nature of examination could successfully pass the examination by adopting necessary preparation and coping strategies.
Further supportive friends and family members provide emotional support to the individual. Emotional support asserts that the individual is loved, valued and cared for. Research has suggested that social support effectively reduces psychological distress such as depression or anxiety during times of stress. There is growing evidence that social support is positively related to psychological well-being of a person. It gives mental health benefits for both the giver and the receiver.