Stress Management

Stress Management

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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.

1. Appraisal

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 (98). In fact, many stressors are not inherently stressful (173). 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 (66; 98; 134). 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 (85).

Moreover, thinking negatively about the influence of past stressors is associated with a greater vulnerability to future stressors (71). 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 (46).

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 (1). 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 (120). 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 (Hunter, as cited in 23). 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 (166). 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 (67).

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 (2).

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 (i.e., a stable interpretation), that nobody really cares about him (i.e., a global interpretation), and that he must not be a dateable guy (i.e., an internal interpretation). 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 (27).

2. Coping

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 (98, 122). 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 (60), 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 (168).

Problem-focused coping strategies include the following three types:

  • Confronting, which means changing a stressful situation assertively. For example, "I stood my ground and fought for what I wanted."
  • Seeking social support, which means obtaining emotional comfort and information from other people. For example, "I talked to someone to find out more about the situation."
  • Planful problem solving, which means solving a stressful problem through deliberate problem-focused strategies. For example, "I made a plan of action and followed it" (61; 62; 162)

The seeking of social support, in particular, appears to be a valuable problem-focused coping strategy. Social support has been shown to help with stressors like cancer, crowding, military combat, natural disasters, and AIDS (23).

Emotion-focused coping strategies include the following five types:

  • Self-controlling, which means regulating one's feelings. For example, "I tried to keep my feelings to myself."
  • Distancing, which means detaching oneself from a stressful situation. For example, "I didn't let it get to me; I tried not to think about it too much."
  • Positively reappraising, which means finding positive meaning in a stressful experience by focusing on personal growth. For example, "I changed my mind about myself."
  • Accepting responsibility, which means acknowledging one's role in a stressful problem. For example, "I realized I brought the problem on myself."
  • Escaping/Avoiding, which means wishful thinking or escaping or avoiding a stressful situation by way of activities like eating, drinking, or using alcohol or other drugs. For example, "I wished that the situation would go away or somehow be over with" (61; 62; 162)

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 (also called extroversion) and negative affectivity (also called neuroticism), are particularly relevant to stress. People who are high in positive affectivity tend to have positive feelings like enthusiasm and energy (171), feelings that characterize eustress. People who are high in negative affectivity tend to have negative feelings like anxiety and depression (170), feelings that characterize distress. In particular, negative affectivity is associated with the ineffective use of coping strategies (24; 109) and susceptibility to daily stressors (26).

Another personality trait relevant to stress is optimism, a general tendency to expect that things will work out for the best (144; 145). 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 (9). 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 (146).

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 (27). Such people tend to have more depressive reactions to stressors in general (161).

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 (129; 163). Hardiness is associated with stress resistance (91; 92). In particular, hardiness is associated with favorable appraisals of potential stressors (5; 172) and effective use of coping strategies (175). Of the three personality traits that comprise hardiness, control appears to be the most important (35; 58). For instance, when people feel unable to control their environment, cortisol levels rise in the body (135). This process can take place in response to crowding, for example, in places like high-density residential neighborhoods, prisons, and college dormitories (57; 119).

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 (41). Additionally, low self-esteem is associated with increased blood pressure in response to stressors (147) 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 (137). Low self-esteem also has an important role in depression (17).

Power motivation is also a personality trait that is relevant to stress. People who have a strong need for power are described as competitive and aggressive, interested in the accumulation of things and memberships, and prefer action over reflection (107). Power motivation is associated with stress responses to stressors (59). Inhibited power motivation, having a strong need for power that is not being satisfied, for instance, is associated with physiological responses that often occur in response to stressors like high levels of norepinephrine (108) and high diastolic blood pressure (106).

2. Health Habits

People are particularly resistant to stress if they lead a healthy lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet, physical fitness, and enough rest and relaxation. In particular, people who lead a healthy lifestyle have the energy they need to cope with stressors (98).

A healthy diet is an important factor in stress resistance, and meals can be a time to reduce stress by relaxing and socializing. Moreover, an unhealthy diet often leads to weight gain, which can become a stressor itself. A healthy diet involves making time for meals, eating meals that have a variety of foods but plenty of grains, fruits, and vegetables and that are low in fat, salt, and sugar, avoiding caffeine, not drinking alcohol, and not smoking cigarettes (54). Additionally, the following nutrients are essential to keep stress under control: carbohydrates, protein, linoleic acid (vegetable fat), B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (11; 54).

Physical fitness makes people less vulnerable to stress responses (29). Stressors tend to prompt weaker physiological responses, such as lower levels of cardiovascular arousal, in people who are physically fit than they do in people who are not physically fit (40; 79). Similarly, stressors tend to prompt weaker psychological responses, such as lower levels of anxiety, emotionality, and depression, in people who are physically fit than they do in people who are not physically fit (43; 53; 79; 82; 103).

When people relax and allow themselves to rest, they enter a state of reduced psychological and physiological arousal (140). Because this state is basically the opposite of a stressful state, a person who is relaxed and continues to relax when exposed to a stressor usually ends up preventing the stress responses or reducing their intensity. Furthermore, rest allows people to unwind and recover from stressful experiences, giving them the energy they need to deal with stress (Stoyva & Budzynski, as cited in 157).

3. Coping Skills

If people do not have adequate coping skills, they cannot cope effectively with stressors and the stress responses that follow. In such cases, coping strategies cannot act as effective mediating processes. Two examples of coping skills are problem-solving skills and social skills.

Problem-solving skills include the following abilities:

  • Looking for information
  • Identifying problems and figuring out possible ways they could be solved
  • Comparing the various problem-solving strategies
  • Considering the various strategies with respect to desired or anticipated outcomes
  • Selecting problem-solving strategies to use
Problem-solving skills are important coping resources because they enable people to handle the problems posed by stressors (98).

Social skills are also important coping resources because social interaction is part of so many stressful situations. They refer to the ability to communicate and behave with other people in ways that are socially appropriate and effective. Moreover, they can help people with problem solving in social situations by giving them more control over the relevant social interactions, such as increasing the likelihood of other people cooperating and offering support (98).

4. Social Support

People tend to respond better to stressors if they have a social support network, other people that they can rely on for support, than if they do not (149). Four types of social support are as follows:

  • Appraisal support, which helps people better understand stressors and identify coping strategies that may be appropriate
  • Tangible support, which takes place when other people provide material support, such as money and goods and services
  • Information support, which takes place when other people provide specific information about stressors and appropriate coping strategies
  • Emotional support, which reassures people that they are valuable and cared for by other people (163)

Social support is not always beneficial, though. For social support to be beneficial, people must believe that other people care about them and are willing to help them (125; 97). Additionally, social support networks can sometimes become annoying, disruptive, or interfering and actually end up increasing stress (28), such as when they provide too much support or the wrong kind of support (23).

5. Material Resources

Material resources refer to money and the goods and services that money can buy. Material resources generally increase the coping options available to people and to improve the access to and effectiveness of legal, medical, financial, and other professional assistance. People who have money tend to cope well with stressors, especially if they know how to use it. Even if they do not spend it, the comfort of simply having money available is associated with a lack of vulnerability to stressors (98).

6. Genetics and Early Family Experiences

The genes and childhood experiences that people have seem to have an influence on several moderating factors (143; 163). The general tendency to experience positive and negative affectivity (123), to be optimistic (127), to use active coping strategies like planful problem solving and seeking social support (88), or to rely on social support networks (89), for example, is partially inherited. Likewise, the general tendency to feel a sense of personal control (165), to use denial to cope with stressors (88), or to respond to stressors with hostility and anger (3), for example, is partially do to family experiences during childhood. Furthermore, genetic and familial influences themselves can be moderating factors in the stress process. The general tendency to have mental disorders that involve anxiety or depression, for example, is influenced by genetic and familial factors (72).

7. Demographic Variables

Demographic variables like age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, occupational status, and urban/rural have an influence on several moderating factors (143). Regarding positive and negative affectivity, for instance, people tend to experience them less with age, Blacks tend to experience less positive affectivity with age than do people of other ethnicities, and women tend to experience negative affectivity more than men do (39; 52). Additionally, people of lower socioeconomic status or who live in urban areas tend to experience more negative affectivity than do people of higher socioeconomic status or who live in rural areas, respectively (52). Regarding self-esteem, for instance, people of higher occupational status tend to have higher self-esteem than do those of lower occupational status (94; 95).

Furthermore, the demographic variables themselves can be moderating factors in the stress process (84). Regarding gender differences in coping, for instance, men tend to use the following types of coping:

  • Problem-focused coping strategies
  • Planned and rational actions
  • Positive thinking
  • Personal growth
  • Humor
  • Daydreaming
  • Fantasies

Women tend to use the following types of coping:

  • Emotion-focused coping strategies
  • Self-blame
  • Expression of emotions
  • Seeking of social support
  • Wishful thinking (167)

Additionally, people of lower socioeconomic status tend to encounter more stressors, to have less social support, and to be less in control of their environment than people of higher socioeconomic status tend to (45; 155).

8. Preexisting Stressors

The influence that one stressor has depends in part on other ongoing stressors (163). Chronic stressors, in particular, seem to intensify the impact of other stressors that people are exposed to at the same time (56; 100). Sometimes, however, chronic stressors may actually improve resistance to other minor stressors because they seem less important in comparison (163) but only when the other stressors occur in unrelated contexts (70).

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