Our biological system is equipped with some stress alarms that are essential for survival and allow us to function effectively in many situations
While science and technology have brought improvement in the quality of human life in many ways, they have also caused many new crises. Crowding, noise pollution, competition, social insecurity, unemployment, violence, loneliness are all accompaniments of modern living. One is also subjected to prejudice, discrimination, and exploitation because of one’s belonging to a particular social class, religion, or region. Nature inflicts its own punishments in the form of earthquakes, floods, and droughts. When all these are taken into consideration, it gives the impression that that there is no escape from stress.
Stress is considered as a major cause of mental and physical health problems but its effect is not always undesirable. In fact, stress is a basic ingredient of life. Our biological system is equipped with some stress alarms that are essential for survival and allow us to function effectively in many situations. Without undergoing stress there can be no constructive and creative activity. A certain level of stress is necessary to perform better in examinations. Stress quite often increases our efficiency and makes us search for new coping resources. It improves our adaptive system and we are better able to deal with such situations in future. However, those who have not experienced any stress in their lives have a poor adaptive mechanism and may succumb to even mild forms of stress. There are also people who thrive on stress and show greater efficiency in handling crises.
The term ‘stress’ has its origin in the field of engineering. To an engineer it means any external force directed at some physical object. The result of this force is strain, which refers to a change produced in the structure of the object. Many psychologists adopted this definition: stress being the external event or stimulus and strain being the resultant effect. Generally, it is found that high levels of stress lead to greater strain. They create ‘distress’, though that is not always true. We also experience positive stress or ‘U-stress’. It occurs when we have positive experiences or uplifts, which are welcome. Stress can be described as the pattern of responses an organism makes to a stimulus event that disturbs the equilibrium and exceeds the organism’s ability to cope. The stimulus event may include a large variety of external and internal conditions called stressors. If they are perceived to threaten one’s well-being, they demand some kind of adaptive response. Stress thus depends on what events a person notices and the way it is appraised or comprehended. Your response to a stressful situation largely depends upon what you notice and how you interpret or appraise it. Events that are stressful for one person may be a matter of routine for another person. It depends on the nature of stressors, the characteristics of the person, and the resources available at the disposal of the person.
Lazarus has distinguished between two types of appraisals: primary and secondary. Primary appraisal is an initial evaluation of whether an event is relevant, and if relevant, whether it is personally threatening or stressful. You are likely make a secondary appraisal, which is an evaluation of your own resources and options available for dealing with the stress. These resources may be mental, physical, personal or social. One who thinks that he or she has a positive attitude, health, skills, and social support to deal with crises will feel less stressed. Often, such appraisals are very subjective and will depend on many factors. One such factor is the past experience of dealing with stressful conditions. If one has handled similar situations very successfully in the past, they become less threatening. Another factor is whether the stressful event is perceived as controllable or uncontrollable. A person who believes that he/she can control the onset of a negative situation, or its adverse consequences, will experience less amount of stress than those who have no such sense of personal control. Thus, the experience and the outcome of a stressor may vary from individual to individual.
As indicated earlier, stress, in a broad sense, includes all those environmental and personal events which threaten or challenge the well-being of a person. The stressors can be external, such as environmental (e.g., noise and air pollution), social (e.g., loneliness, a broken relationship), or psychological (e.g., guilt frustration, conflict, pressure, shock). Very often, these stressors result in a variety of stress reactions, which may be physiological, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive. At the physiological level, arousal plays a key role in stress- related behaviour. The hypothalamus imitates action along two pathways. The first pathway involves the automatic nervous system: you will recollect from your study of nervous system in that the adrenal gland releases large amount of catecholamines into the blood stream. This leads to physiological changes seen in flight-or-flight response. The second pathway involves the pituitary gland which secretes the corticosteroids which provide energy. The emotional reactions to the experience of stress include fear, sadness, and anger. The emotional arousal may interfere with our response to stress. The behavioural and cognitive responses involve coping or active efforts to master, reduce or tolerate the demands created by stress.
The stress which people experience also varies in terms of intensity (low intensity to high intensity), duration (short-term to long-term), complexity (less complex and more complex) and predictability (unexpected vs predictable). The outcome of stress depends on the position of a particular stressful experience along these dimensions. Usually more intense, prolonged (or chronic), complex and unanticipated stresses have more negative consequences than less intense, short-term, less complex and expected stresses. A person’s experience of stress depends on the physiological strength of the person. Psychological characteristics like mental health, temperament, and self-belief are also relevant to the experience of stress. The cultural context in which people live determines the meaning of any event and defines the nature of response that is expected under various conditions. Finally, the stress experience will be determined by the resources of the person. The resources can be physical, like money, medical facilities, etc, and personal, like social skills and the particular style of coping used to deal with stress. All these factors determine the appraisal of a given stressful situation.
The writer has a PG degree in Psychology. [email protected]