Stress in Psychology


Stress can be defined as a demand placed on our psychological and physical functioning that threatens an individual’s adaptation to a given situation.

The individual’s perception of losing control of his or her life.

Any event or situation that give rise to stress is called as a stressor.
Different stressors differ in a number of ways. For example, some stressors like illness, robbery has short-term effect, whereas, others like death of   loved one, poverty etc, have-long term effects. Some    stressors, like death  of loved one, criminal victimization etc effect only a few individuals, whereas  other stressors like hurricane, earthquake etc. effect large number of people.obviously, these differences offer several bases for classifying stressors.

General adaptation syndrome
(I) Alarm reaction. it is the body’s response when it is suddenly exposed to  stimuli to which it is not adapted. This reaction has two phases:

(a) Shock phase. It is the initial and immediate reaction to the noxious  stimulus. Various signs of injury such as rapid pulse, decreased  temperature, lower blood pressure and loss of muscle tone are typical    symptoms.

(b) Counter phase. This is a rebound reaction marked by the mobilization   of defensive forces of the body, during which the adrenal cortex is enlarged.

(2) Stage of resistance is when the person’s ull adaptation to the stress  and the consequent improvement or disappearance of symptoms occur. At this stage, there is a concurrent decrease in resistance to fresh   noxious stimuli and stress.

(3) Stage of exhaustion sets in if the stress is sufficiently severe and prolonged because body’s adaptability to stress is limited and  exhaustion inexorably follows. Various symptoms or diseases appear and if stress is unabated, death follows.

 According to Lazarus and Cohen, Stressors can be classified into   following three types:

  • (1) Background stressors.
  • (2) Personal stressors.
  • (3) Cataclysmic events.

Background stressors are hassles of everyday life. They are the persistent nagging, irritations at home, school and work that affect us all.

Examples: (a) While you are sleep the phone bell constantly rings and it is  repeatedly a wrong number.

 (b) At work your boss or a particular colleague is in a habit of irritating you.

By themselves these background stressors are not harmful. However,the effect  of stress accumulate. A brief exposure to any one of them would have little or no effect on any one. Prolonged exposure to them, however, can leave the individual to stress disorders.

The cumulative effect of background stressors is harmful. Background stressors also include positive events like election to an office, promotion at work, vacations, marriage etc.

PERSONAL STRESSORS are inevitable in the lives of all of us .In some individuals many personal stressors may occur one after the other and cause considerable stresses whereas in others personal stressors may  occur after long periods of time giving them an opportunity to overcome  them gradually.

Some of the common personal stressors are:

  • (a) Separation: job transfer, marriage, change of residence, divorce, death  etc.  Separation is a stressful experience because it leads to loss of companionship, comfort and emotional support.
  • (b) Transition stress: In the course of developing from infant to child to  adolescent to adult, the individual experiences a series of new Leaving home for work, retiring.
  • (c) Unemployment.
  • (d) Divorce
  • (e) Bereavement: Death of a spouse is the most powerful stressor on the life stress scales. Bereavement is particularly a common problem among the women in our older population, because of the greater longevity of  women.
  • (f) Criminal victimization: In this case, the degree of stress depends upon the severity of crime committed on us.
  • (g) Conflict: conflicting motives are important source of personal stress.

There are four major types of conflicts.
(1) Approach-Approach- In this type of conflict a person is faced two  attractive alternatives, only one of which can be selected. They are   usually easy to resolve. Approach-Approach conflicts become serious only if the choice of one alternative means the loss of an extremely  attractive alternative.

(2) Avoidance-Avoidance conflict- it involves two negative goals.  E.G. women must work at a job she intensely dislikes or takes the  chance of loosing her income.

(3) Approach-Avoidance conflict- it is often the most difficult to  resolve, because, in this type of conflict, a person is both, attracted and repelled by the same goal object. because of the positive valences of the goal, the person approaches it but as it is approached ,the  negative valence becomes stronger. People in these conflicts approach the goal  until the negative valence becomes too strong, and then they back away from it.

 (4) Double Approach-Avoidance or Multiple Approach-Avoidance Conflicts-In this type, several goals with positive and negative valences are involved.

CATACLYSMIC EVENT is a momentous, violent,sudden happening, affecting   many people such as natural disasters and combat. It is a powerful stressor.

Two broad categories of cataclysmic events:

  • (a) Reaction to disaster
  • (b) War and Combat

REACTION TO DISASTER-Disasters like floods, droughts etc strike in unpredictable pattern and often permit neither preparation nor escape. Persons living through such catastrophes indicate that they suffer from a disaster syndrome that is   reminiscent of the general adaptation syndrome.

It consists of three stages:

(1) First stage, SHOCK REACTION: In this stage 10-20 % of the people remain calm, and    another 20 % go into a state of panic but most individuals confused, stunned and paralysed by the magnitude of the disaster.

(2) Second stage, RECALL REACTION: People become aware of the disaster and begin to face reality. Depression and hostility are common part of the  reaction.

(3) Third stage, THE STAGE OF RECALL: Depression and hostility give way to   tenseness and restlessness.

Reactions to combat or stress in combat

The following disturbances are commonly seen with chronic stress reactions.

  • (a) Depression
  • (b) Isolation
  • (c) Rage
  • (d) Survival Guilt
  • (e) Anxiety
  • (f) Sleep Disturbances
  • (g) Intrusive thoughts
  • (h) Avoidance of feelings

Post traumatic stress disorders:

Post Traumatic stress disorders are acute psychological reactions to intensely traumatic events – events much more disturbing than most ordinary human troubles. These include assault, natural disaster such as floods and droughts, accidents and wartime traumas such as torture and bombing. Symptoms of  post-traumatic stress disorder generally appear shortly after the trauma, and  symptoms clear up by themselves within about six months.

Important features:

(1) Re experiencing the traumatic event either in pained reaction or in nightmares.

(2) Diminished responsiveness to their present surroundings (emotional anesthesia)

(3) Physical symptoms like insomnia, decreased sex drive and heightened sensitivity to sound.psycologically,they suffer from depression, anxiety   and intense irritability, exploding over the slightest frustration.

(4) Memory disturbances- Long and short-term memory is affected.

  • (5) Survival Guilt.

Coping is facing and finding effective means of overcoming problems and difficulties. There are individual differences with respect to how effectively         individuals cope with stress. Some individuals can cope with stress very        effectively whereas, others breakdown during stress situations. At times, we can cope with one stressful situation very effectively but breakdown while coping with another different stressful situation. Individual’s personality factors also        contributes to how effectively we cope with stress. The behaviors of people who cope effectively with stress have five primary characteristics

  • 1.Information seeking
  • 2.Direct action
  • 3.Inhibition of action
  • 4.Intrapsychic processes
  • 5.Flexibility

Various techniques of coping with stress
1.Social Supports: coping is more successful if certain types of social support are available. The important types of social supports are

(a) Family-Families that are integrative and responsive to the needs of all their members can increase the likelihood that the child will  grow up to become a competent adult.

(b) Agencies of community and government: These can be informal, such as friends and neighbors who come to the aid of the people in distress or they may be formal(eg.women’s welfare organisation,Handicapped   children’s society etc).

2.Transcendetal meditation programme- Developed by Maharshi Mahesh yogi and his   followers. The person learning TM technique is given a special sound to repeat   while sitting in a relaxed position. An instructor helps the student to learn to repeat the sound mentally without concentration or effort, so the thinking process can become more and more deeply settled and quiet.

During this meditation, the heart rate and breathing rate slows down,

Consumption of oxygen decreases, muscle tension is reduced, blood levels    of lactate and cortisol, which respectively, are associated with anxiety

As stress decreases, the resistance of the skin to the passage of a    weak electric current,ie,the galvanic skin response oe GSR rises(this is   also a sign of relaxation)and several changes in the EEG indicative of relaxation occurs.

3.Using imagery: this can be a very refreshing and pleasant way of  meditating. Here, you create a mental image of a pleasant and relaxing place in your mind.

4.Deep breathing: deep breathing is a simple but effective method of relaxation. It   is a core component of everything from the “take ten deep breath” approach to   calming someone down, right through to yoga relaxation and meditation. it works   well in conjunction with other relaxation methods such as progressive muscular    relaxation, relaxation imagery and meditation to reduce stress.

To use the technique take a number of deep breathes and relax your body further with each breath.

5.Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR):It is useful for relaxing your body when your muscles are tense. The idea behind PMR is that you tense up a group of  muscles so that they are as tightly contracted as possible. Hold them in a state of         extreme tension for a few seconds. Then,relax the muscles to their previous  state. Finally consciously relax the muscles even further so that you are as         relaxed as possible. Experiment with PMR by forming a fist, and clenching your hand  as tight as you can for a few seconds. Then relax your hand to its previous         tension, and then consciously relax it again so that it as loose as possible. You  should feel deep relaxation in your hand muscles. For maximum relaxation you  can use PMR in conjunction with breathing techniques and imagery

6.Crisis intervention-The primary objective of crisis intervention is to help the person  to cope with the crisis situation through is based on the  assumption that if the individual facing crisis situation is provided with a supportive, encouraging and motivating environment, then the individual learns the  ways of dealing with stress.

7.Stress inoculation training-It is a therapeutic technique developed by Donald Meichenbaum.According to him, in stress inoculation training individuals are  taught to engage in cognitions(Thoughts),which enhance their ability to deal with  stress. In this approach the individuals are trained to think positively about  stress.