What is Stress?
Stress is the combination of psychological, physiological, and behavioral reactions that people have in response to events that threaten or challenge them. Stress can be good or bad. Sometimes, stress is helpful, providing people with the extra energy or alertness they need. Stress could give a runner the edge he or she needs to persevere in a marathon, for example. This good kind of stress is called eustress. Unfortunately, stress is often not helpful and can even be harmful when not managed effectively. Stress could make a salesperson buckle under the pressure while trying to make a sales pitch at an important business meeting, for example. Moreover, stress can increase the risk of developing health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and anxiety disorders. This bad kind of stress is called distress, the kind of stress that people usually are referring to when they use the word stress.
A convenient way to think about stress is in terms of stressors and stress responses. Stressors are events that threaten or challenge people. They are the sources of stress, such as having to make decisions, getting married, and natural disasters. Stress responses are psychological, physiological, and behavioral reactions to stressors. Anxiety, depression, concentration difficulties, and muscle tension are all examples of stress responses.
The connection between stressors and stress responses, however, is not as straight forward as it may seem. Mediating processes, for instance, stand in between stressors and stress responses. Whether stressors lead to stress responses depends on mediating processes like how people appraise potential stressors and how well people are able to cope with the negative impact of stressors. Furthermore, a number of moderating factors, such as personality traits and health habits, influence the the links between stressors and stress responses. These mediating processes and moderating factors help determine whether people experience stress-related problems like burnout, mental disorders, and physical illness and are the focus of many stress management techniques that emphasize cognitive-behavioral approaches, relaxation, exercise, diet and nutrition, and medication.
II. Sources of Stress
Stressors, the sources of stress, include three types of events, referred to as daily hassles, major life events, and catastrophes. Additionally, specific types of stressors occur within certain domains in life, such as family, work, and school.
Daily hassles are the little hassles or annoyances that occur practically everyday, such as having to make decisions, arguing with friends and family, trying to meet deadlines at school or work, and stepping on a piece of bubble gum that someone carelessly spitted out. Although a wide variety of daily hassles can be sources of stress, they often involve conflicts between behaviors people may or may not want to do. If someone is experiencing an approach-approach conflict, that person has to choose between two attractive alternatives, such as going on vacation or buying a new computer. If someone is experiencing an avoidance-avoidance conflict, that person has to choose between two unattractive alternatives, such as having a pet "put to sleep" or spending the money on an expensive surgical procedure for it. If someone is experiencing an approach-avoidance conflict, that person has to choose whether to engage in an activity that has both attractive and unattractive qualities, such as mowing the lawn, an activity that would result in a nice lawn but would not be enjoyable to do (Miller, as cited in 99).
In particular, daily hassles that involve interpersonal conflicts seem to have an impact that lasts longer than does that of most other daily hassles (25). Additionally, according to a survey of middle-aged adults (87), the top ten daily hassles are as follows:
1. Concerns about weight
2. Health of a family member
3. Rising prices of common goods
4. Home maintenance
5. Too many things to do
6. Misplacing or losing things
7. Yard work or outside home maintenance
8. Property, investments, or taxes
10. Physical appearance
In general, major life events do not appear to be significant sources of stress (118). Accordingly, major life events generally do not tend to be related to the health problems that accompany stress (96; 148). Under some circumstances, however, major life events can be sources of stress. Whether major life events involve positive or negative feelings, for instance, is relevant. Major life events that are positive tend to have either trivially stressful or actually beneficial effects (156; 164), but major life events that are negative can be stressful and are associated with medical problems (141). Examples of major life events are getting married, getting divorced, and being fired from a job.
Although they do not happen very often, when catastrophes do occur, they can be tremendous sources of stress. One major type of catastrophe is natural disasters. After people are exposed to natural disasters, they are more anxious, have more bodily complaints, drink more alcohol, and have more phobias (138). A group of Stanford University students who completed a survey before and after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, for example, were more stressed afterwards than they were beforehand (115). War is another type of catastrophe. It is one of the most stressful catastrophes that you could ever endure. Between 16% and 19% of the veterans who served during Operation Desert Storm, for example, had symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as recurrent memories, nightmares, restricted emotions, sleep disturbances, and irritability (160). PTSD is a mental disorder (described later) characterized by the reexperiencing of stress responses associated with an earlier traumatic event like withstanding a natural disaster or being assaulted.
Compared to the impact of other types of events, the cumulative effect of daily hassles over time are probably the most significant sources of stress (33; 87; 98; 174). An obvious reason why major life events and catastrophes are probably less significant sources of stress is that people just do not experience them as often. It is not every day that a person spends time in prison or retires from a job, for instance. Likewise, people do not have to and possibly never will face the repercussions of a nuclear war, for instance, on a daily basis.
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