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Stress, Coping, and Health Psychology

Defining Stress

Types of Stress

Stress, tension, negative emotions, or physical discomfort experienced when demands strain coping resources, comes in many forms—catastrophes, significant life changes, and daily hassles. All types can impact health and well-being.

Stress refers to the tension, negative emotions, or physical discomfort experienced when demands strain a person's coping resources. Although the definition of stress seems intuitive, psychologists have a particular way that they talk about stress. For example, a student might experience stress about an upcoming exam. Unpacking this example, the upcoming exam is the stressor—the threatening or distressing stimulus causing the stress. Stress appraisal refers to the way a person thinks about a stressful event. They may see the upcoming exam as an overwhelming test they are likely to fail, or as a manageable task. The stress response refers to the physical and emotional reactions to the stressor. For example, a student facing a tough exam may feel anxious or have trouble sleeping.

A large-scale, unpredictable stressor is called a catastrophe. Common examples of a catastrophe are natural disasters (e.g., floods, earthquakes, hurricanes) and acts of terror. These types of events take an enormous physical, psychological, and emotional toll on people. Significant life transitions are called major life events. Common examples of major life events are getting married and starting a new job. Even positive life events can create a great deal of acute stress and increase the risk of developing illnesses. However, these effects tend to normalize fairly quickly. For example, the transition to a new job may be stressful for a few months, but as people get used to their new position, the stress of that transition declines. Lastly, everyday occurrences that lead to stress are called daily life hassles. Common examples of daily life hassles are annoying roommates, dealing with a chatty coworker, and caring for young children. Although the response to any one daily life hassle is not very large, the stress from multiple hassles can accumulate. Compared to financially secure individuals, people living near or below the poverty level experience far more daily hassles, such as job insecurity, food scarcity, community violence, and single-parenthood. This type of chronic stress contributes to a range of negative outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, and impaired learning and memory.

Examples of Different Types of Stressors

Catastrophe Major Life Event Daily Life Hassle
Tornadoes Death of a loved one Dealing with noisy neighbors
Loss of property (e.g., due to fire or theft) Changing residence Commuting to work or school
Victim of terrorism Winning a prestigious award Having a difficult boss
Victim of assault Graduating from school Completing homework
Involvement in a terrible accident Becoming a parent Paying bills

Catastrophes, major life events, and daily life hassles can cause stress and negatively affect a person's health. While catastrophes and major life events have more acute and immediate effects, compounded and ongoing daily hassles can result in chronic stress.

Stress Appraisal

Events thought of (or appraised) as threats result in more stress than events appraised as challenges.

In the 1980s American psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman began exploring the impact of cognitive appraisals on perceptions of stress. They introduced the idea that stress depends both on the objective nature of an event and on a person's thoughts about the event. The way a person thinks about, or appraises, an event influences their response. Events can be appraised as a threat or a challenge, with different people interpreting events in different ways based on their experiences and resources. For example, a flat tire may be a serious threat for someone who does not have the money to repair the tire or who cannot afford to be late for work. For that person, a flat tire could lead to negative physical and emotional stress responses. That same flat tire may be perceived as a minor inconvenience by someone else who has a spare tire, knows how to change it, and is in no rush. That person will see the situation as an unexpected challenge, but one they are equipped to handle. They are unlikely to have a significant stress response.

It is also possible for one person to appraise the same stimulus differently at different times. For example, Jamal has an upcoming marathon. Work has been busy and he hasn't been able to complete his planned training runs. Due to these factors, Jamal appraises the upcoming race as a threat. As a result, he feels overwhelmed and starts avoiding runs even when he has time. Eventually he drops his plans to race. A few months later, Jamal decides to train for a different marathon. This time, Jamal has the time to stay consistent with his training. Because of this, Jamal appraises the upcoming race as a manageable challenge. As a result, instead of feeling overwhelmed, he focuses on taking steps to beat his last marathon time.
People can appraise stressful events as a threat or a challenge. Threat appraisals lead to stronger stress responses.