Stress, Coping, and Health Psychology

Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Stress

Stress and Emotions

Stress often triggers maladaptive behaviors, behaviors that are socially unacceptable or interfere with a person's ability to function in daily life or learn new things, such as substance use. However, stress can also lead to stronger relationships and personal growth.

Although stress often produces distress, stress can also have some positive effects. In the short term, stress can motivate a person to take action (e.g., rushing to the aid of someone drowning). Stress can also enhance performance for tasks that require a high level of arousal. For example, the tension of waiting at the starting line of a race leaves a runner poised to spring from the starting blocks.

In the long term, exposure to minor stressors can make people more resilient. Handling small problems allows people to develop coping skills that will prepare them to handle more serious problems in the future. Even major stressors, such as a serious diagnosis or the death of a loved one, can lead people to develop a stronger sense of life purpose. However, not everyone sees benefits in their stressful experiences. People who actively seek out ways to learn or grow from stress are more likely to report finding a silver lining in the experience.

The psychological and emotional response to stress has the potential to be negative or positive. When people respond negatively to stress, they tend to engage in maladaptive behaviors—behaviors that are socially unacceptable or interfere with a person's ability to function in daily life or learn new things—such as withdrawal, isolation, and aggression. Additionally, negative emotional responses to stress can lead to rumination—continued attention to the causes and symptoms of one's distress without considering solutions to it. Girls and women are more likely than boys and men to ruminate about problems. Boys and men are more likely to try to distract themselves from problems by doing something fun. Rumination is a strong predictor of depression and may partially explain why rates of depression are higher for girls and women.

Coping

Coping responses that target a specific problem or emphasize emotion regulation are more effective than avoidant coping or venting.

Coping strategies can focus either on the source of the stress itself or on regulating one's own response to the stressor. Coping strategies addressing the source of the stress are called problem-focused coping. In general, problem-focused coping predicts good adjustment to stress. This is particularly true for stressors that are at least somewhat controllable. For example, people can handle a major presentation at work by preparing carefully. Problem-focused coping is less helpful for stressors that aren't solvable, such as a romantic breakup.

Coping strategies focused on regulating emotions or unpleasant physical arousal are called emotion-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping includes strategies such as distraction, exercise, meditation, spiritual practices, and seeking social support. These types of strategies typically predict lower levels of stress. Emotion-focused coping also includes strategies such as avoidance, denial, and venting emotions. Although many people use those responses at least occasionally, relying heavily on them predicts anxiety and depression.

Psychoanalytic theory proposed that catharsis, the intense release of pent up negative emotions, would reduce stress. Psychoanalytic therapists encouraged venting emotions by screaming into pillows or punching a mattress. Research indicates that venting anger does not reduce stress and may actually make people feel even angrier. Although catharsis is intended to be helpful, it is actually categorized as a maladaptive, emotion-focused coping strategy.

People often use multiple coping strategies in response to a single stressor. For example, one student preparing for an exam may study, exercise, and meditate. Studying is a problem-focused strategy that will reduce stress by leaving the student well-prepared for the exam. Making time for exercise and meditation will help reduce the physical arousal and emotional distress caused by the exam. Another student may try to avoid thinking about the exam and try to relax by drinking alcohol. These emotion-focused strategies may provide temporary relief from anxiety but will do nothing to address the source of stress. In the long run, stress will increase when the student has to cram for the exam or deal with a poor grade.

Social Support

Social support predicts emotional well-being and health by offering tangible resources and opportunities to express emotions and encouraging healthy behaviors.

Historically, stress researchers have focused on the fight-or-flight response. However, in recent decades, researchers have noticed that many people rely on a socially focused response. In this tend-and-befriend response, a person under stress seeks or provides social support. This response reduces the physical and emotional consequences of stress and strengthens relationships. Through these relationships, people often gain insight into how to deal with their stress more effectively or feel a sense of personal growth and recovery.

There are a number of important benefits that result from cultivating social relationships and reaching out to friends or family in times of need. For example, being affiliated with a particular social group (friends, family, a religious organization, a sports club, etc.) increases a person's sense of belonging, improves self-esteem, enhances mood, and creates feelings of comfort. In addition, social groups or networks typically provide several important resources that can help manage stress. For example, many churches provide grief counseling or meetings where people who have lost a loved one can gather to discuss their loss.

Social support also has a protective effect—people with strong social support are less susceptible to the negative effects of stress overall. Social support predicts lower blood pressure, lower stress hormones, and a stronger immune response. Social support does not have to come from friends or family. Even owning a pet (which can provide comfort, relaxation, and companionship) can have this same positive influence on how people experience and cope with stress.

Individual Differences in Responses to Stress

Type A personality, pessimism, and an external locus of control amplify the impact of stress, whereas type B personality, optimism, an internal locus of control, and hardiness reduce the impact of stress.
Many factors influence individual differences in responses to stress. These factors include personality, explanatory style, and locus of control, or the degree to which people believe they have control over the outcome of events in their lives. Some of the earliest research linking personality traits to stress responses focused on type A and type B personalities. Type A personality is characterized by competitiveness, self-criticism, time urgency, and hostility. Type B personality is characterized by agreeableness, self-reflection, and an easygoing approach to life. In the 1970s cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, found that people with type A personalities were at higher risk of hypertension and heart disease than those with type B personalities. Angry responses to stressful situations appear to be the core cause of the increased disease risk for type A personalities. Their angry reactivity both brings more stress into their lives and places strain on their bodies because they spend more time in fight-or-flight mode. Over time, those fight-or-flight responses strain the cardiovascular system. There are also other personality traits that influence responses to stress. The personality trait of neuroticism involves being highly aware of potential threats and being quick to experience negative emotions. People high in neuroticism report experiencing more stressful events and react more strongly to that stress than people low in neuroticism.

Odds of Having Hypertension

This graph shows how the odds of having hypertension, abnormally high blood pressure, increase along with the type A personality traits of time urgency, hostility, and competitiveness.
Explanatory style (also called attributional style) refers to how people perceive the causes of events in their lives. There are three components of explanatory style: stability (stable or unstable), locality (global or local), and internality (internal or external). Optimists are likely to interpret negative events as unstable (likely to change), local (specific to one situation), and external (caused by something other than themselves). An optimistic student may explain a bad grade on a test as a freak occurrence in a single subject due to a terrible professor who wrote an overly hard exam. Pessimists are likely to interpret negative events as stable (unlikely to change), global (influencing many situations in their life), and internal (their own fault). A student with this explanatory style would see the bad grade as evidence that they will fail this class and get terrible grades in all their classes because they are not smart enough to succeed in college. Overall, students with a stable, global, internal explanatory style react more strongly to stress and are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

The extent to which a person feels they have control over their own lives also influences stress responses. People with an internal locus of control feel they can directly shape outcomes. As a result, they often look for ways to change or reduce their stressful situations. People with an external locus of control feel helpless, seeing themselves as at the mercy of fate or other people. They are less likely to use active problem-solving strategies and so experience more stress as a result. Locus of control is related to the concept of learned helplessness, a persistent sense of powerlessness learned by experiencing uncontrollable negative events. The original research on learned helplessness involved studying caged dogs. Dogs were kept in cages that delivered a mild shock. Some dogs could escape the shock by moving to another part of the cage. Other dogs were unable to escape the shock. Those dogs learned to passively tolerate the shock. Later, when their cage changed to allow escape, they continued to accept the shock. They had learned that they were helpless and continued to behave that way even once they were able to exert control. People who have grown up with uncontrollable problems, such as having abusive parents or living in poverty, may learn that they are helpless to shape their fate. By the time they are old enough to make changes, they have internalized the lesson that there is no point in trying. Learned helplessness is a strong predictor of depression.