Stress and Emotions
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 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.
Individual Differences in Responses to Stress
Odds of Having Hypertension
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.