Stress and Coping




Issues of Definition

The physiology of stress
           General Adaptation syndrome
Cognitive Transactional models

The role of personality in Stress and Coping

East and West: Now the they meet   
           Behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy
           The relaxation Response: A personal guide

Acculturative Stress and Adjustment



Stress and Coping


Issues of Definition

What is stress?  Ask yourself this question and write down an answer. Also think about what you do to cope with that stress, write it down too. (Later try this stress indicator BPSHI)  Stressors

Poole et al. suggest that we each have our own understanding of what is stress and coping but what really is it? They cite Smith (1993) on the concept of stress literacy which pertains to our knowledge and understanding of stress. Essentially our understanding of stress is based upon common or shared use of the concept in everyday life. But how does it measure up to empirical analysis? 

One of the central problems in psychology is the operational definition. Which enables us to provide a precise definition of psychological concepts like stress, but each researcher tends to use a different definition which leads us back to the problem of it being multifaceted or multidimensional.  

Hans Selye (1936) is recognised as the first researcher to clearly define stress. For him is was a non-specific, or general, demand on the body and its systems whose effect may be psychological or somatic. He clarified the term as being of two type: eustress and distress

Eustress pertains to physiological and psychological reactions of a positive nature that place some demand on the mind-body systems. Distress pertains to similar demands that are of a more negative or damaging nature. 

Richard Lazarus has more recently defined coping as cognitive and behavioural responses to stress that  are aimed at lessening or managing it or its sources. 

These models of stress and coping understand the as a set of psycho-physiological processes built around the notion of homeostasis or balance.  The early work of Walter Cannon (1939) on emotional reactions that described the flight or fight response is where it all begins. This is seen as an evolutionary adaptation to remove us from danger through the activation of our sympathetic nervous system

While there is a common physiological response, Poole et al. cite researchers who contend that behaviourally men and women tend to respond differently. They suggest that women "tend and befriend" while men may be more prone to lashing out or getting angry.  

They identify the interpretive or psychological aspects of determining the importance of a stressor (stressful stimulus). 


The Physiology of Stress

Review the nervous system, CNS & PNS, ANS as well as the endocrine system

The hypothalamus is central to the stress response where it plays a role in the ANS and the endocrine systems. It has an important role in the maintenance of homeostasis of the body and is important to eating, drinking, emotions, and sexuality. It plays an agonistic role in activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the fight or flight response. 

This response involves the activation of the adrenal medulla which leads to the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Adrenaline is fast-acting and increases heat-rate, and blood-pressure while noradrenaline is more slowly acting, increasing with physical activity. 

The emotional system or limbic system is also activated during a stress response along with the reticular formation  that is involved in the processing of sensory information through selective attention.  

The parasympathetic nervous system is antagonistic to the sympathetic where it is responsible for relaxation and returning the body to a more placid state following SNS activation.  <view>

Thepituitary gland is the master gland that controls the endocrine system. It is much slower than the ANS. Primarily the stress response involves the release of Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) that stimulates the adrenal cortex to release a host of other stress hormones. 

Some of these are glucocorticoids (e.g., cortisol) that leads to the release of glucose from the burning of fats and proteins. In time the body will break down with prolonged high levels of this hormone. Others are mineralocorticoids (e.g., aldosterone) which raises blood pressure and affect mineral levels. 

Activation of the thyroid gland leads to increased levels of thyroxine and the burning of fatty-acids, as well as increases in blood pressure and respiration rate. 

The pancreas is also activated where it secretes insulin and glucagon for the metabolism of sugars and increase of sugars in the blood, respectively. 

Figure 1.2 (Sulsky & Smith, 2005, p. 16)


          General Adaptation Syndrome

Selye (1956) described the general adaptation syndrome as a generalised response to prolonged stress. This three stage response involves alarm, resistance and exhaustion.  GAS

Alarm is when the fight-or-flight response is initiated to combat  the stressor as the body engages in a first defense. Generally if one's alarm reaction is successful the body returns to a homeostatic balance.  

Resistance involves the secondary response when the stressor moves from acute to chronic. Here a prolonged adaptive response is made where the body continues the fight against the stressor, gradually running out of ammunition. Diseases of adaptation emerge here (e.g., cardiovascular, ulcers, immuno-infections, etc.). Profile figure

Exhaustion is the third phase of stress response once the body's resistance breaks down and can no longer maintain it's state of readiness. Death may be imminent if homeostasis cannot be achieved. 

This model is largely physiological and does not place a great deal of emphasis on psychological or social factors. 

The diathesis-stress model has also emerged that suggests there are genetic pre-dispositions and environmental stressors that combine to manifest as disease (or not). 

Marks et al. (2015) report that excessive sympathetic activity contributes to CHD (CVD), diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, while excessvie parasympathetic activity contributes to GI disorders (dyspepsia, ulcers & colitis).

Cognitive Transactional models

These models make use of the psychological or cognitive components in responses to stressors. Lazarus & Folkman (1984) describe cognitive appraisal as playing an important role in the moderation of stressors. Here they describe three types of appraisals that play a role in the interpretation, adjustment and readjustment to stressors.  

Primary Appraisals are those cognitions that determine whether a stimulus is irrelevant, benign-positive or stressful. This appraisal may determine that the stimulus is of no concern of that it is a challenge or a threat that is likely to lead to harm or loss.  

Secondary appraisals involve one's evaluation of one's ability to cope or respond to the stressor. This may involve consideration of options and possible outcomes, a sense of efficacy and skill, as well as one's ability to control or manipulate a situation. 

Reappraisals involve the re-evaluation of primary or secondary appraisals where similar or different result may arise.  Defensive reappraisal may arise when one alters a previous appraisal as less threatening or more positive. 

Poole et al also identify a number of other characteristics that may play a role here such as vulnerability, or one's adequacy of response to a stressor. The roles of personal and situational factors are also important in appraisal along with commitments and beliefs. 

Novelty, or previous experience and predictability may be important in appraisal as well as imminence and duration of the stressor or threat . 


The role of Personality in Stress and Coping

Type A vs. Type B personalities where A is prevalent in those who are prone to coronary heart disease (CHD). Type is is characterised by:  time urgency, impatience, competitive, aggressive and hostile.  Type B, in contrast, is characterised by: relaxation, no time urgency or hostility. 

Research has shown that type A is indeed more prone to CHD and that hostility is central, however social dominance, or a style of controlling social situations and speech, is also an important predictor. 

Poole et al. identify the need to clarify the risk factors in CHD in order that lifestyle and behavioural modifications can be made to combat these killer diseases. 

Other aspects of health psychology are relevant to CHD


Coping involves the intentional behavioural or cognitive adjustments that are initiated to moderate the effects of stressors.  It is directed at the goal of reducing or eliminating the stressors or its effects, producing a coping outcome

 Problem-focused coping involves the redefinition of a situation or alternatives.  This may be proactive, targeting the stressor and attempting to eliminate it before it has an impact. It may also involve combative coping where the adjustment is made to reduce the stressor or its effects after it has had an impact. 

Emotion-Focused coping involves an attempt to reduce emotional distress through controlling the event or reinterpreting the meaning of the stressor.

Personal resources and social support may be enlisted as part of the coping action.  Social support may involve informational support, emotional support, or tangible support.  

The stress-buffering hypothesis involves the assumption that social support buffers or reduces the stress experienced rather than simply enhancing one's general well-being. 

Personal control may also play an important role in coping where a sense of efficacy and resilience may enhance one's ability to adjust to the stressor. 

Stress management techniques such relaxation may be invoked, having a hypometabolic impact. 

The third man factor- people under intense stress (often life or death situations) will experience the "presence" or a third person.  Listen to CBC the current Jan 27, 2009.  The phenomenon is not fully understood and appears to be a right brain phenomenon, a form of coping.


Other Common forms of Coping

Self Healing Personality
Hardiness - characterized by a trilogy of traits
- 1) commitment- a sense of purpose with respect to family, career, religion
- 2) challenge - an interest in taking on new experiences that may be difficult
- 3) control - confidence in one's own power to be an important influence

Finding meaning through one's stress and potential suffering - Logtherapy - Victor Frankl

Optimism and Hope -Cousins (1989) 'hope' & positive expectations can release endorphins .    

Social Support & dogs -having people around you to offer conversation and emotional support is greatly beneficial, as is having a dog or pet to care for & socialize with.

Bio-Psycho-Social Model of Stress
Considers primary and secondary appraisal, etiology and alleviation of stress to be in the biological, psychological and social sphere of living.


            East and West: Now the they meet   

Poole et al. identify early research studies that examined the effects of yogic practices on physiological functioning. While certain claims are made by yogis that they are able to slow down the heart they may actually be increasing its function to the point of atrial fibrilation


Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) involves techniques to use imagery to relax the body in various stages accompanied by deep rhythmic breathing. 

Meditation involves similar processes surrounding the focus of attention or thought. 

Mindfulness and focusing on important details, being in the moment.

Biofeedback involves the use of electrical devices that signal the function of the body in order that one may, somehow, control those functions such as blood pressure or  muscular tension.

            Behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy

These techniques may be used to alter one's overt behavioural responses or one's cognitive processes as part of the interpretation of the stressor. 

Systematic desensitization is a behavioural technique used to reduce anxiety over some target stimulus (e.g., spiders or snakes). 

Modeling is also a behavioural technique that involves observation of someone positively adjusting to a stressor, where participant modeling is a specific technique used to mimic the modeled behaviours. 

            The relaxation Response: A personal guide - See text

Acculturative Stress and Adjustment

Acculturation refers to the ongoing processes of adjustment that follow the continuous first hand contact of people from two or more cultural groups.

Berry et al (1989) have studied acculturative stress in a variety of populations through a modified physiological stress test. The Cawte test is a short form of the Cornell Medical index that focuses on physiological and psychological symptoms as  a self-report measure of stress (due to acculturation).

Some researchers have challenged the concept of acculturative stress, suggesting that everyday stress is no different and that perhaps daily hassles are really the source of problems faced by those undergoing acculturation.

Acculturative Stress among Immigrant Youth & International Students (BPSHI)
Factors invovled in acculturative stress