Note: The last of our Mind and Brain series of articles is penned by Moneeza Akbar. Enjoy!
With every passing day, we are getting to hear more and more about people having difficulty in keeping up with life’s increasing pace along with the stress that it brings. The deleterious effects of stress are no mystery, but there is a need for people to understand what stress really is and its importance in daily life. The state of stress has two elements: the stimulus or the stressor, which is a situation that places a demand on the individual to confront a change or a threat, and the stress response, which is the individual’s way of dealing with that demand or threat. The stress response can be split into physiological and psychological components. The physiological response involves an arousal of the body due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This arousal is often termed as the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response or the acute stress response, and is characterized by the quickening of the heart rate and breathing, an increase in the blood pressure, and stiffening of the muscles. So, in essence, the physiological response of the body is a way for it to ‘mobilize’ all its resources and prepare itself to face the challenge (Canon 1932).
People differ in how they respond to stressful situations, and the coping strategies that they employ. The same event might cause one person to become angry, and another to be depressed. These differences may be exhibited in both the physiological and psychological response to stressors. Whether or not a particular situation will invoke a stress response in a person depends on the appraisal of the situation by the individual faced with the stressor (Lazarus, 1966) . How a person evaluates a certain situation, whether it is perceived to be threatening or not, the novelty, controllability, and predictability of the situation, all have an important role in triggering the stress response.
People also vary in the degree of physiological arousal they experience during a stress response. This physiological response to a stressor is known as stress reactivity. For example, some individuals respond to stressful events with high levels of sweating, raised blood pressure and heart rate while others show only a minimal response. Stress reactivity is considered to be dispositional and may either be genetic or due to childhood experiences.
Psychologists have suggested that there exist gender-based differences in the stress response and coping mechanism. Women tend to rate the same life events more negatively and feel a lesser degree of control as compared to men. Women list family and health-related events as stressful more frequently than men where as men list relationship, financial and work-related events more frequently as compared to women(Matud, M. Pilar, 2004).Taylor and her colleagues (Taylor et al., 2000; Taylor et al., 2002) have argued that the female stress responses are more marked by a ‘tend and befriend response’ to stress where as the primary physiological response to stress for both and men consists of the fight or flight response. Tending involves nurturing activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process. (Taylor et al., 2000, p. 411)
Stress response may also vary across cultures, because the appraisal of a particular stressor is directly influenced by the values and beliefs held by that culture. Askew and Keyes (2005) have explained that verbal expression of emotional distress would be considered deviant in more collectivist cultures, such as Korea, than in more individualist cultures, such as the United States. Also, Asian people tend to experience bodily symptoms as a part of the stress response to a higher degree. Furthermore, compared to Anglos, people from Hispanic backgrounds respond to trauma and stress with more somatic symptoms (Hulme, 1996).
It is possible to control and manage stress through effective coping strategies. These strategies might aim to reduce the physiological arousal associated with stress. One such strategy is performing relaxation exercises for example, taking deep breaths to lower ones heart rate. Because an important part of the stress response is governed by the cognitive appraisal of the situation, it is possible to alter the stress response, and hence help a person in controlling stress levels by altering his/her perception (a reappraisal) of the situation. For instance a student who has stage fright is stressed out by the idea of holding a presentation. It might be because he/she is afraid of making mistakes and what others might make of them, which causes this situation to be registered as a threatening one. A more optimistic and constructive reappraisal of the situation might relieve the stress, for instance, reassuring oneself that making a few mistakes in front of the class is alright. But then again, what works for one individual may not necessarily work for another. Stress management techniques must take into account the individual differences in stress responses in order to be effective.