MISS Term Paper

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STRESS AND COPING MODULE
This paper will focus on stimulus response theories to stress, it will touch upon the
controversy surrounding this theory and will look at other explanations to stress in
comparison.

Any of us have experienced rapid heart rate, sweaty hands, and anxiety while watching a
very suspenseful and frightening movie in the comfort of a cinema or in the security of
our own homes. These physiological responses, caused simply by viewing the images on the
screen and listening to the supporting dialogue, illustrate the intricate nerve and
hormonal linkages that exist between the body and mind. More subtly, these responses may
also occur in situations that threaten one’s psychological or physical well-being.
Public-speaking anxiety and the discomfort of embarrassment are common examples of the
more subtle mind-body responses. The linkage between the mind and the body is powerful and
has important implications for the individual’s health (Rowe & Kahn, 1998;
Pelletier, 1996). The stress response, an example of the body-mind relationship, is a
physiological and psychological reaction to the demands, real or imagined, that confront
us daily.


Dr Hans Selye (1974) defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any
demand made upon it” He has categorised those responses along a continuum ranging
from positive stress or “eustress” to negative stress “distress”.
Eustress is the emotional reaction experienced when struggling for the creative
performance in athletics or in seeking solutions to various events in our lives, which may
also be manifested in emotions of happiness, such as your best friends wedding. As stress
increases, performance follows along an inverted-U continuum. With the initial rise in
stress, the performance is enhanced. But at a certain point, the increased intensity of
the stress becomes so great that one’s performance begins to decline and distress
sets in. Distress is seen as an event or thought that is perceived to be threatening to
one’s safety of psychological well-being, such as walking alone at night in an unlit
street (Spirduso, 1995). Upon recognising a stressor, the brain initiates the stress
response by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters, creating the “fight or
flight” phenomenon where the preparation of the body to stand and fight or flee from
danger. This is an excellent example of the mind-body relationship and is seen as a common
reaction to most stressors (Spiruso, 1995). Stress hormones (catecholamines and
corticosteroids) enter the circulatory system (Pennisi, 1997). The catecholamines
epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) increases the heart rate and
blood pressure. Inhibition of the digestive system, increased muscle tension, and
depression may also result from prolonged stress.


From this view then, stress is how one feels and reacts to heavy demands. This response
might include physiological, cognitive, affective and behavioural components, and is
usually perceived by an individual as noxious. This is better explained through the
General Adaptive Syndrome model where Selye repeatedly emphasised that any condition of
stress, regardless of how it is perceived or reacted psychologically, will produce wear or
tear through the general adaptive syndrome (GAS, Selye, 1974).


A problem with the GAS model is that some stressors elicit a stronger emotional response
than others do. The theory does not take into account of psychosocial processes. A sudden
increase in temperature, for example would produce more emotion than a gradual increase.
This theory incorrectly assumes that all stressors produce the same physiological reasons
and fails to take into account of psychosocial factors in stress.

Unfortunately, because of the historic derivation of the term and the subsequent general
usage of the term as a stimulus response or process, much research into stress has not had
a clear operational definition of the concept. This is acknowledged by Compas, (1987) and
Lazarus and Folkman, (1984). In 1966 Lazarus tried to settle the problem by:

… regarding stress as a very general concept like emotion, motivation or cognition,
but organized around the meaning of transactions that tax or exceed the person’s
resources of a social system. (Lazarus et al, 1984 (p. 307)).

This definition has the advantage of concentrating upon the process, rather than the
stressors that may cause the process. However, much research does regard stress as a
stimulus and/or response and so stressful events have been the focus of much previous
research.


In contrast, some prefer to view stress as the situation of high demands and limited
sources (e.g. Cox, 1978). Others would view stress as a perceived threat where the
reflection of our own perception cannot cope with our environment, termed the cognitive
appraisal or stress-coping theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Based on this theory of
stress-coping, behavioural disturbance is conceptualised here as a stress phenomenon in
which the appraisal and coping processes are central.


From the literature much has been learned about stress. It now seems much more likely that
the third definition of the meaning of the word stress, as described by Carpenter (1992)
“…stress is best used as a general term of the total process linking demands
to reactions and other outcomes. ” (p. 2). Is one, which more adequately captures
the complexity of the concept. Questions have been raised about the adequacy of a stimulus
response model as it infers, if a stimulus, is ‘out there’, and for both
stimulus and response there is an implication that stressors contain something , which is
inherently stressful. This physiological theory to stress assumes that all stressors
produce the same physiological reactions, does not take into account of psychological
factors in stress.

Other theorists have considered stress to be a total process rather than just situational
or a response (Transactional model/cognitive appraisal). Importance needs to be given to
the process of interpretation rather than the response stressors of the nature of the
stressor. One of the main arguments for considering stress to be a process is an
acknowledgement that the effect of stress varies from person to person. For some, a
relatively minor event may have deep repercussions, whilst for others a seemingly major
event can be assimilated with no apparent consequence. It is also true that although
stressors have potential to cause stress, individuals may not perceive them in this way.
This process views stress as a series of interactions and adjustments between the person
and the environment, these are called transactions. Stress is not seen as a stimulus or a
response, but rather as a process. The person suffering stress is seem as an active agent
who can influence the impact of a stressor through behavioural, cognitive and emotional
strategies.

Adams et al (1976) describes this in the biophysical experiences of stress where a number
of factors are taken into account. The biophysical stress tolerance of an individual is
not constant and varies according to the novelty of the situation, and as a result of the
person’s life history and general state of health. As with the concept of general
ability there will be genetically determined limits of tolerance. Another factor is the
number of stressful events operating at the one time, the importance of the event to the
individual and the duration of the stress (p. 15). Thus, as an individual’s response
to stress is seemingly determined by their perception and interpretation of it. Thence a
good definition of stress would be that stress is a condition that results when the
person/environment transactions lead the individual to perceive a discrepancy-whether real
or not-between the demands of a situation and the resources of the persons biological,
psychological, or social system. Success and failure in previous transactions would
determine the amount of stress perceived.

The stimulus-based approaches do not take into consideration of the many factors that can
affect our pattern of response to stress. These psychosocial modifiers of stress are
listed

below.
Personality characteristics may effect the chance of a stressor being perceived as
distressful, or may serve to decrease the effects of distress. Kobasa (1981) termed the
personality type that encourages positive cognitive appraisal of events, and decisive
interaction with stressful events that is aimed at terminating distress responses as
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