The Nature Of Stress Psychology Essay

Pressure is a useful component to make one achieve all works and keep one motivated. But the paradox of pressure is such that it may also create stress which may challenge performance. The term ‘Stress’ is frequently used in everyday life. Hearing the word ‘Stress’, makes us first think of something unpleasant, something menacing and beyond our control. Stress is ubiquitous and has become an integral part of everyday living, an unavoidable consequence of modern living. Stress is a condition of damage that has a direct attitude on feeling, thought process and physical conditions of a person. One allocates causes of many accidents, diseases, early deaths, suicides, depressions and tensions to stress.

Nature of Stress

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The word ‘Stress ‘ is among the most widely used words today. It is such commonly used that we know exactly what it is and how it affects us. In a fast developing world with constant and rapid changes in technology which requires adaptation by people, who are actually changing in terms of habits, culture and social life. Too much change, too rapidly can often be a main source of stress and imbalance in our lives. Everybody has to adapt to such a quick-moving life, including organizations, and the Government. Stress is a complex occurrence. In addition it is difficult to calculate the amount of loss it causes to the Economy (Schmidt,2001). Nobody can be immune against stress. As stated by Cummings and Cooper (1998), a further complication arises in stress research in that four quite different disciplines (medicine, psychology, sociology and management), have been involved in research in this area, each of which has their own distinct methodology and paradigm. It may seem odd but stress is a fundamental thing in our lives. From the field of psychology, stress may is defined as an unpleasant state of emotional and physiological arousal that people experience in situations that they perceive as dangerous or threatening to their well-being.(Auerbach et al., 2007/Encarta 2008)

What Causes Stress?

Here there is a need for dissociation between two ideas; namely what causes stress and what are the causes of stress. For the purpose of that part we are analyzing the part of literature which identifies the elements or the key components which makes stress happen.

Stress occurs as an inevitable consequence of our relations with our constantly changing environment we have to adapt to (Looker and Gregson, 1993). The word ‘stress’ is a word drawn from a German word “Stringere” meaning to draw tight. The term in itself was introduced in medicine by Hans Selye in 1949 (Selye, 1976,1986). According to his definition, stress is a way of physical adaptation to new circumstances, a reply to irritations that disturb the individual balance (Luban, Plozza and Pozzi, 1994). Another literature foundation affirms that the word stress was first applied in physics for designating the mechanical force. It denotes the exterior pressure, tension, and load upon an object (Newhouse, 2000).

Some writers perceive stress as an external ‘life event’ or series of events. More precisely, they see stress as a stimulus. However all researchers do not share the same view of stress. Aronson et al. (2002:510) views stress from a more socio-psychological perspective and hence defines stress as ‘The negative feelings and beliefs that arise whenever people feel unable to cope with demands from their environment’. A widely effective definition brought by Koontz & Weilhrich, defines stress as an adaptive response , reconciled by individual differences and/or psychological processes, which is a consequence of any external (environmental) action, situation or event that places excessive psychological and/or physical demands on a person (Koontz & Weihrich, 1990, p. 260).

The study of stress begins with a complexity of explanation. Williams (1994) describes ‘Stress’ as “one of the most inaccurate words in the scientific literature” because it is used to describe “both the sources and the effects of the stress process.” Mac Lean (1985) observes that “the word is sometimes used to denote stressful events, sometimes to denote the effect of these events on work performance, and sometimes to denote an individual’s reaction in terms of disordered health.” This uncertainty floods much of the literature. Not only is there “divergence about the meaning of them, ” there is “disagreement about how it should be measured and there is a “lack of understanding about quite how aspects of environment might actually make a person ill” (Marmot and Madge, 1987).

These issues about the essential nature of stress preoccupied, not to say stressed, many researchers, during the seventies and the eighties as they tried to determine whether stress was a characteristics of the environment, an experience felt by the person, or a transactional phenomenon created by the process of the person interacting with the environment” (Schuler and Jackson, 1986). As of 1971, Lazarus had observed that stress referred to such a great variety of harms: “any

demands which tax the system, whatever it is, a physiological system, a social system or psychological system, and the response of that system.”

This was evidently an extensive field for research, to the point that many researchers “concluded that the concept of stress is no longer useful as a scientific construct” (Schuler and Jackson, 1986). Ten years later the word is still very much in use and there is a greater consensus about its meaning.

Ivanchevich and Matteson (1993) define stress simply as “an interaction of the individual to his or her environment”. Cooper (1996) ,going in the same direction of thought, defines stress as “any force that pushes a psychological or physical factor beyond its range of stability, producing a strain within the individual”. Salas, Driskell and Hughes (1996) defines stress, by taking into consideration the sources of stress, process by which perceived demands exceeds, resources and that results in undesirable psychological, physiological, behavioural and social outcomes.

Aronson et al. (2005:510) further accentuates on this view as they adopt a more socio-psychological approach and defines stress as ‘The negative feelings and beliefs that arises whenever people feel they are unable to cope with demands from their environment. It is interesting how divergence is instinctive upon the real nature of understanding of stress. Furthermore analyzing this, Selye derived emphasis predominantly on situations and the demands and stress potential each has. Specifically the above academics categorizes the environment and the demands emanating from the following as the main form of stress factor.

Categories of Stress
Traumatic Stress

The main type of stress is Traumatic Stress. As its name indicates it is the situation whereby an individual is exposed to traumatic confrontations in life. Such exposure is known to cause damage not only to victims but also to the framework of professionals who help traumatized people, such as emergency services employees. Being exposed to extensive traumatic incidents may lead to warning signs like disturbing memories of the event, loss of concern and feelings, evasion of circumstances related to the event, and insomnia followed with problems for concentrating. Perseverance of the symptoms associated with traumatic events may initiate a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is often found in victims of tragedies and of severe criminal nature. A statistical research demonstrates that over 95% of women who have been raped have showed signs and symptoms of PSTD two weeks after the rape. Besides 50% are still analyzed to be undergoing PSTD three months after the rape (Foa and Riggs, 1995). Victims of criminal acts may also report PSTD symptoms several weeks after their victimization (Ainsworth, 2000:36). The most frequent symptoms that victims of PSTD may experience are nightmares, sleep disturbances, flashbacks and general or specific anxiety (Shipherd and Beck, 1999). Members of the emergency services (e.g. fire services, Health Services, Scene of Crime Officers, etc.) are more prone to experience symptoms of PSTD as opposed to an individual with a relatively routine life. However it is also true that an individual with an regular life may experience that which is called Routine Stress.

Routine Stress

Another form of stress is Routine Stress. As its name indicates, routine stress occurs when people are confronted to everyday occurrences which results in symptoms of stress. Research being conducted extensively in military, nursing and teaching identifies that these categories of occupations normally tend to result in Routine Stress for its employees. Routine stress is normally analyzed in the category of occupational/job stress.

‘Good’ Stress v/s Bad Stress: The Construct of Eustress and Distress

Eustress, or also known as ‘Good Stress’ is a term which was first introduced by Selye (1964,1987). Selye argued that there is a part which is good with stress. Explaining that Stress taxes the body to evaluate a situation and hence react to it. As a result if an individual sees a situation as being stressful, this might as well be motivating to perform a specific action. For example if a student feels stressed about an examination, this stress felt will motivate the individual to revise and get prepared for the paper. In that sense Stress always sensed as being bad for people is hence transformed into ‘good’ Stress. Haris (1970) goes to the extent of equating eustress as pleasure and Edwards and Cooper (1988) defined Eustress with pleasure, perceptions and desires. Stressful situations can may be highly influencing in ‘fostering creativity and resourcefulness in times of dire need when the situation initially seem intolerable, impractical, and unattainable (Anderson et al., 1995).

As opposed to this Distress or bad stress is that level of stress which degrades the performance or coping capacity of a person. According to Selye (1964), distress is a state beyond Eustress and that phase of transition from Eustress and Distress differs from individual to individual. It follows that distress is primarily a result of negative perceptions of stressors. The concept of optimal level of stress is introduced by the Law of Yerkes Dodson which indicates that increasing stress is beneficial to performance until some optimum level is reached, after which performance will decline, the familiar U-diagram (Benson and Allen 1980; Certo 2003). Selye (1987) further accentuates the clarification of Yerkes and Dodson (1908) work by stating that the distressful or eustressful nature of any particular stimulus is governed by how one interprets it and how he/she reacts to such it. Whether a demand on an individual is perceived as a positive stressor or a negative one will only depend on the characteristic of the stressor. It is also true that the study of stressors characteristics remains visibly missing in literature. However, with materials from general literature, it may be believed that the categorization of a stressor as being Eustress or distress will depend on the timing, the demand is imposed. Another component identified is the demand itself, whether it has been externally (boss, parents, friend, norms, law) or internally imposed by the individual. Furthermore Selye (1987) enhances his evaluation by giving a sense of judging a stressor, which he termed as Positive Emotions. It may take forms of gratitude, hope or goodwill, and these are likely to maximize Eustress and minimize distress. On the other hand reacting with negative emotions (e.g. hatred, hopelessness, anger, or the urge to revenge) may be regarded as fueling stress into distress (Selye, 1987). Making the link pragmatically, Simmons and Nelson (2001) used the positive psychological states of hope, positive effects, and significance as indicators of Eustress. The general proposal was more recently sustained by Goleman (1995) under the term of emotional intelligence.

Acute v/s Chronic Stress

Stress can also take the structure of acute or chronic stress. Acute stress may be brief or transitory, yet it can help or obstruct the performance (Hess & Wrobleski, 2006). When an individual is dealing with a risky or demanding situation, one will perceive an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity, breathing, breathing, and metabolic rate (Champion & Hooper, 2003).

Chronic Stress

Chronic Stress, as the name indicates, is continuous and viewed to be persistent. Chronic stress is mainly devastating as it causes serious physical, emotional, behavioural, physiological, psychological and cognitive problems that can be rather intense and destructive if not dealt with in a appropriate way. Individuals who work under stressful conditions tend to be more cynical, frustrated, and emotionally and physically fatigued (Manzoni & Eisner, 2006).

Vicarious Stress

Vicarious Stress, though sparsely found in overall literature has been quite explained by academics. It is known that professionals (psychologists, counselors and therapists) while listening to clients’ realities and facts of dreadful natures, pain and suffering may themselves experience the pain and suffering. Therapists who have worked with victims of rape or sexually abused children may not only show signs of post traumatic nature but might as well develop ‘paranoid’ reactions concerning their personal security. To work with violence survivors can be exhaustive. Psychoanalysts often undergo sensations of failure and despair or even depression. In such cases, even the defense armour may not be helpful. Defensiveness can avoid suitable absorption of feelings and soaking up the client’s suffering may also result in adverse reactions in the counselor. Such a type of stress, or second victimization is the result of inquiring about a distressing event experienced by another. This phenomenon is often known as ‘compassion fatigue’.

What are stressors?

The instances that causes stress are called stressors. Stressors vary in harshness and duration. For example the responsibility of taking care of a baby may be an ongoing source of major stress, whereas getting stuck in a traffic jam may only be mild, short-termed stress. Some events. such as the death of a loved one, are stressful for everyone. However it is also true that a stressful situation may not be stressful for one person and might not for another. For example a student who has walked in an examination unprepared for a test may be stressed and the other student who has been preparing for long and consequently confident may have a relatively low level of stress. In the eyes of a particular individual, for a situation to be judged as being a stressor, the appraisal of the situation is done against the capacity to withstand pressure or the lack of coping resources to deal with it. We have all come across different kind of stressors knowingly or unknowingly. Some of them are biological (heat, cold, toxins), some sociological (unemployment, getting divorced, birth of a child), others psychological (threat to self-esteem, depression), and still others philosophical (use of time, purpose of life). In any of these cases, without considering the stressor, the body’s reaction will be the same (Greenberg,1990).

Stressors are most regular to our life engage to adjustment to change or the occurrence of everyday hassles. Richard Rahe and Thomas Holmes (1967), the more important changes a person had in his/her life, the more chances will be that he/she contracts some psychological or physical illness. Since they perceived stress as adapting to change, Holmes and Rahe viewed more change to more stress and as a result, more illness and diseases. Below is a figure showing the link between a stressor and stress as well as outlining the symptoms experienced.



A Response to the External Event:

Increased Blood Pressure

Elevated Heart Rate

Dilated Pupils

An external demand or Event:

Extreme Temperature

Extreme lighting

Lack of Sleep

Figure 1.1

Reactions to Stress

As people report undergoing stress, they frequently complain of a variety of physical signs. These are normally in the form of indigestion to stomach ulcers and from tiredness to depression. The main rationale behind this occurring is the fact that the human body reacts physically to stress. Since our evolution, the human race have survived by reacting to dangers in some ways or another. When faced with a threat, humans’ bodies tend to respond by changing the levels of a number of important bodily chemicals (e.g. adrenaline). This has been referred to as the flight or fight response (Murphy 1988). This term refers to the fact that, when confronted with a perilous situation, the body conditions us to be able to stand and fight off the threat or to run away from the danger. The flight-or-flight response involves both the upper (cortex) and lower (sub-cortex) portion of the brain. The higher centres use judgment and past experiences to distinguish the stimulus as threatening or non-aggressive, influencing perception and reaction to the stressor. The lower centres are engaged in control of heart rate, breathing rate and depth, body temperature, and are involved in the emotional response to the stressor. While the emotional response to stress may vary widely, the psychological reaction to a stressor is always the same.

Personality types and Stress

Some people are more successful in facing stressful circumstances, whereas others react to them with a greater magnitude of stress. This question arises, what is it that differentiates people from one another with a view to their ability to handle stress? In exploration of this answer , the following dimensions will help in the elucidation of the question:

Individual self-perception and power;

Locus of Control;

Type A/B behavioural pattern;

Flexibility v/s Rigidity

Individual Self-Perception and Power

Self-perception, that is, how a person perceives himself/herself, may it be in a positive or negative way, affects the way an individual deals with stressful situations in everyday life. One of the important features of self-perception is self-esteem referring to good or bad opinion about oneself. People who fall in the category of positive and reasonably accurate concept of “self” have high self-esteem. They believe in their capabilities and they believe in their capabilities and prospective, thus act accordingly. Self-esteem seem to moderate how one respond to stressors (Nowack,1986). People with low self-confidence tend to have more intensive reactions to high stress than those with higher self-confidence (Davies et al.,2000).

Locus of Control

Some individuals believe in the ability of controlling their fate, though others believe that what happens to them is purely by chance or luck in their lives. The first category, that is, those who consider that they control their destinies, have been labeled internals. The second category, those who see their lives as being directed by outer forces, have been called externals. An individual’s view of the source of his/her fate is termed as locus of control. Internals manifest stress in different ways from the externals.

Internals- Internals under stressful situations, tend to believe that they can have a considerable effect on the outcomes as well as on the consequences of the stress circumstances effecting them. Thus they tent to take control over events.

Externals- Externals faced with stressful situations are more likely to be passive, and defensive. Instead of doing something to diminish stress, they comply to it. So externals are also more likely to experience stress that these coping with it with a greater courage and confidence (Davies et al., 2000).

Type A and B behavioural pattern

While conducting a research about stress, two cardiologists, Friedman and Rosenman, divided people into type A and type B. According to the two researchers, people of type A are three times more likely to have a stroke or a heart attack than those in type B, even if they are doing a work of the same nature or similar living conditions. Type A individuals are action and results oriented. They tend to be very competitive, impatient with others and irritated when they find hurdles which prevent them from achieving their goals (Anderson et al.,1977; Fusilier et al., 1987) Type B behavioural patterns manifest the opposite. Type B individuals exhibits a personality type of a less aggressive, less competitive and more relaxed nature. They rarely demonstrate high levels of emotion even in a crisis or emergency (Hellriegel and Slocum, 2004).

Flexibility v/s Rigidity

Flexible people experience different stressors and have different stress reactions than rigid people (Davis et al., 2000; Pettinger, 2002). It is normal for flexible personalities that they are relatively adaptive to change, rather free and open and receptive towards others. They may show some incapacity to take decisions because they may struggle more with decision. The flexible person does not have a straightforward stiff rules for managing situations. The rigid individual is closed-minded, generally strict towards life. Normally having a preference for neatness and orderliness, they are also insensitive about others. They also tend to be critical in judging others, and are not very tolerant and understandable of others’ flaws and weaknesses.


Definition of Occupational Stress

Work may be identified as one of the location which people spends the greatest amount of time all their lives. As a result of increased demands of an economy on its working population, a greater amount of time is spent at work. Consequently considering the sources of stress at the workplace is an vital issue. Fletcher (1988) stated “the work environment includes a constellation of psychological factors which are likely to interact in different ways in different jobs for different people. Epidemiological methods cannot reveal such interactions: that is a limitation of discipline, not of the methodologies”. Even though the words ‘occupational stress’, ‘work stress’, and ‘job stress’ being quite popularly used in various literatures in scientific literatures of the 1990s, the scientific community has not yet reached a concensus upon the meaning and definition of occupational stress. Beerh and Newman (1990) have described work stress as ‘a condition arising from the interaction of people and their jobs and characterized by changes within people that forces them to deviate from their natural functioning. Occupational stress symbolizes a real threat to quality of life for employees (Danna and Griffin, 1999; Dyck, 2001). Furthermore stress in the workplace represents a potential loss of talent for organizations as top performers disengage from work where occupational stress, its causes, symptoms and sequel are prevalent (Cartwright and Boyes, 2000). Interestingly, rather than engaging in procedures to reduce occupational stress, organizations are trying hard to optimize stress to keep employees performing optimally, through eustress. As stated in the previous chapter, Selye has introduced this term which indicates stress which motivates people to achieve their goals.

One definition of occupational stress suggests that the main causes of stress which pose a threat to the individual is the features of the job. Pressure may come from excessive work demands or lacking capacities to meet the needs of employees. In any organization, or nature of a job, when an employee is confronted with too much work in a short period of time, job overload is the outcome. According to Rice (1992)Supply deficits concerns things employees expect from their jobs: adequate salary, job satisfaction, and promotion or growth on the job.

Occupational stress being a worldwide situation is not only detrimental to the individual but also costs money to the economy as a whole. From a statistical research made, it has been found that 10 percent of the gross national product of UK is lost due to occupational stress in the form of sickness absence, high labour turnover, lost productive value, increased recruitment and selection cost medical expenses (Arnold, Cooper & Robertson, 1998, p. 442). Following the year 1970s, a survey carried out in the UK, reported by Ibid (p.427), that time due as a result of work being pending because of stress-related illnesses was far more than time losses due to work stoppages and strikes. More recently a study from the USA depicts that occupational stress-related expenses reaches a total of one hundred and fifty billion dollars annually ($150 billion).

Theories of Occupational Stress

As occupational stress if far becoming a deficiency in organizational structure, it is important to understand it through different school of thoughts. According to Cooper and Payne (1992) it is vital to cope with occupational stress on both the macro (organizational, structural, political) and micro (individual, dyadic, triadic) levels.


Psychological Theories

With respect to the work of ,Quinlan and Bohle (1991) and later by Quinlan and Johnstone (1993), importance is being made on the fact that understanding the causes occupational injury and illness needs to be viewed under the medical perspective. Accentuating on technological interventions rather than environmental change, the medical model, under various psychological theories, has been very dominant upon the understanding of implications of occupational injuries and illnesses and how to deal with them. As brought in by Biggins (1986) the medical model was criticized on grounds of having the treatment of workers affected by stress-related illnesses as main focus rather than on constructing healthy working environments. Proponents of these models have variously blamed the job, blamed the equipment, blamed the worker, and blamed management (Cooper, 1995; Kenny 1995; Habeck, 1993; Quinlan, 1988; Willis, 1994). Such theories have generated a substantial amount of research searching for assumed factors responsible for occupational stress. Personality and organizational framework have been identified as the major culprits. In similar stratum, Roskies, Louis-Guerin, & Fournier, (1993) reported that “personality can cushion as well as aggravate the impact of stress” (p. 616-7) (See Personality types and Stress); with negative personality dispositions transforming stressors into strains and strains into symptoms (Spector & O’Connell).

Past experiments and researches have shown that, within certain limits, a person’s performance actually shows a growth with increased levels of stress. After reaching an optimum point, stress visibly outcomes in decreased performance. The Yerkes-Dodson Law reflects this observable fact in medical terms as shown next.

Increasing Increasing Increasing

Performance ill health health ill health

and quality C

of life B


Stress of Excess Pressure

Moderate levels of Pressure

Stress of boredom

Figure 2.1 Medical Extension of Yerkes-Dodson Law

As Melhuish (1978) proposed: The segment of the graph between B and C characterize pressures, which a person can endure. Within these limits his health and quality of life increase with increased pressure (Challenge).

At point C, however, increased pressure is not viewed as being beneficial and becomes detrimental to the individual. Pressures develop into stress and in the segment C-D, health and quality of life decreases. C is the optimum point (as is B, for boredom is also a forceful stress and the segment B-A also corresponds to increasing threat of stress-related illnesses).

Stress related illnesses is not confined to either high or low status workers, but to the nature of the work (Mc Lean 1979, Cited in Arnold et al.,1998, p. 429). In two reviews of occupational stress, Cooper (1983; 1985) summarized and categorized six groups of organizational variables, outline below, that may be the origin of stress in the workplace.

These are:

Factors intrinsic to the job (e.g. heat, noise, chemical fumes, shift work)

Relationships at work (e.g. conflict with co-workers or supervisors, lack of social support)

Role in organization (e.g. role ambiguity)

Career development (e.g. lack of status, lack of prospects for promotion, lack of a career path, job insecurity)

Organizational structure and climate (e.g. lack of autonomy, lack of opportunity to participate in decision making, lack of control over the pace of work)

For the purpose of this study emphasis is made on the explanation of the categories brought in by Cooper (1983) in the light of past literatures and researchers. The next section deals mainly with these five categories and their relevancy.

Cooper five factor theory

Factor intrinsic to the job

Academics have done research in order to identify the factors which may be intrinsic to the job itself such as : Poor working conditions, shift work, long hours, risk and danger, work overload and work underload.

Working conditions

Each working condition is unique and projects different moods and quality of life to different people. While some may be soothing to people some may be stressing to the point of leading to unrecoverable damages to the stressed worker. In accordance with Kornhauzer (1965) “Poor mental health was directly related to unpleasant working conditions, the necessity to work fast, and to expend a lot of physical effort and work excessive and inconvenient hours.” A study performed in the USA, on nurse working in intensive care units on problems they experienced, revealed that ‘an oppressive visual environment became particularly stressful to nurses over a period of time. (Hay and Oken 1972, cited in Pakes 2001, p. 62). It is a well-known fact that being confronted with poor lighting affects relatively working performance and may cause a strain. According to Ivancevich and Matteson (1980) noise seem to operate as a stressor in situations where it is excessive and unpredictable. Thus it is vital to design the work as well as the working environment while taking into consideration, noise, lighting, communication networks, which if not dealt with correctly can result in ambiguity and poor relationship.

Shift Work

In the fast moving world we are living today accentuated with increased global competition, people are bound to perform shift work. Researchers have revealed that shift work is a common occupational stress factor. It has been found that shift work affects blood pressure, metabolic rate, blood sugar levels, mental deficiency, and work motivation. A number of study have established that the main problem of shift work is the sleeping adjustment problems, particularly in cases of night shifts (Kroes, 1980).

Long Hours

With respect to Breslow and Buell (1960) long working hours can lead to death due to coronary heart disease. A Research in the USA found that people under 45 years of age who worked more than 48 hours a week had twice the risk of death from coronary heart disease than did similar individuals working a maximum of 40 hours a week. According to Sparks and Cooper (1997) beyond 40 hours a week, time spent working is increasingly unproductive and can create ill health.

Risk and Danger

Jobs which entail risks

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