Three ways psychologists have defined stress

It is not easy to find a generally acceptable definition of stress. So many people have their own distinctive ways of defining stress. However, stress can be defined as the body’s response to situations that poses demand, constraints or opportunities. Usually, it results from interactions between persons and their environment that are understood as straining or exceeding their adaptive capacities and threatening their well- being. More recently, the issue of stress has become a more important issue because of the high disorders it causes humankind. ”Stress” can sometimes develop into a living nightmare of running faster and faster to stay in the same place, thus causing one to feel undervalued, helplessness, hopelessness, extreme fear or anger and distrust for others. Even though so many people see stress as negative, it can sometimes be positive especially if our capacities are good enough.

Nevertheless, in recent times, ”stressors” ( any factor that can trigger the stress response) have been used for the stimulus that provokes a stress response such as noise, divorce, cold, pain, traffic, overload and so on. All these come under environmental factors. However, stressors are not objective in that they do not produce the same response in all people, as this depends on the individual’s perception of the stressor. Stress is highly related the ”Autonomic Nervous System” which is responsible for activating internal organs to save energy in the brain. Severe stress can cause illness and even death by reducing the body’s ability to fight illness or causing the stressed individual to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle.

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Three ways in which psychologists have defined stress

Psychologists have viewed the concept of ”Stress” in many different ways. The first studies of stress was in early 1950, where Hans Selye (1950) defined stress as ”the non-specific response of the body to any demand.” The term ”Stress” had never been related to human behavior until Selye (1936) suggested using it to describe what had happened when an organism was exposed to an unpleasant stimulus. Selye (1950) was able to separate the physical effects of stress from other physical symptoms suffered by patients through his research. He observed that patients suffered physical effects not caused directly by their disease or by their medical condition.

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) defined stress as a pattern of negative physiological responses occurring in situations where people perceive threats to their well being which they may be unable to meet.

Roz Brody, R and D Dwyer (2002) also defined stress as a state of physiological and physical tension produced, according to the transactional model, when there is a mismatch between the perceived demands of a situation (the stressor) and the individual’s perceived ability to cope. The consequent state of tension can be adaptive or maladaptive.

Physiological perspective of stress and illness

Hans Seyle (1950) conducted a physiological approach to research more into stress from the early 1930’s until his death in 1982. Through Seyle, the term ‘stress’ became famous and as at that time it had not been accepted as a psychological concept. What Selye (1950) did in his research was that; he observed animals a process which they all went through a prolonged stressor regardless of what the stressor was. In 1936, he published his first article on the effects of stress reporting an experiment with rats. He exposed rats’ harmful agents including cold, surgical, injury, excessive exercise and severing the spinal cord. This same symptoms was exposed in reaction to all of the stimuli hence, they were all subjected to the state of what he called ”stress”.

Seyle argued that, stress could be very adaptive in the short term; he believed this is so because it provides us the opportunity to cope with environmental demands. Seyle adopted a pattern called the General Adaptation System (GAS) because of noticing that rats and patients all seemed to show a similar pattern of bodily response. This pattern represented the body’s attempt to cope in an adaptive way with stress. GAS consisted of three stages, which included:


Alarm reaction

Resistance stage

Exhaustion stage

Alarm reaction stage: This stage consists of an increased activity in the sympathetic adrenal medullary system (SAM) and the hypothalamic -pituitary-adrenocortical axis (HPA). Seyle argued that, the alarm reaction develops 6-48 hours after stress and involves loss of a person’s muscular tone, their drop in muscular temperature, and decrease in size of the spleen and liver.

Resistance Stage: Resistance involves an activity in the HPA. This is when the body is adapting or fitting in with the demands of the environment. As this stage proceeds, the parasympathetic nervous system requires more careful use of the body’s resources in order to cope. Eventually, the stage is then marked by an increase in the size of the adrenal glands and a decrease in some pituitary activity, such as the growth hormone production. However, the body returns to a near-normal state if the stress is not too great.

Exhaustion stage: The physiological systems used in the previous two stages become less effective when stress become too prolonged. The early stages of the autonomic nervous system symptoms of arousal re-appear. In some severe cases, the damaged adrenal cortex leads to failure of the parasympathetic system collapse of the body’s immune system. Some stress related diseases, which includes high-blood pressure, asthma and heart disease, become more likely.

Evaluation of the General Adaptation Syndrome

Selye (1950) correctly focused on what is now called the pituitary -adrenal system or HPA system and on the importance of glucocorticoids. His work had some support and weaknesses.

In support of Selye’s work

One key contribution to his work was that, he alerted medicine to the importance of stress and disease, hence his work started the study of understanding stress

His work was very useful in predicting the physiological response to stress

The General Adaptation Syndrome provides a very useful model of the course of physical injuries and illness in cases where stress is prolonged.

Problems and weaknesses of Selye’s work

First, he didn’t pay much attention to the sympathomedullary pathway or SAM system, and also he didn’t understand fully the relationship between the HPA and SAM systems.

Second, Most (though not all) of Selye’s work was based on rats, so it may not apply to all animals including humans. This may explain why his exaggerates the importance of physiological factors at the expense of psychological factors such as the cognitive factors in stress.

Selye also exaggerated when he claimed that stress always produces the same physiological pattern. For example, Mason (1975) compared the reactions to stressors varying in how much fear, anger, or uncertainty they created. The various stressors produced different patterns of adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol secretion.

In addition to the above, Seyle also assumed that people respond in passive ways to stressors. In response to this Mason (1975) argued that there is an inactive process of psychological appraisal when people confront a stressor. Hence, Symington et al. (1955) compared the physiological responses of two groups of dying patients, some of who remained conscious and others in a coma. More signs of physiological stress in the patients who remained conscious emerged, probably because they engaged in stressful psychological appraisal of their state.

Behavioral perspective of stress and illness

During the early 1950s, there was very little scientific evidence suggesting that physical illness such as heart disease might be linked to psychological factors. Most people rather suspected that there was a link between stress and physical illness. However, the view in the medical profession was that we should seek physical causes for physical causes for physical illness. It was in this context that two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman carried out their popular research to show that heart diseases depend solely on individual differences in vulnerability to stress.

These two men, Friedman and Rosenham (1959) introduced a new ”typology” to psychology in the 1950s. They proposed two important personality types, which involves:

Type As are competitive, ambitious, impatient, restless, and pressured

Type Bs lack these characteristics and are generally more relaxed

Friedman and Rosenman (1959) tested the hypothesis that Type A individuals (high- stress personality type) were more likely to develop coronary heart disease (CHD) than Type Bs (relatively relaxed individuals). This testing observed that, their patients displayed a common behavior pattern that consisted of three main components: impatience, competitiveness, and hostility. Consequently, a positive correlation between both Type behavior and CHD was sought.

To summarize it all, their research showed that Type A behavior is strongly linked to Chronic Heart Disease (CHD). Friedman and Rosenman further concluded that the Type A behavior pattern increases the individual’s experience of stress, which increases physiological reactivity, and in turn increases vulnerability to CHD. Until today, Friedman and Rosenman’s research is regarded as important since their scientific evidence proved that physical illness occurrence such as heart disease can depend could depend on individual differences in personality.

Supporting evidence was given in a study by Joseph Brady (1958) who did an experiment with monkeys by placing them in ”restraining chairs” and combined them to press a lever with given shocks every 20 seconds. He used yoked controls where one monkey called ”executive” was liable for controlling the lever while a second monkey received the shocks but had no control over the lever. Brady found out that only the ”executive” monkey had the physiological stress of having to press the lever, but both animals received shocks. Eventually, the executive monkey died as a result of perforated stress. This may be due to stress, not the shocks that created the ulcers.

Evaluation of Friedman and Rosenman’s work


First, it has led researchers to consider seriously the relationship between individual differences in personality on the one hand and stress-related symptoms on the other hand.

Second, it has produced a broader interest in the effects of stress on physical illness.

Third, it has led to an effect on the lifestyle adopted by many people. Most people nowadays are aware that components Type A such as hostility and being excessively motivated can be really bad.


The type A construct is too broad and consists of a number of somewhat separate components. There is evidence that the hostility component is the most important one, but that is not certain.

The central weakness with research in this area is that, it is correlational in nature. This means that, we can’t be sure that the relationship between Type A and coronary heart disease occurs because Type A causes coronary heart disease.

Thirdly, it is clearly oversimplified to assign everyone in the world to a very limited number of categories. The great majority of people are not strongly either Type A or Type B, so the findings apply mainly to a minority of individuals.

Cognitive perspective of stress and illness

I believe most people would agree that, the workplace is a source of considerable stress, and some would agree that stress might lead to illness. Because of this Marmot et al.’s (1997) studied the association between workplace stress and stress-related illness. Marmot et al sought to test the job -strain model. This model process proposed that workplace creates stress and illness in two ways, these are:

High demand

Low control

Marmot et al (1997) suggested that this could be tested in the context of civil service employees where the higher grade would experience high job demand, and low -grade civil servants will experience low job control. Approximately 7,372 men and women in London agreed to take part in the research questionnaire. They were also checked for signs of cardiovascular disease. Each participant was then reassesses about five years later. The study concluded that low job control is associated with high stress and cardiovascular disorder, whereas high job demand is not linked to stress and illness. This does not fully support the job-strain model because it does not show that high demand is linked to illness. However, lack of control does appear to be linked to stress and illness.

The experiment by Brady (1958) on stress in ”executive ” monkeys also indicates how much control we have in our thought processes and decision-making.

All three perspectives show how stress can affect us in our daily lives. Most likely, people get ill through a combination of both cognitive and behavioral therapies, which consequently creates physiology of stress in our body, which has the harmful effect.

Evaluation of Marmot et al’s work

The study by Marmot et al. (1997) is important for various reasons:

First, it provided striking evidence that the amount of control we have at work can have large effects on physical health

Second, the study showed that what happens in the work place can sometimes cause people high levels of stress.

Third, the study strongly suggested that, it is important to provide workers with a reasonable amount of control over their work activities if they are to remain healthy.

There are various weaknesses with the Marmot et al. (1997) study:

First, the self-report method is vulnerable to investigator effects and participant reactivity bias, which occur when participants are aware they are being observed.

Second, weaknesses of the correlational method mean that there was no control over job control as a variable. This makes interpretation difficult because, cause and effect can’t be inferred. Causation can only be inferred when an independent variable has been directly manipulated.

Third, the jobs performed by those high and low in job control differed in several ways other than simply control. An example is; those having high levels of job control generally earn more, have more interesting jobs, and have more opportunity for interpersonal contact and so on than those having low levels of job control. The researchers however tried to take into account of some of these factors, but it is somehow not known which of these various factors is most closely associated with heart disease.

Effects of stress from the physiological perspective of psychology

Over these years, stress has been associated with many illnesses, ranging from headaches (Gannon et al., 1987) and asthma (Miller and Strunk, 1979), to colds (Stone et al., 1987), stomach ulcers (Brady, 1958) and cancer (Jacobs and Charles, 1980). This could be due to:

Reduced resistance to infection: Research on both animals and humans have shown that stress especially in the long-term can adversely affect the immune system as corticosteroids suppress its activity and thus increase vulnerability to infection. Cohen et al. (1993) found out that, participants infected with a cold virus were more likely to develop colds if they had experienced higher levels of stress. These included negative emotions, and stressful life events in the last year .The finding was supported by Segerstrom and Miller’s (2004) meta- analysis of nearly 800 studies on stress and the immune system which indicated long-term stress has been consistently shown to suppress human immune systems(cited in green et al., 2008).

Heart and Circulatory disorders: Stress -triggered increases in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as levels of glucose and fatty acids released into the bloodstream may result in the deterioration o and blocking of blood vessels and thus increased cardiovascular disorder

Stress-induced negative affect and behavior: Stress can also cause an illness indirectly since it leads to unhealthy emotions and behavior such as lack of exercise, drinking and smoking

Effects of stress from the cognitive and behavioral perspectives

Anger and frustration: Stress can cause a vicious circle of stress production as they contribute to a more stressful environment. Hostility may be a key stress-provoking factor in Type A behavior

Depression and helplessness: Seligman (1975) found continual and avoidable stress caused and learned helplessness and depression, which would be inappropriately generalized to different situations.

Anxiety-Different types of stressful situations can produce different types of anxiety disorder. Examples are; persistent, irresolvable stress, which could lead to generalized anxiety disorder, whereas ‘one off’ traumatic events could cause posttraumatic events, could be posttraumatic stress disorder.

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