Stress is referred to extensively in modern life, and usually as something of a negative consequence of that life. People frequently speak of their stress levels rising due to careers, financial pressures, and anxieties regarding world and local affairs. So widespread is the identifying of stress in these ways, the term is as well applied to more personal concerns; the stress of a relationship is generating illness, or the pressures of trying to please family members is creating a degree of stress causing sleeplessness. What is notable is how pervasive the negative connotation is, in that the stress is virtually always pointed to as undesirable, and often harmful, mental and physical influence. It seems that, no matter the source of the perceived stress, the individual seeks whatever means may eliminate it and return them to a state of normalcy.
That stress may be debilitating psychologically, and even physically dangerous, is a reality. When pressures felt to be beyond the individual’s ability to cope are present, the body and the mind are thrown into states of hyperactivity, and of types both addressing the effects of the influence and often, ironically, exacerbating it. At the same time, however, it is important to note that stress as such is created by the individual as a response to external forces; it is not a condition in itself, but rather a reaction, and this greatly expands potentials within it. Just as a poor response to stress may damage the individual, so too may an informed and balanced approach to the external forces strengthen the person’s physical health and psychological well-being. As discussed in the following, stress is by no means necessarily an adverse circumstance or condition, but an opportunity for an individual to adapt to shifting situations and consequently develop more fully as a human being.
Identifying Stress and Its Negative Causes and Effects
Given the inestimable variations of causes of stress, defining the term is usually a subjective matter. More exactly, stress is said to be present when an individual perceives the effects of it. The career conflict is nothing more than that until the individual finds that it is affecting their state of mind in an unusual way, and creating thinking, feeling, and a state of physicality unlike the usual. This being the case, a rational definition for stress is any circumstance or situation that threatens, or is perceived as threatening, the individual’s ability to cope and carry on normally (Weiten 534). As noted, the crucial aspect here is that the stress is not viewed as an illness or a physical or psychological condition or disorder, but as inextricably linked to external circumstances. Consequently, the definition affirms what is termed “stress” as a reaction or response.
The definition also clearly implies that stress is in place when circumstances known are altered, and this allows for an examination of how the psychological directly and indirectly impacts on the physical. Change, if an inevitable factor of living, generates vastly different reactions in different types of people, and this will occur no matter the nature of the change. In the middle of the 20th century, cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman identified two primary personality types in regard to how people encounter external pressures, and the models have been in place since. The Type A personality is characterized by intensity and focus. It is uncomfortable with not having control, and it does not respond well to interruptions or shifts in set routines or expectations. Conversely, the Type B is more relaxed, more willing to delegate responsibility, and less inclined to view the unexpected in a negative way (Hayes 224). It is hardly unexpected, then, that Type A people are more prone to responding to stress in ways that are debilitating to them, if not outright harmful. As is well known, stress handled poorly may create or exacerbate heart disease and a variety of other illnesses, but the key element here lies in that initial response; simply, the negative physical effects are not likely to occur if the individual reacts differently, and places less stress on their own neural and biological systems.
The Type A personality, however, virtually invites in the harmful effects of stress. Because such people tend to believe they can control external circumstances, they are unable to view themselves as victims of changing circumstances; their adaptive or coping mechanism is minimal or absent (Coon, Mitterer 521). This enables an enormous variety of negative psychological and physical consequences to develop, which in turn promote one another. Emotionally, the Type A individual undergoing stress feels, above all, threatened, and at a visceral level. Psychological survival is no less urgent a need than physical, so the mind reacts in an “emergency” mode. This establishes the field of physiological psychology as perhaps the best avenue for approaching the subject of what stress does to the mind and the body, since the field incorporates nervous system functioning and other components of physicality into the mental and emotional (Hayes 14). In plain terms, there is no absolute dichotomy between the mind and the body, so what significantly alters the former must influence the latter.
When the Type A is stressed, a psychological and neural chain reaction is typically set in motion. Upset emotions usually trigger the brain reaction of simultaneously weakening the immune system and causing bodily inflammation, the latter a defense mechanism against perceived threats to the individual. Resistance to illness is lowered as white blood cell count is reduced, and this reduction also increases physical exhaustion (Coon 479). In a sense, the mind is instructing the body to respond to danger even as the body itself is not threatened; consequently, the heightened state of physical preparedness enables vulnerability. The processes are complex, as neurons prompted by the brain send signals regulating glandular activity. The sustained secretion of adrenal hormones alone impacts on the immune system in that rest, crucial to that system, is impeded. This explains why so many people undergoing stress complain of being ill, weak, or suffering from the flu; they simply have few resources to combat minor ailments. Similarly, the “stressed” brain sends messages increasing cardiac activity, often causing irregular heartbeat and palpitation. What occurs then is not a single cause-and-effect physiological result of stress, but a feedback loop that goes to amplifying the initial reaction to the stressor(s) (Moller, Milinski, & Slater 140).
It is as well important to note, in regard to negative effects and stress, that Type A personalities are by no means the only population vulnerable to these consequences. Even the “hardy” personality type, typically impervious to external stress, may confront challenges or periods in their life to which they cannot easily adapt. Extensive research indicates that students typically suffer from weakened immune states during examination periods, just as others become unaccountably ill or debilitated during the break-ups of relationships, financial problems, grief over a death, or any other event carrying significant emotional impact and marking a variation from the expected (Coon 479). Virtually no one is invulnerable to stress, since the degree of external force may go to any extent and since people tend to be susceptible to certain influences over others. What is critical, again, is that what is occurring is reactive. From the Type A highly likely to suffer from stress to the individual with adaptive powers occasionally suffering from it, it is nonetheless a response made at least in part by the will of the individual. Personality dictates and this is by no means a minor consideration, but the fact remains that the negative effects of stress are produced to some extent through the cooperation of the individual in promoting the undesirable consequences. Viewed commonly as a disruptive and unhealthy process, stress is nonetheless an instrument, and not an illness.
Given the number of ways in which stress may impact on people negatively, the most obvious mode of redress is to create or develop coping mechanisms. The potential efficacy of these in preventing or reversing negative effects may best be seen by examining how such mechanisms assist those suffering from traumatic stress, which is in fact a family of disorders. In traumatic stress situations, no mere job transfer or marital trouble is the external force; usually, the stress is brought on by events or experiences of intense pain and suffering. Moreover, the individual need not firsthand experience the actual trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is identified as common among returning combat veterans, but traumatic stress has been diagnosed in large populations living within 20 miles of Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, and those who were only partially affected by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina (Coon, Mitterer 504). The magnitude of these events, paired with destruction and loss of life, were such as to create in all personality types feelings of utter helplessness. These were not events or obstacle to which to adapt, but real threats to life and environment, so it is seen that degree enables stress as potentially affecting all.
These extreme circumstances, however, illustrate very well how adaptive approaches can ameliorate even the most intently hostile stress situation; all that is required is modifying the effort to the stress level. For example, psychologists advise traumatic stress sufferers to express their concerns openly and frequently, and to seek out those who share them. This serves to lessen the isolationist aspect of being vulnerable, and the individual comprehends on some level that their vulnerability is, if not eliminated, shared. Also recommended is the seemingly obvious allowance of time to recover emotionally, as most people, so threatened by their own feelings, desire immediate remedy. Then, such people are counseled to actively make efforts in directions which they know provide gratification and fulfillment (Coon, Mitterer 504). For traumatic stress sufferers, the process is often long, but the coping mechanisms are present.
These same strategies appear to be equally promising in regard to ordinary stress situations, if requiring a somewhat less intent approach. For example, the sharing of the stress feeling is likely to aid the person undergoing routine stress for the same reason it eases the condition of the traumatic stress sufferer; it “breaks through” the sense of being alone and, as is true with many emotional disturbances, the simple act of communicating often reduces tension because there is emotional release in expression. Similarly, efforts made to focus on activities known to be satisfying applies as a coping technique in all cases of stress because it provides a critical component to emotional stability: perspective. If the Type A personality is obsessive about control and other types more randomly experience such disturbing feelings, a sense of balance must be valuable in lessening the impact of the stressor. In plain terms, a focus on something else that is pleasing – and within one’s control – restores a sense of personal capability, and thus reduces feelings of vulnerability. Even the mechanism of comprehending that time is required for the stress to be fully addressed is important, because this too places the stress agent in a larger arena, as it were, and reminds the individual that even this is a mutable as other elements in their life. Through using such coping mechanisms, the individual then reinforces their own emotional and physical capabilities, and essentially improves the self. The “evil” of stress then becomes what it actually is: an instrument allowing for any possible type of change in the individual, as change itself is confronted.
Stress certainly has an insidious reputation in the ordinary mind. It is a state of being usually perceived as painful, and occurring when unfair and/or insurmountable conditions suddenly arise. This repute is abetted by the physical consequences of stress, which range from severe cardiac disease to greatly increased vulnerability to illness. Nonetheless, there remains the reality that stress itself is a reaction, and is therefore to some extent within the control of the individual. In basic terms and in non-traumatic situations, it can only do to the individual what the individual permits or facilitates. Consequently, stress itself is first and foremost an instrument or agent. Like change itself, it may be good or bad, depending upon how it is translated into each person’s experience and development, and it is an opportunity for an individual to adapt to changing situations and evolve more fully as a human being.
Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. O. Introduction to Psychology:Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2006. Print.
Coon, D. Psychology: A Modular Approach To Mind And Behavior. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2005. Print.
Hayes, R. Foundations of Psychology. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2000. Print.
Moller, A. P., Milinski, M., & Slater, P. J. B. Advances in the Study of Behavior: Stress and Behavior. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998. Print.