Summary of The Ways or Means by which Stress is Developed
If psychologists completely understood how stress and fears developed, we would know how to produce and reduce a phobia or an anxiety state. We don't. There seems to be a wide variety of life experiences which result in some form of stress, fear, anxiety, or psychosomatic illness. It would be convenient if life were simpler but it isn't. Perhaps a summary will help you review the ways you might become stressed and anxious
Environmental factors and processes
- Changes, such as sudden trauma, several big crises, or many small daily hassles, cause stress. Intense stress years earlier, especially in childhood, can predispose us to over-react to current stress.
- Events, such as barriers and conflicts that prevent the changes and goals we want, create stress. Having little control over our lives, e.g. being "on the assembly line" instead of the boss, contrary to popular belief, often increases stress and illness.
- Many environmental factors, including excessive or impossible demands, noise, boring or lonely work, stupid rules, unpleasant people, etc., cause stress.
- Conflicts in our interpersonal relationships cause stress directly and can eventually cause anxieties and emotional disorders.
Constitutional or physiological processes
- The human body has different ways of responding to stress; one quick responding nerve-hormonal system involving adrenaline, another long-lasting system involving cortisol, and perhaps others. These systems not only determine the intensity of our anxiety reactions but also our attitudes, energy level, depression, and physical health after the stressful events are over. As individuals, our nervous systems differ; however, according to Richard Dienstbier at the University of Nebraska, we may be able to modify our unique physiological reactions by learning coping skills.
- The genetic, constitutional, and intrauterine factors influence stress. Some of us may have been born "nervous" and "grouches." Almost certainly we are by nature prone to be shy or outgoing, and we inherit a propensity for certain serious psychological disorders. We don't know yet if different treatments are required for genetically determined problems than for learned problems.
- Having a "bad experience" causes us to later be stressed in that situation, i.e. pairing a neutral stimulus (situation) with a painful, scary experience will condition a fear response to the previously neutral stimulus. (classical conditioning)
- Fears and other weaknesses may yield payoffs; the payoffs (like attention or dependency) cause the fear to grow. (operant conditioning)
- Avoiding frightening situations may reinforce and build fears and stress. (operant conditioning--negative reinforcement)
Cognitive learning processes
- Seeing others afraid and being warned of real or nonexistent dangers can make us afraid under certain conditions. (modeling) This can include seeing a movie or TV or reading a book or perhaps just fantasizing a danger.
- Some people have learned to see things negatively; they have a mental set that causes them to see threats and personal failure when others do not. Of course, seeing the situation as negative ("terrible"), unpredictable, uncontrollable, or ambiguous is stressful.
- Many long-lasting personality factors (neuroticism, pessimism, distrust, lack of flexibility and confidence) are related to stress, decision-making, and physiological responses.
- Having a negative self-concept--expecting to be nervous and a loser--generates stress.
- Irrational ideas about how things "should be" or "must be" can cause stress when we perceive that life is not unfolding as we think it should.
- Believing that we are helpless, that we can't handle the situation causes stress.
- Drawing faulty conclusions from our observations, such as scary ideas, like "they don't like me" or "I'm inferior to them," or having unreasonable fantasies of awful consequences ("I'll be mugged") increase our fears and restrict our activities.
- Pushing yourself to excel and/or failing to achieve a desired goal and one's ideal lead to stress.
- Assigning fault for bad events, i.e. placing blame on self or on others, causes stress and anger.
- Realizing we may have been wrong but wanting to be right stresses most of us. Careful, logical decision-makers are usually calm; people who have learned to be indecisive worriers or quick impulsive risk-takers are tense.
- The ideas of dying, of loosing relationships and things we value, of having a meaningless life, etc. scare us.
Unconscious urges and processes
- Having freedom and the associated responsibility can cause anxiety and a retreat into submission to authority (see Kohlberg's stage 4 in chapter 3), destructiveness, and conformity, according to Fromm (Monte, 1980).
- Unconscious urges from childhood (Freud says sex and aggression; Adler says overcoming inferiority; Horney says resentment of parents) may cause stress.
- Unconscious conflicts--like Oedipus and Electra complexes--cause stress which manifests itself symbolically as fears, phobias, and neurotic symptoms.
- One emotion can be converted into another, e.g. anger (wanting to kill someone) becomes fear (of knives) or lust becomes suspicion that spouse has been unfaithful, but the stress is not entirely avoided by this process.
The list could go on and on. My intention isn't to give you a "complete list" of sources of stress. I merely want you to realize there are many possibilities to explore, if and when you go looking for the sources of one of your anxieties. Be open-minded. Explore every trail. You may discover very different, unique sources. Look in every nook, consider every possibility. It can be an interesting investigation into the workings of your mind.
Summary of the Effects of Stress and Anxiety
The effects or consequences of stress are also numerous; they are both positive and negative. First, the desirable results:
- We need and enjoy a certain level of stimulation...a certain number of thrills. It would be boring if we had no stresses and challenges. Some people even make trouble for themselves to keep from getting bored.
- Stress is a source of energy that can be directed towards useful purposes. How many of us would study or work hard if it were not for anxiety about the future?
- Mild to moderate anxiety makes us more perceptive and more productive, e.g. get better grades or be more attentive to our loved ones.
- By facing stresses and solving problems in the past, we have learned skills and are better prepared to handle future difficulties.
- Anxiety is a useful warning sign of possible danger--an indication that we need to prepare to meet some demand and a motivation to develop coping skills. Janis (1977) has studied one aspect of this process by observing patients scheduled for surgery. He found that patients with mild "anticipatory fear" adjusted better after the surgery than those who were traumatized or those who denied all worries.
Other researchers have found personality differences: some deniers do well post-operatively, others do not. This lead to an investigation of how to prepare different personality types for surgery, i.e. how to help the patients prepare to deal with a serious, painful stress, by Shipley, Butt, Horowitz, and Farbry (1978). They studied two personality types: repressors (deny feelings; "Forget about it; it's in the doctor's hands") and sensitizors (open to feelings; "What are the risks? I'm scared. Will it hurt a lot?").
One group of patients was shown an informative film about the medical procedure; a second group saw the same film three times. A third group didn't see it at all. There were repressors and sensitizers in all three groups. The results? The sensitizers were quite anxious if they hadn't seen the film, but the more they saw it the less stressed they became. Thus, for sensitizors it is helpful to have a realistic, detailed view of what will happen and to know the hazards as well as the help and support available. But what about the repressors who start out "dumb and happy?" Without the film, they are much more relaxed during the painful medical operation than the sensitizors, but with one prior viewing of the film, their heart rate during the operation was very high, considerably higher than even the unprepared sensitizors. However, if repressors had seen the film three times, they were fairly relaxed during the medical procedure. Thus, some people--repressors--need to deny and avoid and think of other things or have lots of advanced warning, information, practice, reassurance and support in preparing for a stressful event.
You should note two things: (l) this study involves a rare event--a life-endangering time when someone else is in control of your life. There is little you can do except try to keep your panic under control. (2) This study involves only one personality factor from among hundreds and only one approach to allaying fears from among hundreds. But it illustrates the complex kind of information you and I need to run our lives most effectively. We need more scientific knowledge, and a willingness to learn and use that knowledge in our own lives.
The negative effects or consequences of stress and anxiety
- Several unpleasant emotional feelings are generated--tension, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anger, dependency and others.
- Preoccupation is with real or often exaggerated troubles--worries, concerns about physical health, obsessions, compulsions, jealousy, suspiciousness, fears, and phobias.
- Most emotional disorders are related to stress; they either are caused by stress and/or cause it or both. This includes the concerns mentioned in 1 & 2 and the many psychological disorders described in an Abnormal Psychology textbook.
- Interpersonal problems can be a cause or an effect of stress--feeling pressured or trapped, irritability, fear of intimacy, sexual problems, feeling lonely, struggling for control, and others.
- Feeling tired is common--stress saps our energy.
- Many bad habits (e.g. procrastination, see chapter 4) and much wasted time are attempts to handle anxiety. They may help relieve anxiety temporarily but we pay a high price in the long run.
- Psychosomatic ailments result from stress--a wide variety of disorders are caused by psychological factors, maybe as much as 50% to 80% of all the complaints treated by physicians.
- High stress almost always interferes with one's performance (unless it is a very simple task). It causes inefficiency at school and on the job, poor decision-making, accidents, and even sexual problems. In chapter 4 we discussed achievement needs and how test scores relate to anxiety. Sarason (1975) found that students with high test anxiety do more poorly on exams, especially important tests, than less anxious peers, but they profit more from the teacher's hints, suggestions, and advice about taking the test. Janda (1975) observed that males with sexual anxiety had difficulty perceiving the difference between warm, friendly, approachable women and cold, aloof ones. Other males notice the difference easily.
- Anxiety and fear causes us to avoid many things we would otherwise enjoy and benefit from doing. People avoid taking hard classes, trying out for plays or the debate team, approaching others, trying for a promotion, etc. because they are afraid. It's regrettable. Let's do something about it.