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Stress–Essay on Definitions & Coping Strategies

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Stress–Essay on definitions & coping strategies

By Karyn Krawford 08/08


Weiten et al (2009) propose that stress is an epidemic in the 21st century that commonly affects all of us on a daily basis, when considering minor stress from environmental conditions such as noise and pollution. Even though time saving gadgets and self help tools have increased substantially in the 20th century and people have more control over their lives, there is an increase of anxiety and people have less free time. “We will define stress as any circumstances that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and thereby tax one’s coping abilities”. (Pg 71). For example a person can no longer meet external demands such as work or relationships because they feel they do not have the resources to cope. Chronic stress is in the eye of the beholder.
Stress is of such concern that the UK now recognises ‘National Stress Awareness Day’ (

What is Stress?
1. Stress is defined firstly by an event. Our primary appraisal of the event is conducted and then a secondary appraisal of available coping resources. If the event taxes resources that are often not available it is considered a 'stressor'. For example a person perceived to be experiencing stress could have problems with the resource; maintaining peace of mind.

2. Stress types - There are acute (short-term) and chronic (long- term) stressors, frustration, conflict (approach-approach/approach-avoidance), pressure and change.
Ambient stress is an everyday occurrence and includes stress from work groups, relationship roles, environmental noise, pollution, crime and cultural stress born from shifting cultural values.
Major stress occurs with change such as divorce and death of close family members. Research used to monitor the effects of change using the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), is now considered ineffective as it subjective, non specific and has an inaccurate correlation between outcome and score relative to an individual's neuroticism (Weiten et al 2009). Other surveys are now used to replace the SRRS such as the Life Experiences survey (LES), which are more specifically designed to measure change.

(A) Physiological responses consist of two central changes. The body uses the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) to change from parasympathetic to a sympathetic division utilizing the endocrine system, this secretes hormones into the bloodstream, preparing resources for a fight (if the emotion is Anger) or flight (if the emotion is Fear) response. “Today we are seldom likely to meet a Sabre-toothed tiger on the way to the supermarket and are less in need of these automatic responses to life threatening stress. However, we are still equipped with the same mechanisms as our ancestors” (John Parr, P.S.D. Consultants).
Guilt is often accompanied by fear as it is a result of judgments, expectations, and values that can lead to shame and pain however if it is accompanied by anger it may be turned inward as self-blame, therefore the emotion is not evolutionary (Mutke, 1987)

(B) Emotional responses are uncontrollable feelings that often involve negative emotions but can also be more positive which is correlated to resilience. (Weiten et al 2009) provide a survey rating the frequency of emotions, showing that negative emotions correlate negatively with resilience and that resilience creates positive emotions (pg 81). 3. Effects of stress include burnout, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and physical illness. Weiten et al (2009) explain that chronic long-term stress caused by early trauma contributes to serious psychological disorders, including depression and schizophrenia.
Harris (1967), and (1974) in his theory on development, shows personality types are predictable in their response to stress of which four positions are observed. These are; I’m OK, You’re Not OK (I+ U-), I’m not OK, You’re not OK (I- U-), I’m not OK, You’re OK (I- U+) and the preferred position I’m OK, You’re OK. The final position is one where a person has learned how to use constructive coping methods.

Positive Psychology theories look at the positive aspects of stress such as personal growth, behavioral awareness, challenge, and learning. However, evidence found by the International Stress Management Association U.K. proves the opposite which is that stress is never good and always negative; a potentially damaging illness. It goes so far as to imply it is against the law for an employer to allow stressful situations to occur and they quote the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) “The HSE define stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them”. ( August 2008.

How Do We Cope with Stress?
Strategies for coping with stress include a wide range of methods that are either constructive or of limited value. The aim is to master, reduce and/or tolerate the demands caused by stress.

Coping strategies of limited value
1. Giving up - a learned behavior where early stress was inescapable and events were out of our control. It is often self-defeating when the method continues to be applied. Among the most maladaptive people using this strategy often experienced trauma where the situation was inescapable (Weiten et al 2009). Chronic helplessness depletes the brain of the vital neurotransmitter nor epinephrine, necessary for feelings of happiness and contentment (Boreysenko, 1987).

2. Aggression - displacement of the emotion and destructive to relationships either in a verbal or physical form. A benefit to the aggressor might be catharsis; the release of emotional tension.
Weiten et al (2009) notes there is usually a strong correlation, such as the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, or between media violence and aggression. Some of the reasons for media aggression are desensitization, which promotes an aggressive view of self and encourages negative impulsive responses. “Experimental studies using an array of violent media, diverse laboratory conditions, and many kins of samples continue to find convergent evidence that video games and other forms of violent media do not provide cathartic effects; rather, they increase aggressive tendencies (Weiten et al, 2009)
3. Defense Mechanisms – A Freudian theory of avoidance essentially involving the use of intellectualization, denial, fantasy. “Defense Mechanisms are largely unconscious reactions that protect a person from unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and guilt”. (Weiten et al, 2009, Pg. 111-112). 3. Other limited value coping strategies include indulgence through excess consumption for example drugs, food and spending money. Self-blame that involves the use of catastrophic and critical self-talk is another strategy used by people.
Steiner (2008), explains technology addiction including excessive use of computers, TV and mobile phones, ultimately contribute to a host of stressors like alienation, divorce and health and environmental degradation. He provides a self-assessment scale on how to assess Internet use as a coping strategy.

Constructive coping strategies
1. Appraisal focused coping where some believe A (the event) = C (the feeling) but forget about B (our beliefs) that can cause catastrophic thinking – ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’, ‘oughts’, ‘always’.
For example the media’s emphasis on incidences such as terrorist attacks and disasters can produce an irrational fear of the likelihood of their involvement in these events. However chances of dying through disease or car accidents are more likely (Weiten et al, 2009). B) Humor - production of more positive emotions; seeing the lighter side. People who engage in positive reinterpretation have often experienced personal growth from traumatic events using humor. C) Problem-focused (PF) - facing problems head-on, clarifying, generating and evaluating alternative courses of action and monitoring results. Seeking help and time management are common methods.
Seeking help and social support is an effective strategy. Social resources include family and friends or professional help can be sought from a therapist, counselor or psychiatrist. “Social support, the great stress buffer, turned out to be more important than health habits in predicting heart disease” (Borysenko, 1987, pg.26).
'Who is living in your head' by Goulding (2006), provides the use of imagination exercises to become aware of negative self-talk, identify and label the ‘villains’ and then shrinks them incorporating the use of humor. These can be applied to major stressors like marital separation, jail, personal injury, fired at work, pregnancy and retirement.

D) Emotion-focused (EF) – ability to become aware, regulate and express emotions through understanding and reasoning. Common strategies of coping are expressing emotions with others, writing it down, forgiveness, exercise and meditation. A person aware of physiological changes might sense changes in their musculoskeletal system (muscle tenseness) and apply breathing techniques to buffer the anxiety cycle in the beginning (Borysenko, J. 1987).

Another strategy created by Steiner (2008), is Emotional Literacy (EL) that provides clear constructive ways of EF application by methods of surveying your emotional landscape and then talking about them to others. People would need to be able to differentiate feelings to use this strategy.

Interaction of coping strategies
Coping is considered a secondary appraisal from which a person's flexibility in using different strategies according to the multiple environmental demands is shown in empirical research to have an overall reduction in observable stress (Sideridus, 2006).

Weiten et al (2009), provide a useful application for behavior modification; that is a systematic approach through applying the principles of conditioning. The change strategy steps involve; being specific about your problem area, gathering data (though self observation), designing a program with the use of an identified reinforcer, execution, evaluation and ending.
Both EF and PF coping is used in the strategy known as ‘stress inoculation’ (Corey G, 2001). Cognitive based, the therapist teaches a person rehearsal and skill acquisition. Examples are “how can I prepare?, “how can I confront and deal with?, “how can I cope with feeling overwhelmed? and “how can I make reinforcing self statements?

An event is defined by an individual as stress. Different types of stress range from mild every day stress to chronic and long-term stress sometimes causing health problems due to interfering with the immune system.
Physiological responses are predictable changes in the body’s allocation of resources.
Claims for positive benefits from stress are strongly argued against.
Coping strategies are either constructive or of limited value. Limited value coping is often self-defeating. Constructive coping focuses on problem solving, emotional support or both. The interaction of constructive coping strategies improves a person’s coping ability and helps them adjust to multiple environmental demands.

An event does not cause a physiological change in all people. Weiten et al (2009) definition of stress used is subjective.
How people perceive and deal with stress is subjective to the individual i.e. how one person copes with the death of a close relative may differ substantially to how others cope because of factors such as the belief system, coping mechanisms, experience, culture and educational background.
Can stress be described as a phenomenon or a psychological concept? Weiten et al refer to unobservable mental phenomena such as stress and intelligence as psychological concepts. A particular concept may mean different things to different researchers therefore stress has a problem with the term used. Some believe it is the ‘stimulus’ such as the event or environmental condition itself and others believe it as the response, how a person reacts. If we had an operational definition which is a set of observable measurements that give meaning to a "concept" it would be possible to define the concept as any claim mentioning a particular concept cannot be tested until that concept has been operationally defined and it is agreed on the definition of what we are researching. ( 05/08/2008.

My conclusion is therefore based on my understanding that the use of information that it takes four different forms - Scientific, Intuitive, Wisdom or historical and visionary. Steiner (2008), advises Information Literacy means that we can discern between Info-junk and quality information.

I support Weiten’s theory that stress is any circumstance that threatens or are perceived to threaten one’s well being and thereby tax one’s coping abilities.

I have discussed the effectiveness of both EF and PF coping methods and the combination of these that I propose is most effective in both major stressors and everyday stress.
The reason for this is because we increase awareness of the physiological changes in the body by incorporating the EF techniques of emotional expression (that involves knowing what emotion you are feeling), yoga, meditation or similar strategies and learn a variety of PF techniques to deal with the matter intellectually. We would ideally then become aware of the bodily sensation when choosing from a range of coping techniques like challenging negative self-talk eg. Exams, designing a time management programme eg. Work promotion, learning skills to do handle the requirements eg. Public speaking and seeking help eg. Death and divorce.
Because we cannot conclude that a particular coping strategy will be successful, however congruency in communicating thoughts, emotions as well as avoiding singular coping styles is a good indicator individual coping (Corey, G 2001), there is enough evidence for me to conclude that using a combination of EF and PF strategies and one’s flexibility in choosing the most appropriate method or methods has a higher probability of either avoiding the onset of stress or coping with the event in order to minimize stress and the impact on our well-being.


Borysenko, J. (1987) Minding the Body, Mending the Mind. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co, Inc., Menlo Park, California.

Corey, G. (2001) Theory & Practice of Counseling & Psychotherapy – 6th Edition. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Goulding, M. (2006) Who’s Been Living In Your Head. Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, Inc. Phoenix, AZ.
Steiner, C. (2008) Cyber Psychology. 03/08/2008

International Stress Management Association U.K. – National Stress Awareness Day. 03/08/2008

Parr, J. – Living With Pressure. P.S.D. Consultants. Reading, England.

Sideridis, G.D. (2006) Coping is not an ‘either’ ‘or’: The interaction of coping strategies in regulating affect, arousal and performance. Stress & Health.

Weiten, W., Lloyd, M.A., Dunn, S. D., Hammer, E.Y. (2009) Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century– 9th Edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA. USA…...

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