Stress Research Paper

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Stress is often used to describe overwhelming or threatening situations or the pressure that human beings encounter when experiencing such circumstances. The American physiologist Walter Cannon introduced the term stress in 1929 as an acute emergency reaction that could help the organism mobilize energy for fight-or-flight responses in dangerous situations. In 1936, the Austrian-born Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye first used the term stress when describing threatening conditions capable of producing chronic changes in the home-ostatic balance of an organism if lasting long enough. It is now known that stress and stressor exposure can elicit a complex array of physiological changes. Stress can be physical or psychological, controllable or uncontrollable, acute or chronic, and the word stress is often used imprecisely referring either to a stressor or a stress response.

Originally, the main stressors for human beings related to physical injury, predators, and starvation. Acute physical stressors required emergency reactions helping the organism mobilize energy for fight-or-flight responses, that is, physiological reactions that prepare an individual for the strenuous efforts required by fighting or running away. Threatening situations usually call for vigorous activity, and the autonomic and endocrine responses that accompany them help mobilize the body’s energy responses. During emergencies, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated to help mediate arousal, activation, and mobilization. The activated sympathetic nervous system speeds up the heart rate and diverts blood flow to the muscles, and the adrenal glands release epinephrine.

This type of acute mobilization of biological resources is clearly advantageous during short-term physical emergencies. In the contemporary world, however, people often react in this acute manner to stressor exposure that does not involve life-endangering situations. When encountering psychological or social stressors, the same physiological responses may be activated, which is likely not adaptive or appropriate. For example, the acute stress response can occur in relation to academic exams, traffic jams, relationship breakups, family feuds, or simply worrisome situations. Such activations are likely harmless in the short term but can potentially be harmful when chronically provoked. Physiological reactions to stressor exposure are also often accompanied by psychological reactions such as anxiety, worry, anger, inability to relax, and poor concentration, which again may be harmless in the short term but potentially detrimental in the long run.

Sources Of Stress

The sources of stress can be infinite. Research has often focused on major life events, job-related stress, daily hassles, environmental stress, and sociocultural factors as sources of stress, among others. Major life events such as changing careers, getting married, or losing a loved one can entail a serious challenge. Such events luckily rarely occur, but everyday hassles such as having car trouble, getting to work late, missing a deadline, or having to run in order to catch the bus can obviously happen more frequently. Environmental stress such as pollution, noise, or natural disasters can also take its toll on people, as can job-related stress such as an unhappy boss, a manipulating co-worker, or simply a stressful and demanding working environment.

Because of evidence that stress responses are specific and may vary based on how a particular stressor is perceived, researchers have proposed models highlighting the interaction of biological and psychological factors in health and illness. One such model, the diathesis-stress model, proposes that two continuously interacting factors jointly determine an individual’s susceptibility to stress and illness. One factor involves predisposing (diathesis) factors establishing a person’s vulnerability to illness, for example, genetic vulnerability, and the other involves precipitating factors from the environment, such as traumatic experiences. The diathesis-stress model highlights the fact that different people have different vulnerabilities, resulting in possible health consequences because of stress combined with diathesis. Other models have proposed that how people perceive themselves and the stressor at hand may impact how they react mentally as well as physiologically when exposed to stressors. For example, if a stressor is perceived as a serious threat, this will elicit more complex reactions than if the stressor is perceived as a daily event. Another model, the stress-buffering model, posits that certain factors, such as individual differences or social support, may protect, or “buffer,” people from the impact of stressful events. In this model, individuals under stress with little or no social support, for example, experience negative health effects, whereas the negative effects of stress for individuals with high levels of social support are reduced or eliminated. Clearly, a number of factors can affect how people perceive and react to stressor exposure.

Impact On Health

Stressors are part of daily life. However, when energy is constantly mobilized at the cost of energy storage, one can never store any surplus energy. If stressor exposure is long term or overtaxes coping resources, stress can have adverse impact on health. For example, the long-term effects of prolonged secretion of glucocorticoids have been shown to involve increased blood pressure, damage to muscle tissue, growth inhibition, and suppression of the immune system. Research has also found links between stressor exposure and physiological health issues such as heart disease and cancer. This is not to say that stress causes heart disease or cancer; it is possible, however, that prolonged stressor exposure may be a contributing factor in the development of a number of physiological problems. Research has also found an effect on wound healing: Studies have found, for example, that stressor exposure can slow the healing of wounds significantly (Glaser et al. 1999), which supports the hypothesis that prolonged stressor exposure may suppress the immune system.

Stressor exposure may also contribute to psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is caused by exposure to a situation of extreme danger and stress, such as acts of war, assault, injury, death of a loved one, and so on. Symptoms of PTSD include recurrent dreams or recollections, and the disorder can interfere with social activities and produce a feeling of hopelessness. Research has also indicated a link between stress and depression, as stress and glucocorticoids appear to be intertwined with the biology of depression. Sympathetic arousal is a relative marker of anxiety and vigilance, while heavy secretion of glucocorticoids is more a marker of depression, and statistically, people who are undergoing significant life stressors are more likely to become depressed, and people who are depressed are more likely to have undergone a recent significant stressor. Symptoms of PTSD as well as depression are often treated with medication to adjust the serotonin and/or epineph-rine systems, either alone or in combination with some form of psychotherapy. PTSD and depression can also be treated with some form of psychotherapy alone.

Despite the impact that stressors can have on health, research has not established a clear connection between stressor exposure and health-related issues. In fact, when exposed to the same type of stressor, one person might get sick while another will not. Apparently, stress and the consequences of stress may arise from how people appraise the events rather than from the events themselves. How people appraise and cope with stressor exposure may again depend on factors such as individual differences, coping styles, perception of control, and social support. Individual differences such as dispositional optimism and explanatory style have been linked to better psychological and physiological adjustment to stressors. Dispositional optimists generally expect positive outcomes in life, while explanatory style refers to a person’s general propensity to always attribute outcomes either to positive or negative causes. A person’s resilience may also impact how stressors are perceived and met. Resiliency often refers to a person’s ability to develop coping strategies despite being in a difficult situation or the ability to bounce back when bad things happen. In general, it appears that people who see stressors as challenges to be overcome rather than insurmountable problems tend to cope with stressors in the most adaptive way.

Coping Styles And Strategies

Coping usually refers to the cognitive, behavioral, or emotional way that people deal with stressful situations and is seen as a dynamic process involving a series of responses entailing the interaction of a person and the environment. In general, coping styles that approach the problem in order to deal with it have been found to be more adaptive than coping styles avoiding the problem. People with a strong sense of personal control are also more likely to engage in adaptive problem-focused coping. Personal control is the belief that people make their own decisions and also that an individual determines what others do to that person or what the person does him- or herself. The opportunity to control aversive events or the belief that aversive events can be controlled may play a crucial role in determining how a person might react during stressor exposure.

The degrees of social support people receive or perceive may also play an important role in how people cope with stressors. Social support is the companionship of others and the emotional or practical support of others. Research has shown social support to be important for faster recovery and fewer medical complications from surgery or illness, for lower mortality rates, for less distress in the face of terminal illness, and for reduced vulnerability to illness and mortality. It appears that people’s outcome expectancies, their coping strategies, their sense of control, and their perceived or actual social support act as factors in how they appraise stressors or as buffers against the impact of the stressor exposure.

Stress appears to be an unavoidable part of life in the contemporary world. Stressor exposure is not necessarily harmful; nevertheless, depending on the characteristics of the stressor, the length of exposure, individual differences, and coping strategies, stressors may have adverse physiological and psychological impacts on a person’s life.


  1. Cannon, Walter B. 1929. Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage. An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement. 2nd edition. New York: D. Appleton.
  2. Carver, Charles S., and Michael F. Scheier. 1998. On the Self- Regulation of Behavior. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Glaser, Ronald, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Philip T. Marucha, et al. 1999. Stress-Related Changes in Proinflammatory Cytokine Production in Wounds. Archives of General Psychiatry 56 (May): 450-456.
  4. Lazarus, Richard S. 1990. Stress, Coping, and Illness. In Personality and Disease, ed. Howard S. Friedman, 97–120. New York: Wiley.
  5. Rabin, Bruce S. 1999. Stress, Immune Function, and Health: The Connection. New York: Wiley-Liss.
  6. Sapolsky, Robert M. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. 3rd edition. New York: Times Books.
  7. Segerstrom, Suzanne C. 2000. Personality and the Immune System: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 22 (3): 180–190.
  8. Segerstrom, Suzanne C., and Gregory E. Miller. 2004. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-analytic Study of Thirty Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin 130 (4): 601–630.
  9. Selye, Hans, A. 1936. A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents. Nature 138: 32.

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