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Nature of stress

Stress refers to the physiological and psychological pattern of responses an organism makes to events that disturb the equilibrium and exceeds a person’s ability to cope. The term “stress” has its origin from the Latin word “stringere” which means “tighten” that was used in the seventeenth century to mean hardship, strain, adversity or affliction. Stress can be viewed as a stimulus, a response and as an ongoing interaction between a person and his environment. In pyscho-physiology, stress refers to a stimulus resulting in a detectable strain that cannot be accommodated by the organisms and it eventually results in impaired health or behavior. In psychology, stress refers to a particular kind of state of the organism resulting from some interaction between him/her and the environment. It is perceived as a stimulus to certain events in a person’s environment that place strong demands on them. It is a situation where in a person’s well being is affected due to his failure to cope up with the demands from the environment

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) defines stress as an “exclusive relation between person and his/her surrounding environment which she/he perceives as taxing or is gone far beyond his/her coping resources and threatening his/her health”. Hans Selye (1985), the father of modern stress research defines stress as “non-specific response of the body to any demand”, that is, regardless of the cause of the threat, the individual with respond with the same physiological pattern of reactions. Fred Luthas (1998) defines stress as “an adaptive response to an external situation that results in physical, psychological and/or behavioral deviations for organizational participants.” Di Martino (2003) theorized stress as “the emotional and physical response which occurs when the requirement of demands of the job do not match the capabilities/potentials”.

Stress in an Everyday Event

Countless events that we experience in our day-to-day life create stress. Some are major changes that affect large number of people such as natural disasters, wars or nuclear accidents. Others are major changes in the life of an individual which causes upheaval such as suffering from a serious illness, moving to a new place, losing one’s job, death of loved one or changing jobs. Everyday hassles can also be experienced as stressors or the kind of stimuli which place demands on individual and threaten their well being, such a getting stuck in traffic, losing one’s wallet or arguments with peers. One might perceive that such minor hassles would produce only minor effects. However, research shows that daily hassles have significant negative effect on a person’s mental and physical health (Almeida, 2010). According to many theorists, daily stresses can have an additive or cumulative impact such that minor hassles at home, work, school or college might be fairly benign individually, but collectively it can create a great strain. While such stressors are acute in nature, that is they only last for a short period of time, some stressors are chronic which go for a long period of time, even indefinitely, such as being in an unsatisfied marriage. At last, some source of stress can be within the person in form of conflicting thoughts or desires.

Cognitive Appraisal of Stressful Events

People differ in their sensitivity and vulnerability to stressful situations as well as in their interpretations or reactions to such stressful events. An individual responds to a situation as they perceive them. Therefore, the experience of feeling threatened depends upon how a person views the event and chooses to interpret or appraise them. In order to understand these individual differences, the cognitive processes that intervene between the occurrence of a stressful event and the person’s reaction as well as the factors that affect this mediation are taken into account. Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984) labeled these intervening processes as Cognitive Appraisal Processes. He believed that an individual’s view of a situation determines whether an experience is stressful or not, making stress the consequence of appraisal and not the antecedent of stress. Lazarus (1991, 1998) viewed stress as a person-situation interaction which involves an ongoing transaction between humans and his environment. According to this perspective, stress refers to a pattern of cognitive appraisal, physiological responses and behavioral changes that occur in response or reaction to a perceived imbalance between environmental demands and the resources or abilities required to cope with them. According to Lazarus and Folkman, the cognitive appraisal of stress is a two-part process which involves a primary appraisal and a secondary appraisal.

Primary appraisal is an initial evaluation of the new or changing environment as irrelevant, beneficial or stressful. A person first engages in primary appraisal, interpreting the situation as benign, neutral or threatening based on its demand and its significance of one’s well being. If the event is appraised as stressful, it is then evaluated as a harm/loss, threat or a challenge. A harm/loss refers to an injury or damage that has already taken place. A threat refers to something that would produce harm or loss. A challenge event refers to the potential for growth, mastery, or some sort of gain. Each category produces different responses such as harm produces anger, disgust or sadness. Threatening stressors elicits anxiety and challenging stressor produces excitement.

Secondary appraisal occurs after assessing the event as stressful or threatening. It is an evaluation of one’s coping resources and options dealing with the stress. During this process, a person is appraising his/her perceived ability to cope with the situation, that is, the resources a person has to deal with the stressful event. Coping resources include a person’s knowledge, abilities, verbal skills and social resources such as family or peer support. If a person perceives that the demands of an event exceed one’s resources, the person is likely to experience stress. Appraisal can also shift from being negative (threat) to positive (challenge) and positive reappraisal of stress have both psychological and physiological benefits. The following diagram (Figure 1) depicts the cognitive appraisal processes defined by Lazarus and Folkman (1994)-

Figure 1

Primary and Secondary Appraisal of Stress

Primary and Secondary Appraisal of Stress

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