In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is psychological stress.
It seems that there’s a day/week/month for just about anything these days, and the International Stress Management Association has declared this week to be International Stress Awareness Week. I’ve written before about how stress affects the body, and this post will focus on the psychological aspect.
Effects of stress
Stressors can range from major life events to low-level stressors that are present in the background on an ongoing basis. Sometimes stress is a good thing; when you’re facing a hungry lion, you don’t want to be relaxed. However, when stress is unremitting, it can do some serious damage.
When it comes to memory, there’s sort of a Goldilocks effect with stress; some stress can improve memory function, whereas too much stress impairs memory. During stressful events, the brain is more likely to remember details that would help to avoid putting us in the same sort of situation again.
The effects of intense and prolonged stress are particularly significant in children. Exposure to abuse and conflict can disrupt the ability to regulate emotions and develop healthy attachments and intimacy. Learning difficulties and poor school performance may result, and there may be increased antisocial behaviour, depression, and anxiety.
Stressors in the form of loss, humiliation, or danger can increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. The cumulative effect of different kinds of stress can produce a synergistic increase in the risk of mental disorders (sort of a 1+1=3).
Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale
Two psychiatrists developed the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which assigns a score to various different potential stressors (it can be found on Wikipedia). On the high end, the death of a spouse was associated with 100 “life change units”. Marriage was assigned a score of 50, while personal illness/injury was only 3 points higher. Death of a close friend is supposedly easier to adjust to than gaining a new family member, and both are less stressful than marriage. I’ve got to say, I’m not particularly impressed with this scale.
The ability to manage stress can be influenced by both personal and environmental factors. High levels of the personality traits of neuroticism and emotionality can make it more difficult to handle stress. Strong social supports can improve the ability to respond to stress. A study by Wofford found that negative mood patterns, anger/irritability, and low self-esteem tend to increase the physiological response to stress.
A study by Crum and colleagues found that attitudes toward stress influence its emotional and cognitive impacts. Participants who viewed stress as a challenge that could help them grow displayed greater cognitive flexibility than those who viewed stress as a threat.
I’m not sure that there was a direct link between my ability to handle stress and my depressive illness. However, and not surprisingly, there’s a significant link between the severity of my depressive symptoms and my ability to handle stress. I very consciously take steps to manage the level of stress that I’m exposed to so that I can better manage my illness. That’s a big part of why I’ve chosen to only work night shifts at my job; the stress of putting up with the assorted BS associated with doing a day shift would cause an unacceptable detrimental effect on my mental health.
Is stress a big factor in your life, and how do you manage it?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- Centre for Studies on Human Stress
- Crum, A.J. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping.
- Schneiderman, N., et al. (2005). Stress and health: Psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Current Reviews in Clinical Psychology, 2005(1), 607-628.
- Wikipedia: Psychological stress
- Wofford, J.C. (2001). Cognitive–Affective Stress Response: Effects of Individual Stress Propensity on Physiological and Psychological Indicators of Strain. Psychological Reports.