Insights into Psychology

What Is… Psychological Stress

Insights into psychology: Psychological stress

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.

Managing stress

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.

Stress and depression

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 the what is… series in the Psychology Corner. You may also be interested in the stress bucket model and Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness.


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The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.

28 thoughts on “What Is… Psychological Stress”

  1. Such a good post! I’m not that good at handling stress, no surprise there I guess with burnout. I learned today (๐Ÿ˜Š) that I check a few of things that contribute to not handling stress well. I tried different ‘coping’-strategies but they failed in the long term.

    To change and to learn to approach it differently is a challenge (see, I’m doing it) and takes effort. Way too much stress for a prolonged times, takes a lot from your life, skills, body and mind.

    But to see stress for what it is and to understand how you can lower stress levels and handle them could be the key for a more happier life. In my very personal experience it is a very important (without stressing over it) topic.

    I’m still not good at handling it, so I mostly hide from it, run from it, sleep it away, cry about it or blog about it. Only the last one has some effect!

    1. Blogging definitely helps. I find it’s hard to move past feeling threatened by the same kinds of things that felt threatening in the past. Unlearning old patterns is far from easy!

  2. I canโ€™t handle stress and this has only become worse as I age. I avoid as much as I can… even little things like taking a longer route to avoid a freeway.

  3. Great blog post! I hear ya about working nights!! Things go so much easier when the patients are asleep!! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

    Yeah, the technical reason for my being on disability is that I can’t handle stress (and work stresses me out). I think I was exposed to decades of toxic stress by my mom, and it fried that part of my brain. Like, when she was trying to teach me to drive, I got behind the wheel, and she asked me to back out of the parking space. There were cars parked on both sides, and not knowing any better, I cut the wheel sharply to the side. She shrieked like a banshee, acted like I was ruining her life, and had one of her meltdowns. That sort of thing was, for years, a daily part of my life. Stress and coping with it just isn’t something I can handle.

    I love how informative your blog posts are!! Love it, and still feel like I’m back in psychology class! In a good way! ๐Ÿ˜€

      1. Her meltdowns feed and nourish her soul. ๐Ÿ˜› Seriously, I have no clue, but it’s a very good question!! I haven’t spoken to her since the last incident I blogged about. My BS meter is getting finer, and she’s going to push me away forever if she doesn’t try harder.

  4. Great post yet again Ashley. I’m one of those people who’s easily stressed and simple things that other people take for granted. In the UK, we walk on the left i.e. pavements, on stairs etc but now people just crowd the pavement or stairs and don’t care that I’m getting bashed about.

    I stress when people jump queues (if indeed there is a queue – people seem to crowd up at a bus stop and it’s every man/woman for themselves) like I’m invisible. I try doing mindfulness as I continue on my way…………….

    I recently flew to Scotland for a wedding and the noise from some of the 12-strong hen-do was awful; all using the F word and C word aarrgghhhhh! My partner wonders why I get so stressed out about it all. So I know it’s me that’s at fault. I think I should just hibernate in a onesie til next summer.

      1. I’ll wear a onesie too! Sounds fun!

        I hate the f-bomb. And it can be stressful to try to relax and be mindful, even though everyone around you is being rambunctious and rowdy! AARGH.

  5. Yeah the scale sounded whack. I mean really…a death of a loved one is easier than dealing with the birth of a child??? Really???๐Ÿ˜’

  6. I donโ€™t think a relationship is more stressful than dealing with death. Relationships get harder the longer you are together but they donโ€™t cause stress if youโ€™re willing to work together.

    My anxiety has lowered my ability to handle stress. The smallest of things cause me to panic. When I found out about my car and the cost, I panic about being able to pay it and how to figure it out. I was willing to push my boyfriend away because I was stressed about it. I didnโ€™t luckily

    1. It’s hard to overcome that urge to push people away, so that’s great that you were able to avoid doing it when faced with a stressful stituation like that.

  7. My most recent experience was last month when I had to go in ER as I was having splitting headache that moved from my head to neck to shoulders and doctor told me i m having migraines and muscle spasm because of stress.
    I am sensitive i admit. I thought with time i grew stronger but i think it’s just my reaction that changed. Now it bottles up inside rather than showing outside.

    I try n try but it constantly stays in the background.

  8. Great post!!! This helped me so much to understand my discontent at work. Before I started my job, I was a graduate student and was overworked/overstressed/anxious all the time. I took an “easy” job after grad school, but now I’m under-stimulated and still not performing optimally!!! Plus, I have personality traits of neuroticism and emotionality, so I find it hard to deal with drama and steamrolling in the workplace.

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