Stress is not an uncommon emotion. In fact at uni it’s rare if a day goes by without someone (or let’s be honest, myself) complaining how stressed they are about a deadline/job application/exams. But what is stress? Why does it affect some people more than others, and is there anything we can do about it?
Types of stress:
There is debate about this, but putting it simply there are two different types of stress: acute, and chronic.
Acute stress has a sudden onset, and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response, in which the brain releases adrenaline. This causes heart rate and blood pressure to increase, while functions which are seen as non essential, such as digestion, are decreased. This response prepares the body for danger.
In contrast, chronic stress is more long-term, and therefore has different effects on the body. The hypothalamus releases the neurotransmitter ACTH which causes the adrenal cortex to release cortisol. This makes sure the body has a source of energy, but weakens the immune system.
Both of these stress responses are illustrated in the diagram below:
Effects of stress:
As implied by the fact that chronic stress weakens the immune system, stress makes you more likely to become ill, and slows healing. For example, Marucha et al (1998) found that students showed slower wound healing during the exam period than at other times of the year. Glaser et al (1989) found that students also reported more illnesses during this time.
Reducing the impact of stress:
Luckily, there are factors which can reduce the effects of stress. One of these is mood: Stone et al (1987) found that being in a positive mood is associated with more secretion of immunoglobin – a type of antibody which fights infection.
Other cognitive coping strategies include:
1. Problem-focused strategy: attempting to change the external situation, often through some planned action.
2. Emotion-focused strategy: attempting the change our own emotional reaction to the situation.
Strategy number 2 is thought to be the most effective.
Why does stress not affect some people as severely?:
One theory was developed by Kobasa (1979) – the personality trait of ‘hardiness’. People high in this trait have a relative resistance to stress as they:
– believe in personal control over events
– have a commitment to full involvement in life
– enjoy challenges and opportunities.
One study found that executives who scored highly in these factors were less likely to become ill than others when exposed to the same amount of stress.
Another theory is that people who are less affected by stress have an ‘internal locus of control’, which means they believe they have personal control over events, rather than believing in external factors, such as luck (Hurrell & Murphy, 1991).
I hope you liked this post – if there’s any topic you’d like me to write about then let me know in the comments!