Scientific interest in stress, including how we adapt and cope, has been longstanding in psychology; indeed, after nearly a century of research on the topic, much has been learned and many insights have been developed. This chapter examines stress and highlights our current understanding of the phenomenon, including its psychological and physiological natures, its causes and consequences, and the steps we can take to master stress rather than become its victim.
- 14.0: Prelude to Stress, Lifestyle, and Health
- Few would deny that today’s college students are under a lot of pressure. In addition to many usual stresses and strains incidental to the college experience (e.g., exams, term papers, and the dreaded freshman 15), students today are faced with increased college tuitions, burdensome debt, and difficulty finding employment after graduation. A significant population of non-traditional college students may face additional stressors, such as raising children or holding down a full-time job.
- 14.1: What Is Stress?
- The term stress as it relates to the human condition first emerged in scientific literature in the 1930s, but it did not enter the popular vernacular until the 1970s. Today, we often use the term loosely in describing a variety of unpleasant feeling states; for example, we often say we are stressed out when we feel frustrated, angry, conflicted, overwhelmed, or fatigued. Despite the widespread use of the term, stress is a fairly vague concept that is difficult to define with precision.
- 14.2: Stressors
- For an individual to experience stress, he must first encounter a potential stressor. In general, stressors can be placed into one of two broad categories: chronic and acute. Chronic stressors include events that persist over an extended period of time, such as caring for a parent with dementia, long-term unemployment, or imprisonment. Acute stressors involve brief focal events that sometimes continue to be experienced as overwhelming well after the event has ended.
- 14.3: Stress and Illness
- The stress response, as noted earlier, consists of a coordinated but complex system of physiological reactions that are called upon as needed. These reactions are beneficial at times because they prepare us to deal with potentially dangerous or threatening situations (for example, recall our old friend, the fearsome bear on the trail). However, health is affected when physiological reactions are sustained, as can happen in response to ongoing stress.
- 14.4: Regulation of Stress
- As we learned in the previous section, stress—especially if it is chronic—takes a toll on our bodies and can have enormously negative health implications. When we experience events in our lives that we appraise as stressful, it is essential that we use effective coping strategies to manage our stress. Coping refers to mental and behavioral efforts that we use to deal with problems relating to stress, including its presumed cause and the unpleasant feelings and emotions it produces.
- 14.5: The Pursuit of Happiness
- Although the study of stress and how it affects us physically and psychologically is fascinating, it is—admittedly—somewhat of a grim topic. Psychology is also interested in the study of a more upbeat and encouraging approach to human affairs—the quest for happiness.
Thumbnail: Frustrated man at a desk. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; LaurMG).