Stress is a state of psychological tension or strain. However, it is important to understand that stress is more than just in your head. Stress has very real – and very destructive effects on the body and can even lead to premature death. One of the big issues in psychology is the mind/body relationship – and stress is one of the ways in which the mind can profoundly influence the body.
A stressor is any environmental demand that creates a state of tension or thereat and requires change of adaptation. It may surprise you to learn that change – of any kind – is very stressful for most people. We all dream of winning the lottery, for example (at least I do). But when you read about the lives of people who suddenly get hold of millions of dollars, they are often stories of people whose lives were actually ruined by the sudden change (I’d like to see if that would happen to me – and, for the record, I’d be willing to be a little stressed out in the name of science).
There are many other types of stress (your book gives a long list and ranks them according to how stressful they are). Interestingly, finals week ranks very highly (even above concerns about a partner being pregnant)! Think about the stressors in your life. How many of the ones on the list do you have?
This leads to the issue of coping with stress. We’re all stressed out – we have stress at work, at school, at home, in everyday life. How do we deal with it? There are three strategies that deal directly with stress and all are healthy. The first way we can deal with stress is confrontation – acknowledging there is a problem and trying to find a solution. For example, if you are doing poorly in a psychology class, you may need to find ways to study the material more efficiently, get tutoring, rearrange your time, etc.
A second direct coping approach is compromise. Although this might sound “weaker,” compromise can actually be a very effective way to cope with stress. For example, if you are having a problem with your boss, you probably don’t want to confront him or her. The best solution might be to reach a compromise where each side agrees to a realistic solution that both can live with.
A third direct coping strategy is withdrawal. Although at first blush quitting might be viewed negatively, it is sometimes the best way to deal with stress. For example, if your boss won’t compromise with you at work and you really can’t stand your job, you might want to quit and find a new one (although this economy – which is very stressful -- certainly makes that difficult). Similarly, if you are in a bad relationship, you might want to leave rather than confront the problem or compromise.
There are other ways we cope with stress that are often less healthy. Instead of coping directly with stress, we cope defensively. We have developed various defense mechanisms to cope with stress. Defense mechanisms are ways in which we deceive ourselves about the causes of our stress so that we can reduce the stress we feel. The following are defense mechanisms we use:
1. Denial: the refusal to acknowledge a painful reality. For example, refusing to acknowledge you are HIV positive and continuing to have unprotected sex can have dire consequences.
2. Repression: excluding painful thoughts from consciousness. For example, childhood abuse is sometimes repressed by victims.