Stress can alter the person’s emotional state, the ways they think and behave, and can also produce changes in their physiological function

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Stressors can be described as events, which are perceived by individuals as endangering their physiological and psychological well being (Baum et al 2000).

The body has an automatic physiological reaction when faced with stressful circumstances, which is termed the fight or flight response. The hypothalamus is activated increasing the heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing rate. Whilst the physiological reaction of the fight or flight response is valuable in helping an individual cope with physical threat requiring immediate action, stressors which cannot be changed by an individual may be harmful to a persons health, causing coronary heart disease or affecting the immune system, arteries and organs.

Hans Seyle (1976) describes the body’s response to prolonged stress and termed it general adaptation syndrome (GAS). GAS consists of three stages, alarm, resistance and exhaustion. If exhaustion is reached the body is at great risk of disease and even collapse and death (Hancock and Desmond 2000).

Psychological reactions to stress include anxiety, anger, aggression, apathy, depression and cognitive impairment.

Lazarus points out that individuals differ in terms of what they perceive as stressors and his research shows how individuals appraise events is an important predictor of how they react accordingly. His experiment showed films of emotionally arousing incidents such as events leading to sawmill accidents.

According to the psychophysiological arousal (sweating measured by galvanic skin response) the anticipation of the gruesome event rather than viewing the accident itself, caused most arousal in subjects. Showing what we think and believe alters emotion.

The amygdala amongst the ANS response is dedicated to appraising emotional stimuli. Adolps, Tranel and Damasio (1998) report a recent study on the role of the amygdala, where they questio whether individuals appraisal of emotion can inluence heir personality.hey found patiens with isolaed bilateal destruction of the amygdala with a history of personal and social inadequacies were unable to judge the approachability and trustworthiness of persons by judging photographs, compared to a control group.

Characteristics of stressful events include factors such as traumatic events, controllability, and predictability, challenging our limits and internal conflicts.

Traumatic events include natural disasters, accidents and physical assaults. For instance Koss and Boeschen (1998) demonstrate the impact of rape and sexual violence on victims, who show high levels of depression, anxiety and dismay. Burnam et al (1988) found child victims remained at a higher risk of developing a psychological disorder throughout their lives.

The perception of uncontrollable events is more likely to be perceived as stressful. A study showed participants, photographs of violent deaths. The experimental group was able to terminate the viewing of photographs conversely the control group had no control. Measurement of galvanic skin response showed levels of arousal was lower in the experimental group despite the fact they did not exercise their power of control (Geer et al 1973).

An experiment by Katz and Wykes (1985) shows that predictable aversive events are preferred to unpredictable ones. (give example)

Individuals challenging their limits for instance preparing for exams or changes in life events may have a higher stress response. The Holmes and Rahe social readjustment rating scale shows a compiled and stress rated list of life events.

Rating of life events

Internal conflicts refer to the incongruity of inner needs and motives and may produce stress in some individuals. Psychologists describe these as: independence V Dependence, Intimacy V Isolation, Co-operation V Competition and Expression of impulse V Moral standards.

Returning to examine how reactions to stress manifest, research on emotions often categorizes them into positive and negative. Positive emotions include

love, optimism, joy, acceptance and happiness. Lazarus (1976) refers to negative emotions also known as the stress emotions as anxiety, depression, anger, grief, guilt, jealousy and shame.

Cognitive affective theories demonstrate the strong interactions between emotions, cognition and physiological responses. The cognitive appraisal theory ( Richard Lazarus) holds that cognitive appraisal of events leads to emotional arousal, which may lead to further appraisal.

According to Schachters two-factor theory on emotional arousal and cognitive labeling,situational cues are thought to be of importance in emotional experience. The intensity of physiological arousal tells us how strongly we are feeling something but situational cues give us the information we need to tell us what emotion we are feeling.

When faced with serious stressors, researchers have found an impairment in concentration and the ability to organize thoughts logically. Two factors contributing to this impairment are high levels of emotional arousal and distracting thoughts interfering with information processing and therefore task performance (Atkinson et al). This may manifest as task irrelevant responses, behaviour rigidity and self-destruction behaviours. Task irrelevant responses and behavioural rigidity occurs when an individual is unable to chose appropriae actions or responds in rigid inflexible ways because sress has caused lack of insight and lack of alternative responses to situations. An example is where people have been trapped in buildings set on fire and persisted in pushing exit doors ,which open inwardly.

The theory of learned helplessness examines some individual responses to uncontrollable negative life events and their learnt response affecting future decisions. The book Hilgards introduction to psychology suggests this theory may explain why some women remain in abusive relationships when they have the opportunity to leave.

Anxiety a stress emotion is thought to be characterized by a predisposed individual developing a cognitive pattern brought on by trauma. Symptoms include apprehension, tension, worry and fear. Post traumatic stress disorder symptoms include a lack of interest in enjoyable activities and feelings of estrangement from others and numbness to the world. A tendency to relive the trauma repeatedly in memories and dreams and sleep disturbances and difficulty concentrating are also prevalent.

The stress emotion anger is usually in response to frustration. The aggressive hypothesis theory assumes an aggressive drive is induced whenever a persons efforts to reach a goal are blocked.

Seligman (1975) explains the theory of learned helplessness as a different response to frustration whereby experiences with uncontrollable negative events can lead to apathy and depression.

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