Part 1 - Sources and Causes of Stress
In everyday life, we face pressures from many sources. Stress can be defined as an external pressure that exceeds our resources to cope with it. It can also be a physical and psychological response to events perceived as a threat to one’s sense of well-being.
Good and bad stress
Not all stress is harmful. In fact, it can be desirable, and even essential, to have some amount of stress in life. Research has shown that, within certain limits, an individual’s performance improves with an increased level of stress.
For example, an athlete is able to run faster under the stress of competition. A student studying for examinations is able to think quicker and stay alert because of the stress of impending examinations. Stress can bring out the best in us. Like a violin string that needs to be tuned to a certain tension in order to produce a beautiful sound, we can stretch our potential to perform at our optimum. However if the string is stretched too tightly, it will snap. If it is too loose, it may not produce any sound or produce sound of poor quality.
Similarly, if we are not under any stress, we may not achieve our fullest potential, or our performance will be lackluster. If we are under too much stress our performance can suffer. Hence we need an optimum level of stress to bring out the best in us.
Sources of stress
The following are some examples of predictable stressors:
While work can provide immense satisfaction, it can also bring about stress. Examples of factors that can cause stress at work include lack of control over work environment, too much work and too little time, inability to master new technology, threat of retrenchment, unclear goals, lack of feedback regarding job performance and unsupportive bosses.
Financial stress can result from economic recession, inflation, high prices for housing, inability to pay mortgage or medical bills and being unemployed.
3. Family problems
Family problems can also give rise to stress. Some common family problems are marital conflicts, disobedient children, being apart from spouse who is working overseas, in-law issues, difficult neighbours, children who get into trouble with the law, spouse who is addicted to alcohol and marital.
Some stressors may not be predictable, for example, illness of spouses, death of spouses, meeting with an accident, and being retrenched.
There has been considerable research demonstrating the impact of life events on physical and mental disorders. Two researchers, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe observed that life events tended to cluster or increase in intensity prior to the onset of disease. They have found that death of spouse ranks as the most stressful event followed by divorce and separation.
However there are life events like marriage, moving house and having a baby, which are of neutral impact. But even these neutral events may be stressful, for instance, if the baby falls sick, or when the newly wed couple has difficulty adjusting to life together. Some positive events such as getting promoted at work may have an adverse effect as promotion means increase in responsibilities.
Personality and stress
A person’s reaction to stress is determined to a great extent by his or her personality. Personality traits reflect the sum total of the way we habitually think, feel and behave in a given situation. There are certain personality traits which make a person more susceptible to stress.
1. Obsessional personality
These individuals are perfectionists and set high standards for themselves and others. They are rigid and react poorly to changes in their living environment.
2. Anxious personality
This person is a worrier who gets anxious over minor problems. He or she often overestimates the magnitude of his problems and underestimates his or her coping abilities.
3. Type A personality
The Type A personality was first described by 2 cardiologists - Friedman and Rosenman - who noted that individuals with such personalities were more susceptible to suffer from heart attacks. Typical Type A persons are ambitious, impatient, hard driving, competitive, have great sense of time urgency, often perform 2 or more tasks simultaneously, are restless, hostile, evaluate people or events in a suspicious manner, and are irritable.
Stress reactions - are they automatic and inevitable?
Stressors do not automatically lead to stress reactions. Different people react differently to the same stressors. Why is this so? The answer lies in the perception of the situation. We have seen that whether a person feels stressed depends on whether he thinks or perceives he can cope with the situation.
Perceptions of one’s ability to cope depends on certain factors such as personality, intelligence, the role of teachers, parents, childhood experiences, one’s coping skills and social support. Our personality influences the way we habitually think, feel and react to stressful situations.
Case Study 1 - The influence of negative perceptions
Cheng was given a difficult task by his immediate superior. Thoughts such as “I’m sure to fail”, “he’s all out to make life miserable for me” and “people can’t be trusted” caused him to perceive that he had inadequate coping resources and could expect little help from others. Understandably he felt stressed.
On the other hand Leong interpreted the same situation differently, telling himself: “I will try my best”, “I have performed the task before, I should be able to do it again” and “even though I made mistakes, I am now wiser and have learnt not to make the same mistakes”. While Leong tackled the assignment confidently and accomplished his goals, Cheng became easily discouraged, postponed carrying out his duties, made careless mistakes, and earned the displeasure of his superior.