stress has many meanings

Stress is a commonly used term by the general population; however, its meaning in psychology varies. Inmedicalterms, stress is the disruption ofhomeostasisthrough physical orpsychologicalstimuli. It is generally considered to be an adaptation for an individual to cope with a challenging environment, (Glavin, Pare, Sandbak, Bakke & Murison, 1994). It is also a negative emotional and psychological process that helps an individual deal with a situation that may disrupt or is disrupting them, (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Stress is affected by negative events and experiences; they show a strong relationship to psychological distress and physical symptoms, therefore they are of a high interest to an individual's health. Uncontrollable and unpredictable experiences are two of the most stressful events. Controllability of an event has been widely researched in terms of subjective experience and physiological changes. It has been show that by increasing the perceived control an individual feels they have over a negative stressor reduces cortisol responses; meaning simple psychological intervention causes reduction in a physiological change within the body therefore reducing stress, (Abelson, Khan, Liberson, Erickson & Young, 2008). This will be investigated further in terms of personal control.

Stress is on the increase as many contemporary societies are showing the strain, (Robinson and Godbey, 1997; Zuzanek and Smale, 1997). Canadians moderate to high stress levels have increased from 27% to almost 50% in only eleven years, (McBride-King and Bachmann, 1999). Social support and coping strategies have therefore become a life-saving technique.

If an individual's resources are adequate enough to meet the strain the environment inflicts on them, they will have a low perception of stress. If an individual feels that they have enough resources to deal with the environment, they may experience some stress. If the individual feels the strain of the environment is too great in comparison to their resources, they will experience a great feeling of stress, (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Social support is a mediator of stress, it is defined as, "the perceived comfort, caring, esteem or help one individual receives from another, (Wallston, Wallston, Kaplan & Maides, 1976). Stress and social support are a source of disagreement between many researchers and authors, some assuming that lack of support is a stressor in itself and therefore increases the risk of a mental health problem, whereas others believe that support modifies stress but does not independently relieve it, (Vilhjalmsson, 1993).

There are many different types of social support, all with benefits and disadvantages. Appraisal includes an individual being informed; by helping someone understand a stressful event they can feel more in control. Individuals must also understand what resources and coping strategies to use to deal with a demanding environment. Emotional and esteem social support can be very helpful for many individuals suffering from stress related illnesses.

Tangible or instrumental social support allows individuals to have access to material support, this may come in the form of services, finances etc. Stress caused by financial problems is very common. Instrumental support is often emotionally meaningful; this usually occurs in 'private' interactions e.g. with family and friends. It shows that this kind of support has undertones of care and esteem, (Semmer, Elfrering, Jacobshagen, Perrot, Beehr & Boos, 2008). Informational support is very good for individuals who are going to face a stressful situation and would like more knowledge on it, perhaps including another individuals personal experience, such as, someone who is pregnant may gain support from a women has previously given birth and shared their knowledge. Network support is where many individuals experiencing similar stressors and can come together to share and experience it together, (Lai, 2001).

The buffering model of social support states that successful social networks will decrease the negative psychological experiences associated with stress, (Jou & Fukada, 1997). Individuals with high social support may perceive a situation as less stressful as they may be able to ask those in their social network to help with the situation, therefore, able to appraise the situation less stressfully. They may also be able to talk to individuals within their social network after the first appraisal that can convince them that the situation is not as stressful as they may have originally thought, therefore modifying their responses. People with a low social network would not have this benefit and the event may seem more stressful than to those with a high social network. This has been demonstrated in many studies, including Lee, Koeske & Sales' study on acculturative stress, where individuals with a high social support network expressed lower mental health symptoms than that of low social support individuals, (Lee, Koeske & Sales, 2004). Another study investigating stress-strain relations demonstrated consistency with the buffering model, (Fried & Tiegs, 2006).

Social support may work by direct effects as individuals with a high social support network may have strong feelings of belongingness and self-esteem. Other health benefits of this may occur outside of stress related illnesses or symptoms. Individuals with a high social support network have shown lower blood pressure in daily life and in lab tests, regardless of stress levels, (Uchino, Holk-Lunstad, Uno & Betancourt, 1999). It has also been found that people with a high social support network tend to live healthier lifestyles, (Pierce, Sarason & Sarason, 2000).

A study in 2004 demonstrated that social support alleviated symptoms of depression when the individuals felt appreciated within their social network, especially when they strongly valued their potential for helping others in their network. Therefore it was concluded that believing in one's worth and talents, especially one's ability to help others improve their psychological well being, aided the individual giving help, (Genoz, Tulin, Ozlale & Yesim, 2004). This is consistent with the main effect model of social support, (Pretorius, 1994). It could be that this increases an individual's self-efficacy, (Cutrona & Russell, 1987).

It has also been shown that individuals with a low social network have poorer general health than those with a larger social networks, this showed that good socio-emotional support was necessary for good general health and well-being, (Westaway, Seager, Rheeder & Van Zyl, 2005).

Research has shown that extroverts tend to actively seek out social support to compensate for their lower arousal, whereas introverts tend to shy away from a high pace, highly interactive environment. Therefore, social support is necessary at different level for extroverts and introverts. It also follows that introverts are less likely to use social support to cope by their nature, (Swichert, Rosentreter, Hitter & Mushrush, 2002).

The Matching Hypothesis has shown that instrumental support is very important for events that are controllable, such as studying more hours before an exam. Emotional support is important for events, which cannot be controlled, this includes losing a loved one. If a stressful event includes losing a job, esteem and tangible support can be helpful, (Coleman, 1993).

An individual's perception of stress and coping styles are very important, as this can determine the intensity of it, (Pollock, 1984). The physical manifestations of stress can include blood pressure, pulse, mood, neuromuscular changes etc. Mental fatigue, memory loss and irritability are a few of the many factors influenced by perceived stress, (Foxall, Zimmerman, Standley & Bene-Captain, 1990; Balch and Balch, 1997).

Individuals also prefer to have a sense of personal control in their lives. High personal control has been associated with low stress and psychological distress, (O'Connor & Shimizu, 2002). Control can be categorized into two: behavioral and cognitive. Behavioral control allows an individual to reduce the impact of a stressor or decrease its intensity by taking action. Cognitive control is the ability to use thought to decrease the intensity of a stressor, such as thinking of a happy time or event, therefore modifying the impact of the stressor. Decisional control allows individuals to choose what to do allowing them control between alternatives. Informational control allows an individual to gain knowledge about a situation that could be or is stressful, similar to the earlier example of pregnant women with regards to instrumental social support. All of these types of control have a positive effect, although cognitive control seems to have the most consistent effect.

Personal control and health are related in many ways; many individuals with a high sense of personal control may be more likely to look after their health and their lifestyles than those who report low personal control. Individuals with high personal control may also try and fix their illness quicker or more effectively than those with low personal control. Psychological stress and illness are highly related, which is why understanding stress and stressors is so important within this discipline. Individual's perception of personal control varies with individual differences and what the individual believes. A lack of personal control and high stress can lead to helplessness and therefore an increase in mental and physical health problems,(Cohen & Herbert, 1996).

Hardiness, resilience and coherence all seem to have a high impact on psychological well-being and many argue that they are so similar they are the same. A high sense of personal control can have an impact on a person's hardiness. The personality construct of hardiness is a buffer of stressors, (Duquette, Kerouac, Sandhu, Ducharme, & Saulnier, 1995). The conceptual framework behind this is the hardiness theory, which states that hardy individuals suffer from less stress as they reappraise any stressors that they encounter and use adaptive coping strategies, (Simoni & Paterson, 1997). Hardiness is made up of three areas: challenge, how open one is to change and problem solving, commitment, feeling involved, and control, the influence a person feels they have over their life and environment, (Kobasa, Maddi, & Zola, 1983). It seems that many individuals who handle stress well are termed as having hardiness.

Coherence is the way an individual views situations as manageable, meaningful and comprehensive, (Antonovsky's, 1987). A study in 2001 demonstrated that students with a high sense of coherence tended to view school demands as comprehensible and predictable and less threatening to their well being, (Torsheim, Aaroe & Wold, 2001). It has also been shown that having a low sense of coherence is associated with increased stress and illness, (Jorgensen, Frankowski & Carey, 1999). This is supporting evidence for Antonovsky's theory.

Resilience is the final of the trilogy and is seen as a moderator of pain and stress, and contains three sub-categories: self-esteem including the positive characteristics and resources of an individual, a supportive family environment and a social network, (Friburg, Hjemdal, Rosenving, Martinussen, Aslaken & Flaten, 2006). Resilient people tend to appraise negative experiences as less stressful and recover from a stressful experience quickly. They also tend to find the positives within a negative experience and use positive emotions, (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).

Health psychology tries to reduce stress in people to improve their psychological and physical well-being. Stress coping programmes are used by health psychologists to help individuals and groups of people cope with stress, these tend to allow individuals to move through several logical stages to reduce their stress, which then develops into coping strategies.

Social stress has been shown to increase the development of tumours as it suppresses the immune system; this has been demonstrated in many studies, (Avitsur, Stark, Dhabhar & Sheridan, 2002; Bartolomucci, Palanza, Gaspani, Limiroli, Panerai, Ceresini, Poli & Parmigiani, 2001; Cacho, Fano, Areso, Garmendia, Vegas, Brain & Azpiroz, 2003).

Coping has a great number of definitions, and from two to eight different factors assessed by different instruments, (Parker & Endler, 1992). Coping tends to fall into three categories; problem-focused, avoidant, or emotion-focused, however, many factors may overlap as there is no standardized definition, (Christiano & Mizes, 1997). In response to stress, individuals tend to 'cope'; using the Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) work, emotion-focused coping involves controlling an emotional response to a particular situation. Problem-focused coping (sometimes called task-orientated coping) involves reducing the demands of the situation by doing something constructive about it, (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Pharmacological remedies are also commonly used to decrease perceived stress in individuals; this is another method of coping. Voluntary control can be used to control stress where an individual uses Biofeedback by measuring their heart rate, muscle tension, body temperature, gastric acid secretion etc and is as effective as progressive muscle relaxation. An example of this is control over blood flow, temperature probes are attached to fingertips and allow the individual to monitor their own body temperature and have control of it. It is a technique that can be learnt, however, it has been speculated that it is similar to relaxation therapy, (Silver & Blanchard, 1978). Relaxation is another common way to cope; this is where an individual may use progressive muscle relaxation or mini relaxation episodes to reduce their stress levels, trying to relax oneself without help is frequently used and takes little time to apply, (Ponce, Lorber, Paul, Estereis, Barzvi, Allen & Pescatello, 2008). Systematic desensitization is a type of coping where classical conditioning is applied.

It must be noted that many different factors influence coping strategies, e.g. gender, culture, etc. Different people use different types of coping strategies, for example, profession can influence coping strategy. Health care professionals tend to use a self-confident approach, (Isikhan, Comez & Danis, 2004) while project managers tend to use active and planning coping strategies, (Aitken & Crawford, 2007).

Culture must also be taken into account when assessing stress as recent literature has shown many variations. Indian students tend to report more psychological symptoms than Canadian students; however, this is shown by self-reporting, which has many limitations, (Sinha & Watson, 2007). Cultures have their own set of rules of what is stressful; some cultures such as Japan and Korea attribute future success completely to education, putting a lot of pressure onto children who therefore feel negative stressful experiences. Polygamy is acceptable in some cultures such as Africa, where less wives means higher stress as there is more work shared between less people, whereas in Scotland polygamy is more likely to be a stressor, (Colby, 1987).

Gender differences occur between perceived stresses, constructed by socialization experiences and social roles that have been constructed by gender differences. Differences include men perceive emotional and instrumental social support as factors of perceived stress, whereas women perceive emotional support as a factor. This is a good demonstration of gender differences as it contained a relatively large sample (N=3210), (Matud, Ibanez, Bathencourt, Marrero & Carbelleira, 2003).

A study in 2001 separated coping into general coping strategies and leisure coping strategies. By general coping strategies, Lazarus and Folkman's 1984 work on problem and emotion-focused coping was used. Cultural differences occur here as Western values tend to favor taking direct action of a problem rather than re-appraising a situation, (Lazarus, 1993a).

By leisure coping strategies, it is meant leisure provides many opportunities to deal or cope with stress, such as self-determination disposition This is thought to help individual's cope with stress as they believe that their pursuits are autonomous, (Coleman & Iso-Ahola's,1993). This is closely linked to freedom of choice and a sense of control; the importance of these issues has previously been mentioned. This type of coping has been demonstrated to maintain good health under stressful experiences, (Coleman, 1993). Social support is also important within this area, where leisure friendship and leisure companionship form a coping factor. These represent a personality disposition and a situation-specific coping strategy that unite to deal with stress, (Iso-Ahola and Park, 1996). Social support networks develop through leisure, which adds to the multi-dimensional aspect of social support, (Pierce, Sarason, and Sarason, 1996).

Empowerment is another aspect of leisure coping strategies, which may be incorporated into the hardiness model as when the challenges and demands that the environment brings are overcome, empowerment may be felt, (Ouellette-Kobasa, 1993). Another dimension of leisure coping is mood enhancement, where increase in positive mood and a decrease in negative mood may relieve perceptions of stress, (Hull and Michael, 1995).

The contribution of Social Support and Coping Strategies in negative stress experiences has been of great importance in the general well-being of individuals' physical and psychological health. Social support takes many forms; emotional and instrumental support are somewhat connected in the sense that instrumental support in descriptive terms usually has undertones of emotional support in terms of caring and esteem. Tangible, instrumental and information support are all very useful individually although have a greater impact together. Having a high social network has been shown to be positively related to many health issues in terms of alleviation of depression, increase in belongingness and self-esteem, healthy blood pressure and a healthy lifestyle.

Social support may work by buffering and direct effects. Buffering decreases the negative effects of stressors in a few ways; by allowing individual's to communicate and appraise the situation and then allowing the individual to reassess the situation as less stressful. However, this is only true of individuals with a moderate to high social network, (Jou & Fukada, 1997). Direct effects allows individuals to have a sense of belongingness and self-esteem, which has many health benefits including lower blood pressure than individuals with a low social network, (Uchino et al., 1999).

Personal control can have an important impact on perceived stress; behavioral and cognitive control allows individuals to have a positive impact upon their own future, allowing them to choose or at least have some level of choice over the consequences of a negative experience. Individuals with a high sense of personal control tend to be healthier than those with a low sense of personal control; this could be due to many reasons including remedying illness quicker or more effectively. This is very important as illness and psychological stress are highly correlated, (Cohen & Herbert, 1996).

Hardiness, coherence and resilience are three factors that may play an important role in stress. Hardiness is thought to be a buffer of stress and those described as hardy tend to deal and cope with stress well. Coherence allows an individual to view a situation as manageable, meaningful and comprehensive, therefore allowing them to cope with negative stressors well. Comprehension is seen as a moderator of pain and stress, (Friburg et al., 2006).

Many different factors account for stress and social support and coping strategies are very helpful in alleviating and moderating negative stress experiences, which in turn improve psychological and physical well-being. The contribution of recent literature has opened many doors to individuals with and without health problems, allowing them to have a better understanding of their own well-being.

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