Model of Stress and Coping

Individuals experience stress when faced with demands that require them to change in some manner. The state of stress has two components: the stressor and the stress response. A stressor is the source of the demand. It is the external or internal event that creates the demand. The stress response is composed of cognitive, affective, and physiological elements. For example, the stress response may involve levels of worry that may compromise an individual's ability to concentrate; feelings of apprehension, tension, and panic; and physiological reactions such as an accelerated heart rate, perspiration, tense muscles, and shallow breathing (1).

The severity of the stress that is experienced by individuals is influenced by the manner in which individuals cognitively appraise both the stressors and their capacity to effectively react to the stressors. Those individuals who appraise a stressor as more threatening are more likely to experience a greater stress response than individuals who sense that they have the capacity to respond constructively to the stressor. Thus, two individuals may experience the same stressor but experience different levels of stress.

Coping refers to individual's efforts to manage the stressors and/or stress. Two commonly mentioned categories of coping strategies are problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping occurs when individuals change the relationship between them and the environment. For example, individuals who experience stress stemming from their job may choose to change jobs.

Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, refers to a change in the meaning of the relationship between the individual and the environment. In reaction to stressors that cannot be physically eliminated, such as the death of a loved one or the experience of chronic physical pain, an individual may rely on the emotional support of others, cognitively reframe his or her reaction to the situation, develop a healthy sense of humor, or develop more effective relaxation techniques. All of these would be considered forms of emotion-focused coping.

Figure 22.1 depicts this model of stress and coping. People first appraise the stressor event in light of their past experiences. For example, their inability to effectively cope with a stressor may negatively influence their appraisal when they encounter a similar stressor in the future. If they appraise the situation as threatening, then a stress reaction occurs, quickly followed by coping. After the coping responses are activated, there may be either a reduction in the level of stress or, in the case of severe or unrelenting stress, a reduction in the effectiveness of these particular coping strategies (a breaking-down in coping) and thus a further increase in stress. As will be discussed later, severe or unrelenting stress may have major mental health implications for some individuals. The model implies that people actively interact with their environments. The broken arrow in Figure 22.1 represents the notion that coping has an ongoing influence on an individual's experience of stress and vice versa.

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