People tend to think of stress as being uniformly negative—something to be avoided or at least minimized as much as possible. Psychologists Carolyn Aldwin and Daniel Stokols point out, however, that studies using both animals and humans have indicated that exposure to stress also has beneficial effects. Being handled by humans is stressful for rats, but rats handled as infants are less fearful, are more exploratory, are faster learners, and have more robust immune systems later in life. In humans, physical stature as adults is greater in cultures that expose children to stress (for example, circumcision, scarification, sleeping apart from parents) than in those that are careful to prevent stress exposure—even when nutrition, climate, and other relevant variables are taken into account. Although failure experiences in dealing with stressful circumstances can inhibit future ability to function under stress, success experiences enable learning of important coping and problem-solving skills that are then used to deal effectively with future stressful encounters. Such success experiences also promote a positive self-concept and induce a generalized sense of self-efficacy that, in turn, enhances persistence in coping with future stressors.
Psychologists Stephen Auerbach and Sandra Gramling note that stress is a normal, adaptive reaction to threat. It signals danger and motivates people to take defensive action. Over time, individuals learn which coping strategies are successful for them in particular situations. This is part of the normal process of mental growth and maturation.
Stress can, however, cause psychological problems if the demands posed by stressors overwhelm a person's coping capabilities. If a sense of being overwhelmed and unable to control events persists over a period of time, one's stress signaling system ceases to work in an adaptive way. One misreads and overinterprets the actual degree of threat posed by situations, makes poor decisions as to what coping strategies to use, and realizes that one is coping inefficiently. A cycle of increasing distress and ineffective coping may result. Some people who have experienced high-level stress for extended periods or who are attempting to deal with the aftereffects of traumatic stressors may become extremely socially withdrawn and show other signs of severe emotional dysfunction.
In severe cases where these symptoms persist for over a month, a psychological condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop. Common symptoms of PTSD include reliving the traumatic event, avoiding anything that reminds the person of the event, insomnia, nightmares, wariness, poor concentration, chronic irritability resulting in angry or aggressive outbursts, and a numbing of emotions. The symptom of numbing of emotions has been referred to as alexithymia, a condition in which the person lacks the ability to define and express their emotions to them selves and others. James Pennebaker believes that although alexithymics cannot express their emotions, these emotions are still present in an unconscious cycle of rumination; this suppression and rumination of negative thoughts is associated with increased psychological and physiological arousal. That is, it takes a lot of work to inhibit one's emotions.
Although anxiety is the most common emotion associated with stress, chronic stress may induce chronic negative emotions such as hostility and depression. Chronic hostility and depression have been shown to have damaging effects on social relationships and physical health. The known physical costs of chronic stress include poor immune functioning, not engaging in health-promoting activities (such as exercise and following the advice of a physician), and a shortened life expectancy.
When people are faced with a stressful circumstance that overwhelms their coping mechanisms, they may react with depression and a sense of defeat and hopelessness. According to Martin Seligman, learned helplessness is the result of a person coming to believe that events are uncontrollable or hopeless, and it often results in depression.
The fact that stress has both positive and negative effects can be exemplified in many ways. Interpersonally, stress brings out the "worst" and the "best" in people. A greater incidence of negative social behaviors, including less altruism and cooperation and more aggression, has generally been observed in stressful circumstances. Psychologist Kent Bailey points out that, in addition to any learning influences, this may result from the fact that stress signals real or imagined threats to survival and is therefore a potent elicitor of regressive, self-serving survival behaviors. The highly publicized murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, in 1964, which was witnessed by thirty-eight people (from the safety of their apartments) who ignored her pleas for help, exemplifies this tendency. So does the behavior during World War II of many Europeans who were aware of the oppression ofJews and other minorities by the Nazis but who turned their heads. Everyone has heard, however, of selfless acts of individual heroism being performed by seemingly ordinary people who in emergency situations rose to the occasion and risked their own lives to save others. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, firefighters continued to help victims and fight fires after more than two hundred of their fellow firefighters had been killed in the buildings' collapse. In addition, in stressful circumstances in which cooperation and altruism have survival value for all concerned, as in the wake of a natural disaster, helping-oriented activities and resource sharing are among the most common short-term reactions.
Stress may enhance as well as hinder performance. For example, the classic view of the relationship between stress and performance is represented in the Yerkes-Dodson inverted-U model, which posits that both low and high levels of arousal decrease performance, whereas intermediate levels en-
hance performance. Although this model has not been unequivocally validated, it seems to be at least partially correct, and its correctness may depend upon the circumstances. On one hand, psychologists Gary Evans and Sheldon Cohen concluded that, in learning and performance tasks, high levels of stress result in reduced levels of working-memory capacity and clearly interfere with performance of tasks that require rapid detection, sustained attention, or attention to multiple sources of input. On the other hand, psychologist Charles Spielberger found that in less complex tasks, as learning progresses, high stress levels may facilitate performance.
Psychologist Irving Janis examined the relationship between preopera-tive stress in surgical patients and how well they coped with the rigors of the postoperative convalescent period. He found that patients with moderate preoperative fear levels adjusted better after surgery than those with low or high preoperative fear. He reasoned that patients with moderate fear levels realistically appraised the situation, determined how they would deal with the stressful aspects of the recovery period, and thus were better able to tolerate those stressors. Patients low in preoperative fear engaged in unrealistic denial and thus were unprepared for the demands of the postoperative period, whereas those high in preoperative fear became overanxious and carried their inappropriately high stress levels over into the recovery period, in which that stress continued to inhibit them from realistically dealing with the demands of the situation. Janis further found that giving people information about what to expect before the surgery reduced their levels of fear and stress and allowed them to recover from surgery more quickly.
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