PSYCH101 Study Guide

Unit 9: Health and Stress Psychology

9a. Describe stress, the stress process, and the physiological basis of stress

  • What is stress?
  • What's the difference between primary and secondary appraisal?
  • How can stress manifest itself?

The field of health psychology is concerned with our well-being, how we handle stress, as well as how stressful experiences can impact our daily lives and health. Stress is not an easy concept to define because people generally experience and respond to it differently. Researchers therefore agree that we must focus on how we respond to stressful situations in order to define stress (so moving away from stimulus-based definitions). Consequently, an acceptable definition of stress is "a process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that he appraises as overwhelming or threatening to his well-being." These events can be referred to as stressors.

It's important to understand that stress affects us because of how we respond to it. It is also important to distinguish between primary and secondary appraisal. Primary appraisal refers to our judgment of the degree of harm or threat a particular stressor has on us, for example, receiving a poor grade might make us feel threatened if report cards are about to come out. How we perceive a threat leads to secondary appraisal, namely, our judgment of how we cope or respond to the stressor. For example, if we decide to take action and discuss the poor grade with the teacher in the hope of doing extra work for a higher score, we might not feel as stressed or threatened by the stressor.

Stress can manifest itself through a variety of symptoms and responses for example, physiological (elevated heartbeat, sweating, gastrointestinal problems), cognitive (having trouble concentrating), and behavioral (engaging in harmful behaviors to alleviate the stressor).

To review, read sections 14.1 and 14.2 in the textbook.


9b. Explain the research on stress done by Walter Cannon and Hans Selye and how it applies to real-world situations

  • What contributions did Walter Cannon and Hans Selye make to health psychology?
  • What are some differences and similarities in their work?

The American physiologist, Walter Cannon, was among the first to explore stress and how our bodies respond to stressful events. He discovered the "fight or flight" response to stress which suggests that our body quickly arouses the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system when confronted with a stressful event so that our pupils dilate, our breathing quickens, we begin to sweat, our heart rate increases, and our muscles tense or tremble. These physiological responses prepare us to either fight or escape from the stressful event.

Hans Selye studied rats' responses to stress and developed the "General Adaptation Syndrome," our body's physiological response to stress. According to his syndrome, when confronted with a stressful event, our bodies react in 3 stages: alarm reaction, stage of resistance, and stage of exhaustion. Selye agreed with Cannon that our initial reaction (alarm reaction) is that of fight or flight namely that our body provides us with energy to fight or escape the stressor. When the stressor continues, our bodies move to the second stage – stage of resistance – during which the initial shock wears off and our bodies slowly adapt to the stressor but still remain on high alert. In this stage, our body is still ready to respond but with less intensity than in the previous stage. When the stressor continues over a longer period of time, we move to a stage of exhaustion during which we can no longer adapt to the stressor and our body becomes weakened and more susceptible to illness.

To review, read sections 14.1 and 14.2 in the textbook.


9c. Understand how stress affects bodily functioning and illness

  • What is the relationship between stress and health? Which bodily systems can be affected by stress?
  • What is the relationship between Type A & B personalities and the development of cardiovascular disease?

When our bodies are stressed, we release the stress hormone Cortisol to provide extra energy to either fight or flight. Our bodies can handle short spurts of Cortisol but extended release of this hormone can have effects on our bodies. Research has linked increased Cortisol levels to decreases in immune systems and our ability to fight diseases.

Research also shows that chronic or persistent stress can have harmful effects on our bodies and manifest itself in the form of psychophysiological problems. Stress commonly affects the following bodily systems:

  • Cardiovascular (hypertension, heart disease)
  • Gastrointestinal (problems with bowel movements)
  • Respiratory (asthma, allergies)
  • Musculoskeletal (pains, headaches)
  • Skin (acne, eczema)

Classic research by Martin Friedman even linked personality types to chronic stress and consequently cardiovascular disease. He found that people who displayed a Type A personality (rushed, career-focused, workaholics, confrontational) were more likely to develop heart disease than Type B patients who were more relaxed and laid-back.

To review, read section 14.3 in the textbook.


9d. Explain how coping mechanisms help to regulate stress

  • What's the difference between problem-focused and emotion-focused coping?
  • What types of stress reduction techniques can help alleviate stress?

Health researchers not only study stress but also how we cope with it. They differentiate between two different styles of coping: Problem-focused coping refers to identifying the problem and doing something about it to make it less stressful (action-focused) whereas emotion-focused coping refers to changing the negative emotions attached to the stressor. For example, if you suddenly lose your job, you might start looking for a new job right away or updating your resume (problem-focused) or you might try to look at the bright side by thinking you might now be able to pursue other career interests (emotion-focused). How we cope also depends on how much perceived control we have over the stressful situation.

Research finds that social support can be helpful in coping with stress but there are also a number of stress reduction techniques that have been found to be helpful. Examples include the "relaxation stress response technique" that combines relaxation and meditation as well as "biofeedback" which uses an electronic apparatus to measure and provide feedback on visual and auditory signals.

To review, read section 14.4 in the textbook.


9e. Understand the subfield of positive psychology and the importance of happiness

  • Who developed the field of positive psychology? What does it focus on?
  • What is happiness?

Martin Seligman who initially studied the phenomenon of "learned helplessness" recently founded the field of positive psychology. The field encourages psychologists to focus on human strengths and identifying the factors in life that make us feel happy and fulfilled. Some equate positive psychology with the study of happiness.

While there are many definitions of happiness, some researchers view it to consist of three elements: the pleasant life (attainment of daily pleasures), the good life (identifying specific skills that make us happy), and the meaningful life (deriving a sense of fulfillment or meaning from our activities).

Research finds that happiness is strongly related to age so that older people tend to be happier. Having a family as well as having friends is also associated with happiness as is education and employment.

To review, read section 14.5 in the textbook and "Positive Psychology".


Unit 9 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that might help you with the review items above and some terms you should be familiar with to be successful in completing the final exam for the course.

Try to think of the reason why each term is included.

  • Stress
  • Stressor
  • Primary appraisal
  • Secondary appraisal
  • Fight or flight response
  • General adaptation syndrome
  • Psychophysiological disorders
  • Type A & B personality
  • Coping (problem-focused & emotion-focused)
  • Relaxation stress response technique
  • Biofeedback
  • Happiness
  • Optimism
  • Positive affect
  • Flow
  • Positive psychology