The Origins of Stress

The origins of stress may vary with the individual, but in general, stress arises from frustration, life changes, conflict, lack of control, and uncertainty.

Frustration. Frustration occurs when an individual is blocked or thwarted, whether by personal or environmental factors, in an attempt to reach a goal. Personal frustration and accompanying stress could result, for example, if an individual who lacks adequate vocal skills repeatedly tries out for (perhaps because of parental pressure) but fails to be accepted by a glee club. If such attempts are too intense or too prolonged, the stress can provoke bodily symptoms and illness. Environmental frustration and accompanying stress could result, for example, if an individual auditioning for a glee club has to deal with unfamiliar music, a poorly prepared accompanist, loud noises, or some other environmental annoyance.

Frustration can motivate aggression. Experiment subjects (including humans, pigeons, monkeys, and rats) show an inclination to attack if they do not receive expected rewards, although aggression is less likely if other responses to frustration have been learned. Experimentally, it has also been shown that increased response vigor may occur in response to frustrating circumstances. If increased vigor does not produce desired results, a subject may then react with escape or avoidance responses. If these responses are not possible, a subject may enter, after prolonged frustration, into a psychological state of depression.

Life changes. Life changes, both those perceived as “good” (such as marriage or the birth of a baby) or as “bad” (such as the death of a parent, a tragic accident, or being fired) can produce stress and stress‐related responses. Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967 developed the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which assigns numerical values to 43 life events ranging from “death of spouse” (100 points) to “minor violations of the law” (11 points). A subject checks the events that have occurred within a particular period of time, and the point total provides an index of life‐change stress. Although some research supports the efficacy of the scale, more recent research has indicated that other factors may moderate the impact of the stressful event and that these situations may be assessed differently by different individuals.

Conflict. Conflict occurs when two incompatible goals or possible behavioral responses are simultaneously present. When conflicts are unresolved, they cause stress. Neal Miller, in a detailed analysis of the types of conflicts and strategies for resolving them, identified approach‐approach, avoidance‐avoidance, and approach‐avoidance conflicts.

  • An approach‐approach conflict occurs when an individual must choose between two equally desirable goals, such as either chocolate cake or apple pie for dessert. These conflicts are usually the easiest to resolve.

  • avoidance‐avoidance conflict occurs when an individual must choose between two equally undesirable goals or activities. A child who is dared to climb a flagpole and is afraid of being called a coward if the dare is refused but is also afraid of falling if the climb is attempted is faced with an avoidance‐avoidance conflict.

  • approach‐avoidance conflict is the result of having concomitant but incompatible goals. Such would be the case when a student wants to do well on an exam but also wants to spend the evening watching television instead of studying.

The three types of conflicts can be depicted graphically as gradients of response strengths for approach and avoidance. Typically, the strength of the tendency to avoid or approach increases as one nears the goal. Where the gradients intersect, conflict occurs. Experimentally, response‐strength gradients have been constructed by measuring how hard rats pull, at various distances from a goal, to approach the goal or to retreat from it.

Approach‐avoidance conflicts (Figure ) lead to indecisiveness. Experimentally, it has been shown that avoidance responses become more dominant the closer one comes to a goal that has both positive and negative aspects, causing one to retreat from the goal to a point at which strength of the approach and avoidance responses are in balance (causing the indecisiveness). Retreat may also proceed far enough that approach may once again be attempted. A method for resolving an approach‐avoidance conflict is to change the strength of one of the conflicting motives so that they are not equal (that is, so that the strength of the tendency to approach is stronger).

Figure 1

An Approach‐Avoidance Conflict

Lack of control and uncertainty. Studies have demonstrated that elderly people in nursing homes who exert some control over their placement in such facilities and over their daily activities have less stress and better health. Animal studies have shown that uncertainty of the occurrence of an aversive event increases its aversiveness.