Dealing with Stress: One Size does not Fit All

This article is authored by Julia Reitsma and Arielle Radin and is a part of the 2018 pre-graduate spotlight week spotlight week.

Everyone faces stressful situations throughout life. Some handle these situations well and even thrive under stress, whereas some don’t and feel the negative effects. This is because people differ in the way in which they experience, process and interpret the feeling of stress, which is referred to as cognitive appraisal (Folkman, Lazarus, 1986). Although everyone faces situations we would deem “stressful,” not everyone has the same resources to cope with the same stressors, and therefore people can perceive the same event as either stressful or manageable.

Through cognitive appraisal we decide whether a specific encounter with the environment is significant to our well-being, and if so, in what ways. A large body of scientific literature has explored cognitive appraisals of stressful events, and has identified two primary processes we use to interpret potential stress. First, there is “primary appraisal,” which is used to determine whether something is stressful or not, or should be of one’s concern. If an individual deems an event as stressful, they will employ a “secondary appraisal” to evaluate if anything can be done to overcome or prevent the stress or harm from occurring. Essentially, we use secondary appraisal to evaluate whether we have the resources to cope with a stressful situation or not, and that is the basis for how we react to stressful stimuli (Folkman, Lazarus, 1986).

In other words, one way to appraise stress is to think of it as indeed, stress, limiting and harmful to our lives, in which our demands outweigh our resources. Another way to appraise stress is to view it as a challenge, in which resources are interpreted to outweigh demands. Why is this? Why are people responding differently to stress? Research suggest that our individual differences to stress responses are based on how early, and which types of, stressors we’ve been exposed to.

Recent research conducted on individuals who have experienced early-life stress suggests that the underlying mechanisms of different appraisals and abilities to deal with stress has to do with the interplay between our immune system and brain. The immune system has both direct and indirect connections to parts of our brain that have to do with self-regulation, emotional processes and behavioral-control. Individuals who have experienced early-life stress have immune systems that have been programmed to respond to subsequent stress throughout life more intensely. This means that stressors experienced even in adulthood result in a greater inflammatory response for these individuals than for others. This further affects how individuals appraise stressors and often predisposes them to self-medicating behaviors such as smoking, drug-use and consumption of a high fat diet. These types of behaviors exacerbate inflammatory processes, which in turn increases the susceptibility one has to stress and subsequent negative appraisal of stress (Nussellock and Chen, 2017). In short, it's a vicious cycle.

Individuals don’t only differ in how they perceive stress, they also differ in the amount of resources they have in dealing with any given stress. Forms of coping that are used vary depending on what is at stake and the options for coping. Researchers Gregory Miller and Edith Chen wanted to uncover whether there are different physiological advantages or disadvantages when it comes to being able to cope with stress, and whether early life stress affects the ability to cope with stress. Their findings suggest that the emotional and physical support that was or wasn’t present during child rearing affects children’s ability to properly regulate cortisol levels (a stress hormone). Children who had low emotional or physical support in particular were negatively affected by increases in cortisol present due to the stressful environment of insensitive child rearing (Miller and Chen, 2010). This research shows that chronic stress exposure during early life can overly engage the physiological stress response, which results in a maladaptive stress response in adulthood.

Therefore, being more resilient in the face of stress is not simply black and white. At times, our appraisals of stress have more to do with past experiences of stress than it has to do with current experiences of stress. Although coping with stress may be more difficult for those who have experienced early-life stress (Nussellock and Chen, 2017), under normative development and with adequate resources, humans are able to cope with adversity relatively well.

Now that we know how stress appraisals can differ both psychologically and physiologically among individuals, how can we combat some of this stress? There has been much research done on coping strategies and which ones seem to benefit people the most. Similar to stress, coping strategies do not have a “one size fits all.” Different coping strategies work for different people. Such strategies include practicing optimism, feeling like one has self-control or self-mastery, high self-esteem, and social support. These coping strategies have shown to have direct and indirect effects on mental health by the effects of gaining stress-reducing abilities. These coping strategies don’t only seem to help people manage stress better, but they also show more positive appraisals of stressful events and more approach-related coping (Taylor, Stanton, 2007).

Stress, therefore, isn’t only an annoying presence in our life, but rather has many different effects and meanings to everyone. Based on individual differences in appraisals, resources and upbringings, stress can be experienced variably between individuals and at different points in our lives. This gives us insight in knowing that not everyone has the same tools or coping abilities to deal with stress than others and furthermore shows us how important research on coping with stress is.

Julia is in her 3rd year at UCLA majoring in psychology. She is a research assistant in two labs on campus involving coping (Dr. Annette Stanton) and the effects of early life stress (Dr. Jennifer Silvers). She is a PROPS scholar and is interested in the effects of stress on foster youth as well as studying coping strategies involved in therapy. She plans on applying to graduate school within the field of psychology after graduation.

References

Nusslock, R., & Miller, G. E. (2016). Early-life adversity and physical and emotional health across the lifespan: a neuroimmune network hypothesis. Biological psychiatry, 80(1), 23-32.

Miller, G. E., Chen, E., & Parker, K. J. (2011). Psychological stress in childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: moving toward a model of behavioral and biological mechanisms. Psychological bulletin, 137(6), 959.

Folkman, S., Lazarus, R. S., Dunkel-Schetter, C., DeLongis, A., & Gruen, R. J. (1986). Dynamics of a stressful encounter: cognitive appraisal, coping, and encounter outcomes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(5), 992.

Taylor, S. E., & Stanton, A. L. (2007). Coping resources, coping processes, and mental health. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 3, 377-401.