Natalie Holland: Stress Point



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Physiological Stress Reduction
Psychological Stress Reduction






Psychological methods of stress reduction


Physiological responses to stress may also be reduced through relaxation. Jacobson (1938) observed that people experiencing stress tended to add to their discomfort by tensing their muscles.  To overcome this, Jacobson devised progressive relaxation.  In this, the muscles in some area of the body are first tightened and then relaxed.  Typically the patient starts with their feet and gradually works their way up the body, relaxing each set of muscles in turn.

Once a person becomes aware of muscle tension and can differentiate between feelings of tension and relaxation, the technique can be used to control stress-induced effects. Progressive relaxation lowers the arousal associated with the alarm reaction and reduces a number of recurrent heart attacks.  However, progressive relaxation only has long-term benefits if it is incorporated into a person's lifestyle as a regular procedure (Green, 1994).

Physical activity and exercise

Morris (1953) conducted (pardon the pun) a study of London bus drivers and conductors, (people that used to collect tickets on buses in the good old days.  See an episode of ‘On the Buses’ for further information).  He found that the conductors, who moved around the bus collecting fares, were far less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disorders than the sedentary drivers.  An obvious criticism of the study is that many other factors may result in drivers being more stressed than conductors.  Although Morris' study was correlational, subsequent research has confirmed that   physical activity and exercise are beneficial in stress reduction (Anshel, 1996).

Exercise almost certainly reduces some of the more dangerous effects of stress.  Remember that the 3Fs response is preparing the body for action.  By taking action in the form of exercise you are burning off some of the energy the body is mobilising.  High blood sugar levels are therefore reduced, circulation is improved and the heart muscles strengthened.  Psychologically, exercise might also be therapeutic, since sustained exercise can reduce depression and boost feelings of self-esteem (Sonstroem, 1984).


Cognitive techniques for stress reduction (psychological)

These are called ‘cognitive’ since they concentrate on people’s perceptions of stress and the way they think about the stressful situation and their ability to cope.  Hardiness and stress inoculation encourage patients to recognise their irrational or negative thoughts and perceptions and replace them with more positive and realistic ideas.

In recent years cognitive therapies have evolved into CBT (cognitive behaviour therapies) with a greater emphasis on changing unwanted behaviours.


Increasing Hardiness

People clearly differ in their abilities to resist a stressor's effects.  One characteristic that apparently helps resist stress is hardiness (Kobasa, 1979).  According to Kobasa, 'hardy' individuals differ in three main ways (see your earlier notes on this).

Commitment: they have more direction to their lives.

Challenge: interpreting any stress as making life more interesting, and

Control, the amount of stress experienced can be regulated. 

Those higher in hardiness tend to be healthier even though the levels of stress that they’ve suffered have been similar to less hardy individuals.  (Pine 1994).  Maddi, a colleague of Kobasa, has devised a series of programmes for increasing hardiness.  These include ‘HardiTraining’ and HardiWorkshops.’


Kobasa’s suggestions for increasing hardiness:

1.       Focusing.  Patients are taught to recognise the symptoms of stress such as heightened heart rate and muscle tension.

2.       Reliving stressful encounters.  Patients are asked to think about recent stressful situations that they’ve overcome and to consider better ways of dealing with similar situations in future.

3.       Self-improvement.  Emphasises that challenges can be coped with.  Suggests that circumstances that we feel are beyond us should be avoided!  (At last sensible advice!).  However she does propose that in this situation we take on a different challenge that is within our capabilities so that we experience the positive aspects of dealing with stress.

Maddi’s procedure has been used to reduce drop out rate and increase levels of graduation in university students and on Olympic swimmers to ensure higher levels of commitment and reduce stress.

However, the process is notoriously slow since it’s first necessary to tackle long standing habits and make alterations to personality.


Stress inoculation therapy

Meichenbaum's (1976, 1985) stress inoculation therapy assumes that people sometimes find situations stressful because they think about them in catastrophising ways.  Stress inoculation therapy aims to train people to cope more effectively with potentially stressful situations.  It is similar to hardiness and has three stages.

1.       Cognitive preparation (or conceptualisation) involves the therapist and patient exploring the ways in which stressful situations are thought about.  Typically, people react to stress by offering negative self-statements like 'I can't handle this'.  This makes the situation worse. 

2.       Skill acquisition and rehearsal, attempts to replace negative self-statements with incompatible positive coping statements.  These are then learned and practised.  (See examples that follow, practise a few if you so desire).

3.       Application and follow through involves the therapist guiding the person through progressively more threatening situations that have been rehearsed in actual stress-producing situations. Initially the person is placed in a situation that is moderate to cope with.  Once this has been mastered, a more difficult situation is presented.

According to Meichenbaum et al (1982), the 'power of positive thinking' approach advocated by stress inoculation therapy can be successful in bringing about effective behaviour change, particularly in relation to anxiety and pain.

Some coping and reinforcing self-statements used in stress inoculation therapy


Preparing for stressful situation

What is it I have to do?

I can develop a plan to deal with it.

Don’t worry.  Worry won’t help anything.

No negative thoughts; just think rationally.

Handling a stressful situation

One step at a time, you can deal with it.

Relax, you’re in control, you can deal with it.


Coping with the feeling of being over-whelmed.

It will be over shortly.

It’s not the worst thing that can happen.

Label your fear from 0 to 10 and watch it change.

Just keep the fear manageable.


Reinforcing self statements

It worked, you did it!

You can be pleased with the progress you’re making.

It wasn’t as bad as you expected!

I was able to do it because I was well prepared.

Sheehy and Horan (2004) reported the case of law students who received 4 weekly sessions of SIT each lasting 90 minutes.  They recored lowered levels of anxiety and an improvement in the grades of weaker students.

SIT is seen as particularly effective since it provides patients with techniques that can be used on future stressors and anxieties. 

Evaluation of cognitive methods

Some methods have been successful in reducing the ill effects of stress, for example Carver & Humphries (1982) showed that they reduced the incidence of CHD. 

Their main advantage over other interventions such as drugs is that they try to deal with the problem of stress directly, teaching people how to identify stress and develop effective techniques for dealing with it.

Cognitive methods also consider the needs of the individual and if used properly can be tailored to a person’s specific situation.

However, some stressful situations are completely out of the control of the individual for example a repetitive job or having to travel to work or traffic jams etc.  In such cases stress reduction is the best that can be hoped for.

In some cases companies have been criticised for setting up such stress management courses as a cheap or easy option rather than trying to tackle the real causes of the stress.  In so doing they are laying the blame squarely on their employees rather than facing up to their own responsibilities.

Exam advice

If the question asks for psychological methods concentrate on the cognitive methods above and below.  There’s far more to describe and discuss than there is with relaxation, meditation etc.

All Stressed out :-)