Psychological Stress Meaning, Reaction, Management

Psychological stress is well known as an important contributor to poor health. It plays a role in immune suppression, cancer development and cardiovascular disease among a host of other conditions. While certain episodes in life, like grieving following the death of a loved one, is known to cause immense psychological stress, even everyday incidents that we take for granted can impact on mental health and welfare. The way we allow stress to affect us depends to a large degree on individual coping skills and stress management. Removing stress or avoiding it is not always possible and to minimize the adverse health effects of stress, every person should understand proper stress management.

What is psychological stress?

Psychological stress is the mental and/or emotional strain from activities and events in life. It can elicit a host of emotions such as frustration, anxiety, anger, sadness and so on. These different emotions are sometimes present with certain mental health conditions despite the absence of any stimulus such as a life event triggering it. Usually psychological stress is a consequence of environmental stimuli, whether it is long hours of studying for an exam, dealing with a difficult boss or driving around with screaming kids in the car.

How we deal with stress is just as important as the root cause. Some people seem to have a natural propensity to manage stress without reacting overtly or letting it affect their life. These people may have good coping skills and effective ways of managing stress, although they may also be suppressing their emotions at times. Other people may react extremely to even minor stresses in life with excessive emotional outbursts and impairment of daily functioning. Sometimes the effects are not obvious and many people are not aware of the signs of stress.

Types of Stress and Stressors

Stress can be broadly classified as physical or psychological (mental and emotional). With regards to psychological stress, it cause both physiological and psychological reactions. The cause of the stress or trigger is referred to as the stressor. These stressors can be classified in different ways depending on the psychological perspective. In terms of environmental psychology the types of stressors include:

  1. Daily problems/hazards
  2. Ambient
  3. Major life events
  4. Cataclysmic events

Daily Problems

This type of stress is what most of us experience. In fact a person is unlikely to escape it on an almost daily basis in modern living within cities and other urban areas. It is usually short-lasting yet chronic in nature. This means that the stressor lasts for a short period of time within a day but tends to recur on an almost daily basis. Example: gridlock traffic.


This type of stressor is not always as obvious but is usually continuous. It affects either one person or many people simultaneously. Most people become accustomed to ambient stressors after a period of time and never identify it as a source of stress. Although most people cope with it in due course it still has an effect. Example: Noise pollution from living near a railway line.

Major Life Events

This type of stress includes severe illness of the individual or death of a loved one. It is usually considered to be the most challenging type of stress and requires good coping skills to manage and eventually overcome. Although in many instances it should be short term, some people may experience it long term, for example cancer or prolonged grieving for years (complicated grief disorder).

Cataclysmic Events

This type of stress affects many people simultaneously. It is sudden and intense. Sometimes it may be short term while at other times it can be long term. Most people find this type of stress very challenging and few can cope alone with social support. The effects may persist for years or decades later. Example: natural disaster or war.

Reaction to Stress

Our body reacts to stress in different ways. Most of the time there is a physiological reaction and a psychological reaction.

Physiological Reaction

There are three stages in the physiological reaction to stress:

  1. Alarm: The body is prepared for action to react to the stress. This is also known as the “fight or flight reaction” and is mediated by the stress hormones like adrenalin.
  2. Resistance: The body attempts to cope with the situation after recovering from the initial alarm stage. This stage will continue until the stress is removed or if a person cannot cope they may progress to the exhaustion stage.
  3. Exhaustion: The body can no longer cope with the stress and it starts to have widespread effects on different systems. It can lead to a range of negative health effects and even give rise to certain illnesses.

Psychological Reaction

There are broadly two stage in the psychological reaction to stress:

  1. Cognitive process: In this stage a person anticipates the dangers of the stress based on past experience or knowledge and tries to find ways to prepare itself for it.
  2. Coping stage: The person is able to finds best coping mechanism to deal with stress on a psychological level and awaits a change in circumstances where the stress either goes or away or can be overcome.

Management of Stress

Stress management has become an important part of modern medicine. Stressors cannot be avoided altogether and people may face it for an entire lifetime. The goal of stress management is to limit the adverse effects of stress on the physical and mental health as well as emotional wellbeing. There are many ways to learn to manage psychological stress and ideally it should be done under the supervision of a mental health professional. Different measures may be useful to different people.

Simple ways to manage and reduce stress that any person can undertake includes:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation or yoga
  • Social activities like sport
  • Spending time with a pet
  • Taking up a hobby
  • Going on vacation

Learn patterns of behavior to respond and deal with stress are known as coping skills which can be useful for a lifetime. It can be learned one-on-one with a mental health professional or with many other people like in group support sessions.

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