Social Stress

The term stress has three major meanings. First, stress refers to situations that make individuals feel anxious and out of balance. Second, stress refers to the emotions that result from exposure to such situations. Finally, stress refers to the bodily changes that occur in response to these situations and emotions. For example, a fight with a friend is a stress that can produce the emotion of stress and lead to the physical stress of tensed muscles, rapid heartbeats, and heavy breathing. Stress can be either acute (such as the death of a spouse) or chronic (such as long-term loneliness or financial difficulties resulting from a spouse’s death). Importantly, stress is often cumulative. An individual’s cumulative stress burden—the sum of acute and chronic stresses that one has experienced—is a powerful predictor of ill health.

Stress is a natural, unavoidable, and sometimes beneficial part of life. Thousands of years ago, hunters experienced stress as they anxiously prepared to track wild animals. That emotional stress put physical stress on their bodies, but it also kept their minds focused on their tasks. If, for example, a wild animal suddenly attacked, a hunter might survive because the emotional stress resulted in the physical stress response known as the fight-or-flight syndrome. The same quick heartbeat we experience while fighting with a friend could have saved the life of someone fighting a lion, because these physical changes help our bodies produce additional energy and oxygen and hence respond more quickly and effectively to threats.

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Although the fight-or-flight response works well for dealing with sudden threats such as rampaging lions, speeding cars, and last-minute quizzes, it is far less useful for dealing with less acute but chronic stresses such as poverty or an ill child. Each time the body responds to a threat, it uses muscles, energy, and other resources. Over the long run, such stresses can wear out the body and lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses as well as encourage individuals to adopt unhealthy behaviors such as smoking tobacco or having sex without condoms.

The impact of the stress, however, depends heavily on the nature of the stress: Studying for a short quiz, for example, is less stressful than failing a final exam. Stress is particularly likely to affect health when it stems from a “fateful loss,” is physically exhausting, or disrupts social support systems. For example, an accountant who loses his job, has to work exhausting double shifts as a cashier to replace his lost income, and no longer has the time or money to hang out with friends will likely experience dangerous levels of stress. As this suggests, chronic stress is especially important, diminishing individuals’ abilities to ward off infections, depression, and other health problems.

But even when exposed to similar levels of stress, some individuals are more susceptible to illness than others. The likelihood that stress will affect health de- pends in part on how individuals appraise the stress and how they cope with the stress. In turn, both responses to stress depend on the social resources individuals bring to the situation. For example, flunking an exam is far more stressful for a student who risks losing his scholarship than for other students. It will also be less stressful if the student copes by quickly seeking out a good tutor rather than by getting high or blaming her grade on an incompetent teacher. But the student’s ability to respond effectively will also be determined in part by her social resources: Has she learned from a young age to turn to alcohol as a coping measure? Do her friends encourage her to continue trying or to drop out? Does she have the funds needed to hire a tutor and the contacts needed to find a good one? The answers to these questions will affect whether this acute stress leads to chronic stress and, in the end, to ill health.


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