Social Stress

September 28, 2011

Social stress plays a major role in a person’s well-being. While many researchers do not differentiate between the terms social stress and stress, social stress is differentiated from physical stress in that physical stress is due to stressors that are directly taxing the physical condition of the body such as excessive physical labor or physical restraint. Social stress has been found to be deleterious to health across a variety of outcomes (see entry on Stress). In a study of mice, socially stressed mice were more likely to die after exposure to infection relative to physically stressed mice. In this study, socially stressed mice were defined as those that were put in a cage for a portion of the day with an aggressive mouse whereas physical stress was defined as being physically restrained in a cylindrical tube for 16 hours a day with no food or water.

Human studies are complicated by the fact that responses to stressors are dependent on the individual experiencing the stressor. The coping mechanisms that follow a stressful event have been described in the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping. In this model, the impact of a stressor is mediated by the person’s appraisal of the stressor. Two appraisals are made including a primary assessment and a secondary assessment. The primary assessment allows an individual to decide whether the stressor is good or bad and important or irrelevant. The secondary appraisal ascertains whether the individual believes that they can alter or manage the situation and/or deal with the emotions that come along with the stressor.

These assessments are mediated by different coping mechanisms. Generally, two different coping mechanisms are described. The first is problem management coping (problem-focused), in which efforts are focused on changing the stressor or the stressful situation. This may include problem solving or information seeking. The second coping strategy is emotional regulation coping (emotion-focused), in which efforts are focused on changing one’s feelings about the stressor or stressful situation. This may include denial, venting of feelings, avoidance, and seeking social support.

Other lines of research have investigated the degree to which a person engages (i.e., active coping, information seeking, social support) or disengages (i.e., cognitive or behavioral avoidance, denial) from the stressor. When the stressor is very threatening or not perceived to be under one’s control, disengaging coping strategies are often used. On the contrary, when the stressor is perceived to be controllable, engaging coping strategies may be more likely. In general, research shows there are psychological benefits to using active coping styles over disengaging coping styles, at least in the long term. Furthermore, avoidant coping styles have been associated with negative health behaviors. These coping mechanisms may be moderated by psychological traits including optimism, locus of control, information-seeking styles along with social support and stress management interventions. While coping efforts may vary over different stressors, coping styles or psychological traits are inherent characteristics of the individual and remain constant over situations.

Women often face different stressful situations than men. Women are more likely to perform multiple roles such as childcare provider and housekeeper as well as working for pay. In addition, women who work for pay are often in occupations where they experience or perceive to experience high psychological demands/high strain coupled with low control. This combination of high strain and low control has been associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease and worse self-reported health.

Due to the deleterious effects of stress, various recommendations have been made for reducing general stress. These recommendations include making time in your life for leisure activities, setting reasonable goals, getting help with regular chores, not agreeing to do too many things (i.e., learn to say no), engaging in more demanding or enjoyable activities during your body’s peak hours, and identifying sources of stress. In addition, several specific physical recommendations have been suggested including breathing deeply, engaging in relaxation techniques, and exercising one’s shoulders and neck muscles.

Stress can have a major effect on one’s health. It is important to recognize stress as a normal part of life, but also realize that chronic stress can have ill-effects on the body. Understanding the stress process, coping styles, and ways to combat stress is the first step for better well-being.

See Also: Parenting, Social support

Suggested Reading

  • Bosma, H., Marmot, M. G., Hemingway, H., Nicholson, A. C., Brunner, E., & Stansfeld, S. A. (1997). Low job control and risk of coronary heart disease in Whitehall II (prospective cohort) study. British Medical Journal, 314(7080), 558-565.
  • Cassel, J. (1976). The contribution of the social environment to host resistance. American Journal of Epidemiology, 104, 107-123.
  • Ibrahim, S. A., Scott, F. E., Cole, D. C., Shannon, H. S., & Eyles, J. (2001). Job strain and self-reported health among working women and men: An analysis of the 1994/5 Canadian National Population Health Survey. Women and Health, 33(1-2), 105-124.
  • Lazarus, R. S. (1993). Coping theory and research: Past, present, and future. Psychosomatic Medicine, 55(3), 234-247.
  • Lerman, C., & Glanz, K. (1997). Stress, coping, and health behavior. In K. Glanz, F. M. Lewis, & B. Rimer (Eds.), Health behavior and health education: Theory, research and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Quan, N., Avitsur, R., Stark, J. L., He, L., Shah, M., Caligiuri, M., et al. (2001, April 2). Social stress increases the susceptibility to endo-toxic shock. Journal of Neuroimmunology, 115, 36-45.


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