Factors that Influence the Effects of Stress

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why does stress sometimes feel overwhelming while other times it's manageable? In this lesson, we'll look at personal attributes and environmental factors that can influence the effects and experience of stress.

Stress

Callie is stressed out. She has to do a presentation in her class next week, and she's panicking. What can she do?

Callie is dealing with stress, which is a demand on the adaptive qualities of the mind or body. All that means is that stress challenges your mind and/or body to help you grow. For example, lifting a weight is stress on the body, but if you do it enough, your muscles will grow stronger from the stress.

However, stress (especially emotional stress) is often experienced as a threat. How people like Callie experience stress depends on several factors. To help Callie understand how her presentation can impact her, let's look at both personal attributes and environmental factors that can shape how she experiences stress.

Personal Attributes

Callie is freaking about her presentation because she thinks she's a horrible public speaker. She believes that no matter what she does, she'll fail at the presentation.

One of the personal attributes that can impact stress is self-efficacy, or the belief in your ability to succeed at a given task. This is different from self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem is a general good feeling about yourself, self-efficacy is confidence in a specific area. For example, Callie's self-efficacy for public speaking is very low. But just because she thinks she can't do a good presentation doesn't mean that she thinks she's stupid or worthless. She has a very specific belief about her self-efficacy for public speaking.

How does self-efficacy interact with stress? A person who is stressed in an area where they have a high self-efficacy generally performs better and experiences a lower level of stress than one who has low self-efficacy in that area. For example, if Callie believes that she's a good public speaker, she's likely to feel less panicked about her upcoming presentation. Her high self-efficacy will help her deal with the stress.

Another psychological attribute that impacts stress is hardiness, or the ability to withstand stress without negative health or psychological effects. There are three elements to hardiness: commitment, or interest in and dedication to the cause of the stress; control, or the belief that your effort shapes results; and challenge, or believing stressful situations are challenges instead of threats.

How can hardiness work in Callie's situation? If Callie is interested in the topic of her presentation, she has high commitment. If she believes that her hard work and preparation will pay off, she has high control. If she thinks of her presentation as a way to show all that she understands instead of a way to fail her class, she is thinking in terms of challenge. All three of these together can make her hardy against stress.

One other major personal attribute that can help Callie out is a sense of humor. Being able to see the bright side and laugh in the face of stress works as a coping mechanism to help her get through the stressful time.

Environmental Factors

Callie's personal attributes aren't the only things that can help her deal with the stress, though. Environmental factors also play a role in how people experience stress.

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