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Characteristics of stressful events

Countless events can trigger stress. Among them there are major changes affecting many people - for example, war, accidents at nuclear power plants or earthquakes. These include major changes in a person’s private life — for example, moving to a new place, changing jobs, getting married, losing a friend, or a serious illness. Everyday difficulties — loss of a wallet, traffic jam, disagreements with a professor, etc. — can also be experienced as stressors. Finally, the source of stress can be found inside the individual in the form of conflicting motives and desires.

<Pic. Different people have different causes of stress. That which suppresses one person, another can excite or serve as a challenge.>

Events experienced as stressful usually fall into one or more of the following categories: traumatic events that go beyond the usual human experience; uncontrollable and unpredictable events; events that exceed our capabilities and self-understanding; internal conflicts. In this section, we will briefly review each of these categories.

Traumatic events

The most common source of stress are traumatic events - situations that are extremely dangerous, beyond the ordinary human experience. These include, for example, natural disasters, floods and earthquakes; man-made disasters, such as wars and nuclear explosions; catastrophic accidents - for example, car and aircraft crashes; incidents of physical violence, such as rape and premeditated murder.

After traumatic events, people usually experience a series of psychological reactions (Horowitz, 1986). At first, the survivors are stunned, stunned, and do not notice their wounds or imminent danger. They may wander aimlessly around, sometimes putting themselves at risk of new damage. For example, earthquake survivors sometimes roam buildings that are about to collapse without realizing the obvious danger. At the next stage, the victims are still passive and unable to engage even in simple activities, but they easily carry out orders. For example, a rape victim for a few days after this may not even think about replenishing food supplies, but if her close friend calls and insists that they go for food, she will submit. In the third stage, the victims show anxiety and concern, they find it difficult to concentrate, and they retell what happened again and again. A survivor of a car accident can be extremely nervous if there is a car nearby, it may be unable to return to work, because it cannot concentrate, and again and again tell friends the details of the accident.

<Pic. Shortly after a disaster has occurred, its victims are often stunned and disoriented. Later, they begin to respond better, but it is still difficult for them to engage even in simple activities. Anxiety and distraction may persist long after the disaster.>

Among the traumatic events unfortunately too widespread in our society is sexual abuse. The effects of rape and other forms of sexual abuse on the victim’s emotional and physical health seem to be extremely serious (Koss & Boeschen, 1998). In several studies, it was found that during the first six months after the rape or other attack, both women and men experienced severe depression, anxiety, despair, and many other symptoms of emotional disorder (Duncan et al., 1996; Kessler et al. , 1997). For some people, this emotional disorder becomes chronic.

A study conducted by Bournem and his colleagues (Burnam, 1988) showed that victims of attacks were twice as likely as other people to have been diagnosed with depressive, anxiety disorders or disorders associated with the abuse of alcohol and narcotic drugs during a given period of life. after the attack. Especially high was the likelihood of such disorders in cases where people were abused in childhood. In fact, people who survived childhood abuse continued to be at risk for psychological disorders throughout their lives.

Fortunately, most people never experience traumatic events. However, stress reactions can be caused by more ordinary causes. The perception of an event as stressful is determined by three signs: controllability, predictability and how far it goes beyond the limits of a person’s abilities and self-understanding. Of course, the degree of stress of the event depends on the individual. That is, people differ in their assessments of the same event as a controlled, predictable, and beyond their ability and self-understanding, and it is these assessments that mainly affect the perceived stress of the event (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).


Uncontrolled events more often than others are perceived as stressful (see Chapter 7). Serious uncontrollable events include the death of a loved one, dismissal from work, and serious illness. Less uncontrollable events include things like a friend’s refusal to accept your apologies for some misstep or withdrawal due to the airline selling excess tickets. The obvious reason for the stress of uncontrolled events is that we are not able to stop their progress.

As we noted, however, the perception of controllability of events is just as important for their stress level as their actual controllability. Let us turn to the study. The subjects were shown color photos of victims of violent death. Experimental group could stop viewing by clicking on the button. The control subjects saw the same photos during the same time as the experimental group, but they could not stop showing. The level of arousal and anxiety in both groups was measured by the galvanic skin response (GSR) - the fall in electrical resistance of the skin, widely used as an indicator of autonomic arousal. When photographs were presented for the experimental group, much less anxiety was characteristic than for the control group, despite the fact that both groups were shown the same photos for the same time (Geer & Maisel, 1973).

Knowing that we control events reduces the power of their impact, even if the ability to control is not used. This was shown in a study where a loud, extremely unpleasant noise was presented to two groups of subjects. The subjects in one group were told that they could stop it by pressing a button, but were asked to do this only if absolutely necessary. The subjects had no other noise control group. None of the subjects with the button actually used it, so the exposure time of the noise in both groups was the same. Nevertheless, the group that did not have control, the indicators in the problem to be solved thereafter were much worse, which shows that the noise disturbed them more than the subjects who had the ability to control (Glass & Singer, 1972).


The ability to predict the onset of a stressful event, even if it cannot be controlled, usually reduces the strength of its stress effect.
As we said in Chapter 7, laboratory studies show that both humans and animals prefer predictable unpleasant events to unpredictable ones. In one study, rats were offered a choice between an electric shock with or without an audible warning. If the rat pressed the lever at the beginning of a series of attempts, accompanied by an electric shock, a warning signal sounded before each impact. If the rat could not push the lever, there were no warning signals. All the rats quickly learned to press the lever, indicating a clear preference for predictable electric shock (Abbott, Schoen & Badia, 1984). People in general also prefer predictable strikes to unpredictable ones. They also show less emotional arousal and report less disorder when they expect predictable electric shocks, and find them less unpleasant than unpredictable electric shocks of the same intensity (Katz & Wykes, 1985).

How to explain these results? One of the possibilities is that a warning signal before an unpleasant event allows a person or an animal to initiate some kind of preparatory processes to reduce the impact of a harmful stimulus. Having received a signal that an electric shock is about to follow, the animal can move its legs so as to reduce the sensation of current. A person at the doctor’s office, knowing that he will be given an injection right now, may try to distract himself to reduce the pain. If a woman hears the approach of a hurricane, she can close the shutters on the windows to prevent damage to the house.

Another possibility is that when a strike is unpredictable, there is no safe period; in the case of a predictable electric shock, the subject (person or animal) may relax somewhat until the signal warns him that a strike will now follow. We remember that this is called the security signal hypothesis (Seligman & Binik, 1977). An example of the existence of a safety signal taken from life is when the boss, who is inclined to criticize his employee before others, leaves the city for a business trip. For this employee, the absence of a boss is a signal that you can relax.

On the other hand, an employee whose chief never leaves the workplace for a long time and unpredictably brings down his criticism on him throughout the day may experience chronic stress. One of the natural events that does not have safety signals is an earthquake.

For some professions, unpredictability is very characteristic, and they are considered very stressful, such as firefighting and resuscitation work. Severe diseases are usually unpredictable. One of the main problems with cancer patients undergoing treatment is that they cannot be sure of their cure until many years pass. Every day they are forced to meet with uncertainty about a possible catastrophe in the future.

<Pic. The high level of unpredictability makes the work of firefighters extremely stressful.>

Even the perception of such an extremely negative event as torture can be influenced by the extent to which the victim had a premonition that this episode could take place. Victims who had the ability to predict the time and type of torture applied to them during their detention restore their health more quickly than those for whom torture was completely unpredictable (Basoglu & Mineka, 1992)


There are situations that, being mainly controlled and predictable, are nevertheless experienced as stressful, because they are at the limit of our capabilities and challenge our self-image. A good example is the last exam week. At this time, most students work much more than during the rest of the time. This physical and emotional stress is experienced by some as a stressful state. During exams, the knowledge and intellectual abilities of some students are also put to the test. Even among students who are able to pass exams well, the possibility of failing an important exam may question their perception of their competence and their decision on the choice of a particular profession.

Although we enter into some tense situations with enthusiasm and joy, they can still be stressful. Marriage is a good example: it entails many new requirements for accommodation. The limits of calm and patience of individuals are often tested as they get used to the characteristics of their new marriage partner (for example, his or her habit of scattering things everywhere). When cases of slight irritation or serious disagreements on important issues (for example, regarding financial decisions) lead to quarrels between the newlyweds, their confidence in choosing the right marriage partner may falter.

Researchers say (Holmes & Rahe, 1967) that any change in life, to which you need to adapt in many ways anew, can be perceived as stressful. Trying to measure the impact of changes in life, they developed a scale of life events (Table 14.1). Life events are arranged in the table in order from more stressful (death of the marriage partner) to less stressful (minor violations of the law). To compile this scale, researchers studied thousands of interviews and medical records, trying to determine what events people consider stressful. Since marriage for the majority is a critical event, it was placed in the middle of the scale and an arbitrary score of 50 was assigned to it. The researchers then asked about 400 men and women of different age, with different education, cultural level and marital status to compare marriage with a number of other life events . For example, they asked the following questions: “Did this event require more or less effort to adapt again than marriage?”. Then, the interviewees were asked to give a numerical assessment of each event based on their assessment of its severity and the time required for adaptation. Based on these estimates, a scale was constructed, shown in Table. 14.1.

Table 14.1.

Scale of life events

This scale, also known as the Holmes-Raye social rehabilitation grading scale, shows the level of stress associated with the corresponding changes in life (by: Holmes & Rahe, 1967).

Although positive events often require adjustment and, therefore, are somewhat stressful, most studies show that negative events have a significantly greater impact on mental and physical health. In addition, such events have very different effects on different people. Some of these differences are related to age and cultural background (Masuda & Holmes, 1978). Also, some people do not consider serious changes or stressful situations as stressful, such as exam week. They consider such situations as a new task and are inspired by them. Later we will look at the characteristics of individuals on whom it depends, whether they will consider the situation as a stressor or a new task.
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