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Knowledge Peace


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The term ‘stress’ means many things to many different people. A layperson may define it in terms of pressure, tension, unpleasant external forces or an emotional response. Psychologists have defined it in a variety of different ways. Contemporary definitions of stress regard the external environmental stress as a stressor (e.g. problems at work), the response to the stressor as stress or distress (e.g. the feeling of tension), and the concept of stress as something that involves biochemical, physiological, behavioral and psychological changes. Researchers have also differentiated between stress that is harmful and damaging (distress) and stress that is positive and beneficial (eustress). In addition, researchers differentiate between acute stress such as an exam or having to give a public talk and chronic stress such as job and poverty. The most commonly used definition of stress was developed by Lazarus and Launier (1978), who regarded stress as a transaction between people and the environment and described stress in terms of ‘person-environment fit’. If a person is faced with a potentially difficult stressor such as an exam or having to give a public talk about the degree of stress they experience is determined first by their appraisal of the event (‘is it stressful?’) and second by their appraisal of their own personal resources (‘will I cope?). A good person-environment fit results in no or low stress and a poor fit results in higher.


Over the past few decades, models of stress have varied in terms of their definition of it, their differing emphasis on physiological and psychological factors, and their description of the relationship between individuals and their environment.

Cannon’s fight or flight model

One of the earliest models of stress was developed by Cannon (1932). This was called the fight or flight model of stress, which suggested that external threats elicited the fight or flight response involving an increased activity rate and increased arousal. He suggested that these physiological changes enabled the individual to either escape from the source of stress or fight. Within Cannon’s model, stress was defined as a response to external stressors, which was predominantly seen as physiological. Cannon considered stress to be an adaptive response as it enabled the individual to manage a stressful event. However, he also recognized that prolonged stress could result in medical problems.

Selye’s general adaptation syndrome

Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (GAS) was developed in 1956 and described three stages in the stress process (Selye 1956). The initial stage was called the ‘alarm’ stage, which described an increase in activity, and occurred immediately the individual was exposed to a stressful situation. The second stage was called ‘resistance’, which involved copying and attempts to reverse the effects of the alarm stage. The third stage was called ‘exhaustion’, which was reached when the individual had been repeatedly exposed to the stressful situation and was incapable of showing further resistance.


Alarm Resistance Exhaustion
Mobilization to meet and resist a stressor Coping and with resistance to the stressor If resistance does not terminate stressor, coping exhausted

Fig.  Selye’s (1956) three-stage general adaptation syndrome


Problems with Cannon’s and Selye’s models

Cannon’s early fight/flight model and Selye’s GAS laid important foundations for stress research. However, there are several problems with them.

  1. Both regarded the individual as automatically responding to an external stressor and described stress within a straightforward stimulus-response framework. They, therefore, did not address the issue of individual variability and psychological factors were given only a minimal role. For example, whilst an exam could be seen as stressful for one person, it might be seen as an opportunity to shine to another.
  2. Both also described the physiological response to stress as consistent. This response is seen as non-specific in that the changes in physiology are the same regardless of the nature of the stressor. This is reflected in the use of the term ‘arousal’ which has been criticized by more recent researchers. Therefore, these two models described individuals as passive and as responding automatically to their external world.

Life events theory

In an attempt to depart from both Selye’s and Cannon’s models of stress, which emphasized physiological changes, the life events theory was developed to examine stress and stress-related changes as a response to life experiences. Holmes and Rahe (1967) developed the schedule of recent experiences (SRE), which provided respondents with an
extensive list of possible life changes or life events. These ranged in supposed objective severity from events such as ‘death of a spouse’, ‘death of a close family member’ and ‘jail term’ to more moderate events such as ‘son or daughter leaving home’ and ‘pregnancy’ to minor events such as ‘vacation’, ‘change in eating habits’, ‘change
in sleeping habits’ and ‘change in number of family get-togethers’. Originally, the SRE was scored by simply counting the number of actual recent experiences. For example, someone who had experienced both the death of a spouse and the death of a close family member would receive the same score as someone who had recently had two holidays. It was assumed that this score reflected an indication of their level of stress. Early research using the SRE in this way showed some links between individuals’ SRE scores and their health status. However, this obviously crude method of measurement was later replaced by a variety of others, including a weighting system whereby each potential life event was weighted by a panel creating a degree of differentiation between the different life experiences.

Stressors may be short-term or ongoing

Traditionally, assessments of life experiences have conceptualized such life events as short-term experiences. However, many events may be ongoing and chronic. Moos and Swindle (1990) identified domains of ongoing stressors, which they suggested reflect chronic forms of life experiences:
physical health stressors (e.g. medical conditions);

  • home and neighborhood stressors (e.g. safety, cleanliness);
  • financial stressors;
  • work stressors (e.g. interpersonal problems, high pressure);
  • spouse/partner stressors (e.g. emotional problems with a partner);
  • child stressors;
  • extended family stressors;
  • friend stressors.

They incorporated these factors into their measure (the Life Stressors and Social Resources Inventory, LISRES), which represented an attempt to emphasize the chronic nature of life experiences and to place them within the context of the individual’s coping resources. Moos and Swindle (1990) argued that life events should not be evaluated in isolation but should be integrated into two facets of an individual’s life: their ongoing social resources (e.g. social support networks, financial resources) and their ongoing stressors.



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