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Stress And Changes In Behavior

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Stress And Changes In Behavior

Stress And Changes In Behavior

Stress has been mostly studied in the context of coronary heart disease (CHD). However, there are also studies exploring links between illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and recovery from surgery. Research exploring the links between stress and CHD highlights the impact of stress on the classic risk factors for CHD, namely raised blood cholesterol, raised blood pressure and smoking. These risk factors are strongly influenced by behavior and reflect the behavioral pathway between stress and illness (Krantz et al. 1981). In line with this, some research has examined the effect of stress on specific health-related behaviors (Stress And Changes In Behavior)




Smoking has been consistently linked to a range of illnesses including lung cancer and coronary heart disease. Research suggests a link between stress and smoking behavior in terms of smoking initiation, relapse and the amount smoked. Wills (1985) argued that smoking initiation in adolescents was related to the amount of stress in their lives. In addition, there has been some support for the prediction that children who experience the stressor of changing schools may be more likely to start smoking than those who stay at the same school throughout their secondary education (Santi et al. 1991). In terms of relapse, Lichtenstein et al. (1986) and Carey et al. (1993) reported that people who experience high levels of stress are more likely to start smoking again after a period of abstinence than those who experience less stress. Research also indicates that increased smoking may be effective at reducing stress. In an experimental study, Perkins et al. (1992) exposed smokers to either a stressful or a non-stressful computer task and asked the subjects to smoke a cigarette or sham smoke an unlit cigarette. The results showed that regardless of whether the smokers smoked or not, all subjects reported an increased desire to smoke in the stressful condition. However, this desire was less in those smokers who were actually allowed to smoke. This suggests that stress causes an increased urge for a cigarette, which can be modified by smoking. In a more naturalistic study, smokers were asked to attend a stressful social situation and were instructed either to smoke or not to smoke. Those who could not smoke reported the occasion as more socially stressful than those who could smoke (Gilbert and Spielberger 1987). Similarly, Metcalfe et al. (2003) used the Reeder Stress Inventory to relate stress to health behaviors and concluded that higher levels of stress were associated with smoking more cigarettes. This association was also found in one large scale study of over 6000 Scottish men and women which showed that higher levels of perceived stress were linked to smoking more (Heslop et al. 2001)



High alcohol intake has been linked to illnesses such as coronary heart disease, cancer, and liver disease. Research has also examined the relationship between stress and alcohol consumption. Many authors have suggested that work stress, in particular, may promote alcohol use (e.g. Herold and Conlon 1981; Gupta and Jenkins 1984). The tension reduction theory suggests that people drink alcohol for its tension-reducing properties (Cappell and Greeley 1987). Tension refers to states such as fear, anxiety, depression, and distress. Therefore according to this model, negative moods are the internal stressors, or the consequence of an external stressor, which causes alcohol consumption due to the expected outcome of the alcohol. For example, if an individual feels tense or anxious (their internal state) as a result of an exam (the external stressor) and believes that alcohol will reduce this tension (the expected outcome), they may drink alcohol to improve their mood. This theory has been supported by some evidence of the relationship between negative mood and drinking behavior (Violanti et al. 1983) suggesting that people are more likely to drink when they are feeling depressed or anxious. Similarly, both Metcalfe et al. (2003) and Heslop et al. (2001) reported an association between perceived stress and drinking more alcohol (if a drinker). Furthermore, it has been suggested that medical students’ lifestyle and the occurrence of problem drinking may be related to the stress they experience (Wolf and Kissling 1984). In one study, this theory was tested experimentally and the health-related behaviors of medical students were evaluated both before and during a stressful examination period. The results showed that the students reported a deterioration in mood in terms of anxiety and depression and changes in their behavior in terms of decreases in exercise and food intake (Ogden and Mtandabari 1997). However, alcohol consumption also went down. The authors concluded that acute exposure to stress resulted in negative changes in those behaviors that had only a minimal influence on the students’ ability to perform satisfactorily. Obviously chronic stress may have more damaging effects on longer-term changes in behavior.

Effects of Stress on Physiological Health


Diet can influence health either through changes in body weight or via the over or under consumption of specific dietary components. Greeno and Wing (1994) proposed two hypotheses concerning the link between stress and eating:

  1. The general effect model, which predicts that stress changes food intake generally;
  2. the individual difference model, which predicts that stress only causes changes in eating in vulnerable groups of individuals.

Most research has focused on the individual difference model and has examined whether either naturally occurring stress or laboratory-induced stress causes changes in eating in specific individuals. For example, Michaud et al. 1990) reported that exam stress was related to an increase in eating in girls but not in boys, Baucom and Aiken (1981) reported that stress increased eating in both the overweight and dieters, and Cools et al. (1992) reported that stress was related to eating in dieters only. Therefore, gender, weight, and levels of dieting seem to be important predictors of a link between stress and eating. However, the research is not always consistent with this suggestion. For example, Conner et al. (1999) examined the link between daily hassles and snacking in 60 students who completed diaries of their snacking and hassles for seven consecutive days. Their results showed a direct association between increased daily hassles and increased snacking but showed no differences according to either gender or dieting. Such inconsistencies in the literature have been described by Stone and Brownell (1994) as the ‘stress eating paradox’ to describe how at times stress causes overeating and in others, it causes undereating without any clear pattern emerging.


Accidents are very common and rarely studied the cause of injury or mortality. Research has also examined the effects of stress on accidents and correlational research suggests that individuals who experience high levels of stress show a greater tendency to perform behaviors that increase their chances of becoming injured (Wiebe and McCallum 1986). Further, Johnson (1986) has also suggested that stress increases accidents at home, at work, and in the car. (Stress And Changes In Behavior)


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