A psychosocial stressor is a life event or situation that creates stress. It may be a mildly stressful event such as being stuck in a traffic jam or a more severe stressor such as enduring a chronic disease.
The unfortunate thing about psychosocial stress, is that even positive events can create stress (referred to as eustress).
For example, getting a promotion or starting a new business can be source of stress. These events may seem exciting and represent great opportunities, but they are also accompanied by a lot of work and high-stakes decisions (i.e., stress).
All stress-provoking events can have harmful psychological and physical effects.
In terms of psychological effects, psychosocial stressors may be so prolonged and intense that they lead to maladaptive behaviors such as substance abuse.
Even mild stressors can create minute biological reactions in the body that over time can impair immune functioning or lead to cardiovascular disease.
There are four types of psychosocial stressors.
- Life Changes: Major events in life that require dramatic adjustments and have long-lasting effects. These include divorce, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, moving, or changing one’s career.
- Catastrophic Events: These are sudden, unexpected events that are highly traumatic and potentially life-threatening. These include being the victim of physical assault, a natural disaster, or war.
- Daily Hassles: Minor events in life that occur on a daily basis. Unfortunately, they can have a cumulative effect on one’s psychological and physical health. These include job demands, traffic jams, and even academic pressures.
- Chronic Stressors: These stressors occur over sustained periods of time. Living in a noisy area, poverty, racial discrimination, or working in a highly competitive occupation.
- Competitive Work Environment: Some work environments are highly competitive. The constant battle for company resources and promotions make every day a stress-packed experience.
- Natural Disasters: A natural disaster can destroy a person’s home and belongings, create enormous financial pressures, and disrupt nearly every aspect of life.
- Racial Discrimination: Being treated unjustly due to one’s race is a chronic stressor in many cultures. Activators can include being on the receiving end of suspicious stares in a store, to fear of what could transpire when being pulled over for a minor traffic violation.
- Moving: Even though a person may be moving for positive reasons such as a promotion or better weather, the number of tasks involved in relocating from one place to another involves a lot of individual stressors that occur over weeks and months.
- Relationship Termination: Breaking up is hard enough, but it also usually comes with feelings of depression and anxiety. That can lead to a change in social circles and in some cases, destructive behaviors involving alcohol consumption and unhealthy dietary habits.
- Getting Cut-Off While Driving: Although it may not happen often, it is an example of a minor stressor. For some personality types, the event can become exaggerated and enduring as the person ruminates on what happened, reliving the event far longer than is necessary.
- Food Insecurity: Dealing with the daily anxiety of having enough food for oneself and family members is an example of a chronic stressor. Food is essential for survival and therefore strikes at the core of a person’s psychological well-being.
- Unsafe Neighborhood: Living in an unsafe environment can create an ongoing state of stress that occurs daily, and nightly. Just leaning one’s home to go to the supermarket or run errands can create psychosocial stressors. This carries over into the night when one must fear break-ins and robbery.
- Economic Challenges: Living paycheck to paycheck is another form of chronic stress that is long-lasting. One’s pay may be sufficient for the first three weeks of the month, but after all the bills have been paid, there may be little left for basic necessities.
- Giving a Business Presentation: It is often said that most people’s number 1 fear in life is public speaking, right behind death. Anxiety builds steadily leading up to the big day. There is a lot of work involved in creating the content for the presentation, rehearsing, and general angst about speaking smoothly and persuasively.
The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is a three-stage model of the stress response.
The GAS was originally proposed by Hans Selye (1936; 1951) to explain the biological mechanisms of fighting disease. However, for over 50 years, it has also been applied to the stress response which occurs to psychosocial stressors (Szabo, 2012).
According to Selye, there are three stages in the stress response.
The first is the alarm stage in which the body undergoes an initial shock. The brain is informed of the stressor and proceeds to activate a physiological response. This is the stage in which the fight-or-flight response occurs (although this was not specifically stated by Selye).
The next stage is resistance and adaptation. This is when the body engages in an attempt to overcome and eliminate the stressor. This can involve immune system responses to combat disease or psychological responses to overcome challenges.
The final stage is exhaustion. If the resistance stage is unsuccessful, then the individual may experience physical illness, depression, burnout, or develop maladaptive coping strategies.
However, if resistance is effective, then the physiology of the body returns to its normal homeostatic biological state. In regards to psychological aspects, an individual will return to their usual mental state and personality profile.
The Fight or Flight Response to Stress
Physiologist Walter Cannon was the first to describe the fight-or-flight response in 1915.
“…the visceral changes in fear and rage should not be different, but rather, why they should be alike… just because the conditions which evoke them are likely to result in flight or conflict…the bodily needs in either response are precisely the same” (p. 277).
Donahue (2020) points out that the organism may also freeze or faint when encountering a life-threat. This has led to the term “fight-flight-or freeze.”
The physiological response to the life-threatening stressor begins with the detection of danger, which can occur before conscious awareness of the impending threat.
For example, if encountering a snake while taking a walk in the park, that image is sent via the optic nerve to the amygdala located in the limbic system.
The amygdala immediately sends electrical impulses via the spinal cord to various muscles that create the startle response, such as jumping away.
In a second pathway, the amygdala triggers the hypothalamus, which triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormones (ACTH).
ACTH flows through the blood stream to impact the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys and activates the release of cortisol. Cortisol increases blood pressure, blood sugar and turns fatty acids into available energy.
The adrenal glands also release adrenaline, which stimulates the release of glucose and increases both heart and respiratory rate.
These mechanisms fill the muscles with blood and supply the body with much-needed oxygen and energy. All of which are required to either fight or flee.
Transactional Model of Stress
The transactional model of stress was developed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) to describe the different stages of an individual’s response to life events.
The first stage states that an event may or may not be perceived. If not perceived, then no stress occurs. If perceived, then it must be interpreted, this is primary appraisal. An individual can interpret an event as either positive, such as an opportunity to flourish, negative, as in an opportunity to fail, or as irrelevant to one’s life.
If the event is interpreted as a threat, then the individual engages in a secondary appraisal to assess the availability of resources.
Eventually, a reappraisal occurs and the effectiveness of the coping strategies are evaluated.
That evaluation will conclude that the strategy was effective, needs adjusting, or perhaps a new interpretation all together is needed.
According to Cohen et al. (2019) there are clear “pathways linking stressful event exposure to disease that have been extensively studied” (p. 580).
1. Stress and Depression
Major psychosocial stressors predict symptoms of depression and anxiety (Gotlib & Joormann, 2010; Hammen, 2016) in addition to onset of clinical diagnosis of major depression (Hammen, 2005; Monroe et al., 2009).
The relationship is so strong that recent exposure is one of the best predictors of depression (Kendler et al., 2000; Monroe et al., 2009, Slavich & Irwin, 2014), and effects the severity, duration, and likelihood of relapse (Monroe et al., 2009).
2. Stress and Cardiovascular Disease
Research has consistently documented that psychosocial stressors increase risk of developing cardiovascular disease (Dimsdale, 2008).
Chronic stressors predict the rate of its development and likelihood of mortality (Steptoe & Kivimäki, 2012). In addition, acute stressors (i.e., traumatic events) can trigger cardiac arrhythmias and myocardial infarction (i.e., heart attack) (Steptoe & Kivimäki, 2013).
Psychosocial stressors are events that create stress and require adaptation to overcome. While some stressors are mild and relatively inconsequential, if they occur consistently enough, over a long period of time, they can take an eventual toll on one’s psychological and physical well-being.
Other stressors can be quite traumatic and take an immediate toll, such as natural disasters, marital separation, or being diagnosed with a severe illness.
When faced with a stressor, the body goes through a three-stage process that involves an initial alarm reaction, followed by an attempt to adapt and resist, and ending with either overcoming the challenge or succumbing to negative consequences.
Not all events will be interpreted the same. Some can be seen as opportunities and others as threats. If seen as a threat, individuals can engage in problem- or emotion-focused coping strategies, or both.
The process of assessing the nature of an event and attempting to overcome threats is repeated until an eventual positive or negative resolution occurs.
Although experiencing stressful events has been linked to both cardiovascular diseases and depression, most people do not get sick.
Cannon, W. B. (1915). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage: An account of recent researches into the function of emotional excitement. D Appleton & Company. https://doi.org/10.1037/10013-000
Cohen, S., Murphy, M. L., & Prather, A. A. (2019). Ten surprising facts about stressful life events and disease risk. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 577-597.
Dimsdale, J. E. (2008). Psychological stress and cardiovascular disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 51(13), 1237-1246.
Donahue, J.J. (2020). Fight-Flight-Freeze System. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_751
Gotlib, I. H., & Joormann, J. (2010). Cognition and depression: current status and future directions. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6, 285–312.
Hammen, C. (2005). Stress and depression. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 293–319.
Hammen, C. (2016). Depression and stressful environments: Identifying gaps in conceptualization and measurement. Anxiety Stress Coping, 29, 335–351.
Kendler, K. S., Thornton, L. M., & Gardner, C. O. (2000). Stressful life events and previous episodes in the etiology of major depression in women: An evaluation of the “kindling” hypothesis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1243–1251.
Kogler, L., Müller, V. I., Chang, A., Eickhoff, S. B., Fox, P. T., Gur, R. C., & Derntl, B. (2015). Psychosocial versus physiological stress — Meta-analyses on deactivations and activations of the neural correlates of stress reaction. NeuroImage, 119, 235-251.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer Publishing.
Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Monroe, S. M., Slavich, G. M., & Georgiades, K. (2009). The social environment and life stress in depression. In Handbook of Depression, (Ed.) IH Gotlib, CL Hammen, pp. 340–60. New York: Guilford Press.
Selye, H. (1936). A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents. Nature, 138(3479), 32-32.
Selye, H. (1951). The general-adaptation-syndrome. Annual Review of Medicine, 2(1), 327-342.
Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. British Medical Journal, 1, 1383-1392.
Slavich, G. M., & Irwin, M. R. (2014). From stress to inflammation and major depressive disorder: a social signal transduction theory of depression. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 774–815.
Steptoe, A., & Kivimäki, M. (2012). Stress and cardiovascular disease. Nature Reviews Cardiology, 9(6), 360-370.
Steptoe, A., & Kivimäki, M. (2013). Stress and cardiovascular disease: an update on current knowledge. Annual Review of Public Health, 34, 337-354.
Szabo, S., Tache, Y., & Somogyi, A. (2012). The legacy of Hans Selye and the origins of stress research: a retrospective 75 years after his landmark brief “letter” to the editor# of nature. Stress, 15(5), 472-478.
Wethington, E. (2016). Life events scale. In Stress: Concepts, cognition, emotion, and behavior (pp. 103-108). Academic Press.
Appendix: Transactional model of stress explainer
The image with alt text “graphical representation of the transactional model of stress” depicts a flow chart starting with “life event”. The next step is “perceptual process (event perceived/not perceived)”. If an event is perceived, we move on to the “primary appraisal (interpretation of perceived event)” step. Three options are presented: positive event, dangerous event, and irrelevant event. If it is perceived as a dangerous event, we move onto “secondary appraisal (analysis of available resources)”. Two options are presented: insufficient resources and sufficient resources. If insufficient resources are identified, we move onto the “stress coping strategy” step. The two options are problem-fcused and emotion-focused. The final step is reappraisal, where we apprause is the stragey was successful or failed. This flow chart is based on Lazarus and Folkman (1984).