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The Role of Emotion in Stress

A leading figure in stress research and related therapies, Arnold Lazarus, proposed in 1993 that "stress should be treated as a sub-topic of emotion." He pointed out that only events accom­panied by negative emotion cause harmful stress. Other forms of challenge–such as athletic events–are often enjoyable and beneficial.

Why did Lazarus say stress should be studied under the heading of emotion?

The enjoyability of a stressful event is greatly affected by learning and exper­ience. When untamed rats are handled or injected, they probably experience terror (having been captured by a predator). Then their health suffers, as Selye documented.

By contrast, a tame rat seeks handling by its owner and enjoys it. It suffers no ill effects. In fact, handling tame animals makes them more healthy, not less (Nerem, Levesque, and Cornhill, 1980).

As a rule, what challenging events are stressful?

In Chapter 2 we discussed how situations that are painful can lead to the release of endorphins, opiate-like substances, into the bloodstream. However, not every painful event stimulates endor­phins.

A common laboratory procedure for creating pain under controlled conditions–dunking a volunteer's arm into a tub of ice water–does not stimulate a release of endorphins (Grevert and Goldstein, 1978). This suggests that pain by itself is not necessarily stressful in the biochemical sense.

Subjects who dunk their arms into ice water know they are in a laboratory test that will be over soon. They may even be intrigued by the test, and they are unlikely to feel negative emotions about it. So they do not experience stress. (A second implication is that stress, not pain, stimulates endorphins.)

When does pain not cause endorphin release?

Similarly, in the MacLennan and Maier (1983) research described earlier, a footshock that a rat turns off with an escape behavior produces no ill effects of stress. It just produces a rat coping successfully with a painful event.

However, a rat who is hooked to the same apparatus (a yoked control) feels shocks coming at random times that cannot be controlled. That is distressing, and those rats experience ill effects of stress.

Often the easiest way to reduce stress is to change one's interpretation or appraisal of an event. An interpretation that produces negative emotions can sometimes be replaced by one that encourages more neutral or positive emotions. If so, that reduces stress.

The importance of appraisal was shown in a classic study described by Lazarus (1993). Subjects watched an educational films about woodworking shop accidents.

The film contained one scene where a worker died after being impaled by a board kicked out of a large circular saw. Another scene showed a man getting his finger cut off.

Subjects listened to recorded passages before viewing the film. One recording was an attempt to stimulate denial of the events in the film. The subjects were told, "The people in the film are not hurt or distressed by what is happening," or "These accidents didn't really happen but were staged for their effect."

How did researchers manipulate people's response to a potentially distressing film?

Another condition was intended to trigger "intellectualization or distancing." That happens when events are not denied but are interpreted in a rational, non-emo­tional way. In this condition, subjects heard a narrator say, "The accidents portrayed in this film provide the basis for instructions about how to avoid injuries in a woodworking shop."

A third condition was intended to height­en the psychological stress. Subjects were told that people in the film suffered pain or injury.

A fourth group did not listen to any recording before viewing the film. They served as a control group.

What was the "important point"?

As the researchers expected, the first two conditions lowered stress reactions, compared to the control group. The third condition actually raised levels of stress reactions.

This simple demonstration made an important point. Stress is not an inevitable reaction to an external event. Stress depends on how an event is interpreted or appraised.


Hans Selye originally defined stress as the body's response to challenges. He pointed out that sometimes a challenge is a good thing. Indeed, one could argue that nothing useful in life can be accomplished without some degree of stress. "Good stress," Selye maintained, is "the spice of life."

To combat the notion that all stress was bad, Selye developed the idea of eustress, which is a person's ideal stress level. Selye proposed that different people needed different levels of challenge or stimulation (stress) in their lives. Some people ("turtles") need low levels of stress. Others ("racehorses") thrive on challenges.

What was Selye's concept of eustress?

In the long run, the popular conception of stress as something bad proved to be more durable and accurate than Selye's notion of stress as a challenge to the system. The word stress means something distressing to most people.

That definition might also make the most biological sense. Only unpleasant events produce the chemical markers of the stress reaction, identified by Selye as corticosteroids, now commonly called cortisol.

Challenges are not harmful in themselves. A person could be a busy executive, or engage in strenuous exercise, without experiencing negative stress-related symptoms, as long as the person enjoyed the challenge.

Booth, Shelley, Mazur, Tharp, and Kittok (1989) studied male tennis players before and after they played a series of competitive matches. "Testosterone rose just before most matches, and players with the highest pre-match testosterone had the most positive improvement in mood before their matches. After matches, mean testosterone rose for winners relative to losers," they reported.

However, in the same research, "Cortisol was not related to winning or losing, but it was related to seed (top players having low cortisol)." The winners of the tennis tournament experienced raised testosterone (and good moods) but they did not experience raised cortisol, the marker of stress. They rose to their challenge and met it, without stress.

This is an example of how stress can be dissociated from challenge. Good stress or ideal levels of stress (eustress) might not be stress at all, as defined by cortisol levels.

Cognitive Restructuring to Reduce Stress

If stress always involves negative emotions, then psychologists who try to help people with unpleasant stress reactions should concentrate on emotional responses. Instead of teaching patients to relax, they should teach patients to re-appraise a situations causing distress.

Such cognitive restructuring is central to cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The details depend on the situation. Sometimes one can draw positive lessons from a disaster (so it will not occur again). Sometimes one can re-interpret a situation so it evokes more pleasant emotions.

Lazarus (1993) pointed out that therapists often deal with basic, negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, guilt, sadness, and shame. Lazarus said a script characterizes each emotion.

"Each emotion arises from a different plot or story about relationships between a person and the environment; feeling angry has its own special scenario, and so does feeling anxious, guilty, ashamed, sad, proud, and so forth."

How can "changing the script" reduce stress?

What is meant by a script underlying an emotion? Take anger as an example. According to Lazarus, we get angry at a person when two conditions are met: (1) the person is responsible for hurting us, and (2) the person has control over the behavior.

That is the "plot or story" behind the emotion of anger. That person is hurting me and is doing it on purpose.

There are two ways to replace a negative script with a positive script, as Lazarus pointed out: (1) take action to change the objective facts of the situation, or (2) change one's appraisal of the situation. Often therapy combines both approaches.

Here is an example. Suppose a young mother is stressed out by her infant. Instead of just saying, "She's under a lot of stress; let's teach her to relax" we might try to reduce her stress by leading her to re-appraise the situation.

If the mother expresses anger because the infant cries so much, then she is acting as if the baby has wronged her and is doing it on purpose. A therapist might work with the mother to reduce the stress in two ways, as recom­mended by Lazarus.

First, the mother can take practical steps to reduce the amount of crying (for example, carrying the baby several hours a day in a backpack, which cuts crying time dramatically). Second, a therapist can discuss with the mother the fact that the baby does not really have control over its crying, needs to cry to get exercise, and is not willfully trying to torment the mother.

Either approach might help to reduce the power of the negative anger script. When the anger is gone, more positive emotions can arise, and the level of stress is reduced.


Booth, A., Shelley, G., Mazur, A., Tharp, G., & Kittok, R. (1989) Testosterone, and winning and losing in human competition. Human Behaviour, 23, 556-571.

Grevert, P. & Goldstein, A. (1978). Endorphins: Naloxone fails to alter experimental pain. Science, 199, 1093-1094.

Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From psychological stress to the emotions: A history of changing outlooks. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 1-21.

MacLennan, A. J. & Maier, S. F. (1983). Coping and the stress-induced potentiation of stimulant stereotypy in the rat. Science, 219, 1091-1093.

Nerem, R. M., Levensque, M. J., & Cornhill, J. F. (1980) Social environment as a factor in diet-induced atherosclerosis. Science, 208, 1475-1476.

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