Back in the 1950s, Hans Selye first wrote about the concept of stress from a medical perspective. He said that when the body undergoes stress, it goes through three distinct stages: the recognition of a stressor, resistance to the stressor when the body attempts to adapt to the demands being placed on it, and finally exhaustion when it’s run out of adaptive energy. If the body stays in the exhaustion stage for too long, it starts to succumb to what Selye called “diseases of adaption.” In other words, you get sick.
Here’s the thing: Though Selye was writing about physical stress, your body doesn’t distinguish between experiencing physical stress and emotional stress. The process is the same.
Selye made a few other interesting points about the possible reactions to stress:
- Many of the physical symptoms of stress may disappear during the resistance stage only to reappear during the exhaustion stage, suggesting that human beings have a finite ability to adapt to their situation.
- What may cause general adaptation syndrome (i.e. a response to a stressor) in one person may not cause it in another.
- Exposure to the same stressor several times by the same person may produce qualitatively different results that are dependent on the context of the situation it occurs in.
Fast forward a few decades and you’ll find the work of Richard Lazarus, who built off of this foundation when he developed his theory about how people cope with stressful situations. Like Selye, he noted that how an person copes with a situation is unique from one person to the next, and largely depends on how they perceive the situation.
Those who perceive their situation as “solvable” typically engage in problem-focused coping – they do things to try to remove the stressor. They try a different tactic, try to work with people differently, think tactically about the problem to see what they are missing and what they can do to meet their goal. In other words, they try to solve the problem.
Those who don’t view the problem as “solvable” engage in emotion-focused coping – they do things to try to mitigate the stress. They work out more, spend more time with family, try to maintain a better work-life balance. They don’t do things to solve the problem. In fact, sometimes they do things to downright avoid it.
What’s the point? Neither form of coping is better or worse than the other, but eventually you’re going to have to engage in problem-focused coping to remove the stressor from your life. Emotion-focused coping is fine for the short-term, but is not a long-term solution…and do it for too long without incorporating problem-focused strategies as well and you’ll end making yourself sick.
Like this article?
Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. British Medical Journal. 1(4667), 1383-1392. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2038162/
Uy, M., Foo, M., & Song, Z. (2012) Joint effects of prior start-up experience and coping strategies on entrepreneurs’ psychological well-being. Journal of Business Venturing. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1016/j.jbusvent.2012.04.003