Should Stress be a Sub-topic of Emotion?

In Chapter 14 we devote an entire section to the subject of stress. One of the leading figures in stress research and related therapies—Arnold Lazarus—proposed in 1993 that "stress should be treated as a sub-topic of emotion." Why? Only events accompanied by negative emotion cause 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? How can psychologists get beyond a one-dimensional view of 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-assess their emotional reactions.

Lazarus (1993) identified 15 basic emotions:

Negative emotions: anger, anxiety, disgust, envy, fright, guilt, jealousy, sadness, shame

Positive emotions: happiness, love, pride, relief

Lazarus says 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 cognitive social psychologists, 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. This is the "plot or story" that lies behind the emotion of anger: that person is hurting me and doing it on purpose.

There are two ways to replace a negative script with a positive script, Lazarus points out: (1) take action to change the objective facts of the situation, or (2) change the client'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 look for a specific emotion. If the mother seems to express 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: (1) 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), and (2) discuss 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 grow in its place, and the level of stress is reduced.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey