This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

The Role of Emotion in Stress

In Chapter 9 we described a conceptual leap advocated by Arnold Lazarus (1993) that greatly simplifies the interpretation of stress research. As a rule, challenging events are stressful only when accompanied by negative emotions. For example, when untamed rats are handled or injected, they no doubt experience the terror of being captured by a dangerous predator (a human) and their health suffers, as Selye documented. But a tame rat seeks handling by its owner and appears to enjoy it…and it suffers no ill effects. In fact, handling tame animals appears to make 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 the release of endorphins. This unexpected finding suggests that pain by itself is not necessarily stressful. Subjects who dunk their arms into ice water know they are in a laboratory test that will be over soon. They may be intrigued by the test, and they are unlikely to feel negative emotions about it. So they do not experience stress. (A second implication of this finding is that stress, not pain, stimulates endorphins.)

Similarly, in the MacLennan and Maier (1983) research described earlier, a footshock that the rat can turn off with an escape behavior does not produce the ill effects of stress. It just produces a rat successfully coping with a painful event. That is why rats who have control over their stressors do not suffer adverse health effects. However, a rat who is hooked to the same apparatus (a condition researchers call a yoked control) feels shocks that come at random times and cannot be controlled. That is no doubt distressing, and these rats experience ill health effects from the same number of shocks.

What did Lazarus argue, about stress and emotion?

It is because negative emotions are so important in defining stress that Lazarus wrote, "Stress should be a sub-topic of emotion." This has important implications for stress-reduction as well. Often the easiest way to reduce stress is to change one's interpretation or appraisal of an event, so negative emotions are replaced by neutral or positive emotions.

The importance of appraisal was shown by a classic study, described by Lazarus (1993), in which subjects watching stress-inducing films. One film was about woodworking shop accidents and contained a scene in which 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 a different defense mechanism, "intellectualization or distancing," in which events were not denied but they were 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 subjects in the film suffered pain or injury. A fourth group did not listen to any recording before viewing the film and 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 that viewed the film. The third condition raised levels of stress reactions. This simple demonstration made an important point. Stress is not an inevitable consequence of a particular stressful event. It depends to a great extent on how the event is interpreted or appraised.

How does this relate to the therapy ideas of Ellis?

Does this technique of changing appraisal merely advocate "happy talk" in place of realistic but sad emotions? Not if you examine the research example from Lazarus. The movie of shop accidents probably was created to train shop workers to avoid injuries. It is like seeing a wrecked car and being told, "This is what can happen if you drink and drive." It is also like admitting a mistake but vowing to learn from it, so you can get something good out of it. This is not happy talk; it is a realistic way to get something valuable out of a negative event. It is the opposite of catastrophizing and awfulizing in Albert Ellis's terms. As Ellis pointed out, those forms of self-talk or appraisal merely inflame negative emotions and make people stressed out and sick about what is happening to them. A more constructive (and less stressful) response to a bad situation is to appraise it realistically and try to learn from it.


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