New Research Explores The Different Ways People Think About Stress

A new study identifies five categories of stress beliefs.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 29, 2021

A new article published in the Journal of Health Psychology attempts to catalog the different ways people think about and relate to stress.

"The word stress — like success, failure, or happiness — means different things to different people and, except for a few specialized scientists, no one has really tried to define it although it has become part of our daily vocabulary," state the authors of the research, led by Christopher Kilby of Macquarie University in Australia. "This study identified five major themes of stress beliefs. Collectively, these beliefs suggest that people conceptualize stress as a change in the way their body functions in terms of mental, emotional, and physical capacities."

The five themes identified by the scientists were (1) cognition, (2) emotion, (3) physical health, (4) interpersonal relations, and (5) behavior. This was based on a series of interviews where researchers asked participants to discuss their experience with stress, including its sensations, causes, purpose, and consequences. The five categories of stress beliefs are discussed below.

Cognitive elements of stress beliefs

All participants discussed some aspect of the relationship between stress and thinking. For instance, some participants talked about how cognition can influence sensations of stress. One respondent said, "If I am caught in really bad traffic, I get frustrated and I get stressed because I just start going over things that could happen in my head."

Other participants discussed how stress influences their thought patterns. One respondent said, "I overthink things when I am stressed. So, if I am in a normal mood, I think things are fine. But if I'm stressed, I will think everything means something."

A majority of the respondents interviewed (63%) reported that stress negatively impacts their ability to think clearly (e.g., "I'll make less thoughtful decisions which will not be very good") while others noted that stress helps them "zone in" on important tasks.

Some respondents said that stress serves as a signal for them to pay attention to important things (e.g., "If you stress about something, then you know that you care about it.").

A few participants mentioned that stress makes them more selfish as they lack the ability to tend to others' needs during stressful times. Approximately three-quarters of participants noted that stress is associated with increased thought intrusion and rumination.

Finally, all respondents raised the idea that stress and time are related to each other. Some indicated that stress is an ever-present part of their life while others indicated that it comes and goes. Not surprisingly, many participants discussed how a lack of time exacerbates feelings of stress.

Emotional elements of stress beliefs

Almost all participants (94%) mentioned that stress influences their emotions in some way. Most respondents indicated that stress produces negative emotional states such as anger, irritability, sadness, jealousy, or panic. For instance, one respondent commented, "My mood starts to change [...] I'll get a little bit angry and a little bit snappy with my family and my friends."

Positive emotional states, such as excitement and optimism, were noted as well. One respondent comments, "After performing, I'm on a high. I've got a lot of adrenaline going. It's definitely because of the stress that I feel so good after performing."

Physical health elements of stress beliefs

All participants discussed the relationship between stress and physical health, but its effects varied from person to person. Some participants noted changes in appetite (increased and decreased), sleeping patterns (increased and decreased), increased heart rate, increased body temperature, feelings of exhaustion/adrenaline, stomach cramps, dry skin, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, sweating, and acne/warts. One participant commented, "I can feel my physical body temperature rise [when stressed]. It is really obvious to me."

Interpersonal elements of stress beliefs

Most participants (89%) reported changes in stress levels in response to being around and interacting with certain people. One respondent commented, "Sometimes other staff members will come into the workplace and make it stressful. If you are stressed, then everyone else is stressed."

Others reported that talking to other people alleviates their stress. One participant said, "I would have to find someone to talk it through with, because that is what I do when I get stressed and panicky, I talk with someone. They talk me through it, and I just vent about it, and then that is around about when most of the feeling dissipates."

Behavioral elements of stress beliefs

All participants described at least one instance of stress influencing their actions and behaviors. For instance, some participants pointed out how stress causes them to focus or prepare for an upcoming task, such as an exam. Others mentioned that it causes them to question their confidence (e.g., "In some ways, stress is really bad because it makes you feel like you are going to do worse than you really are.").

Others pointed out that stress alters the way they cope with challenging situations, such as engaging in ritualistic or superstitious practices. Many respondents cited specific coping strategies used to counteract stress, such as playing music, resting, exercising, or re-evaluating the stressful situation.

Conclusion: By developing a better understanding of what stress means to different people, the authors hope that their work will lead to better treatments for stress and anxiety. "Research by others is currently looking into what the optimal set of stress beliefs might be," say the authors. "Initial findings are suggesting that a mix of both positive and negative beliefs about stress are necessary so that we can detect threat where threat exists, but while not losing sight of the challenges and benefits of stress."

A full interview with Christopher Kilby exploring his new research on stress beliefs can be found here: What's the right way to think about stress?