This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2003 First Paper
On Serendip

Why Stress Affects Everybody Differently

Sarah Kim

The word "stress" technically refers only to how our body reacts to stressors, different
external inputs. Many stressors are not inherently stressful. There are conscious and
unconscious things that occur in our inner world that determine whether a stressor in the external world will trigger our stress response, called mediating responses and
moderating factors. (1) Some stress is good for us and motivates us. But signs that stress has gone too far include emotional distress, sleep disturbances and difficulty concentrating. Scientific studies suggest that up to 85% of all health problems are related to stress. (2)

Stressors have 3 general categories: catastrophes, major life changes and daily hassles. Catastrophes are sudden, often life-threatening calamities or disasters that push people to the outer limits of their coping capability. These include natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Major life changes include death of a loved one, divorce, imprisonment, job loss and major disability. Daily hassles include everyday annoyances due to jobs, personal relationships and everyday living circumstances. (3)

Mediating processes and moderating factors determine how we react to an external
stressor. One mediating process is appraisal. Stressors can be interpreted in different ways, such as harm or loss, as threats or as challenges. When appraising the situation, aspects such as how predictable and controllable a stressor is, whether is stable or unstable, global or specific, and internal or external, affect how the individual will react to the stressor. (5) If the event is judged to be uncontrollable, it will be more stressful, if it's more stable and global, people will react in a helpless manner, if it's more internal, people will feel worse about themselves.

Another mediating process is coping. There are two main strategies of coping: problem-
focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping tries to manage
and alter stressors and is more useful in situations in which a constructive solution can be found. Problem-focused coping strategies include confronting (changing a stressful situation assertively), planful problem solving (solving through deliberate, problem-focused strategies) and most importantly, seeking social support. (5)

Emotion-focused coping tries to regulate the emotional responses to stressors and is more useful in situations in which the problem must be accepted. Some of these coping
strategies include self-controlling, distancing, positively reappraising (finding positive meaning in stressful experience by focusing on personal growth), accepting
responsibility, and escaping/avoiding (often by drinking, overeating, using drugs, etc.). (5) The idea behind this mediating process of coping is repeated later in this paper when coping ability is considered a personality trait by a study by the University of Utah.

Moderating factors, as well as mediating processes, influence the strength of individuals' stress responses induced by stressors. The main moderating factor is the personality traits of the individuals. Hardiness is a trait associated with stress resistance, which consists of control (belief in people that they can influence their internal states and behavior, influence their environment and bring about desired outcomes; the most important factor in hardiness), commitment, and challenge (the willingness in people to try new activities and change). (5)

Certain personality traits relate to stressors and how each individual reacts to the
stressors. Kristina DeNeve from the University of Utah reported a study on the relation
of happiness to 137 individual personality traits. Two traits, out of 8 important traits, stood out as highly relevant to stress: tension (the tendency to experience negative emotions in response to stressors) and coping ability (hardiness or the tendency to cope positively with stressors). More happiness is related to having a personality type which copes positively with stressors and lacks feelings of tension in response to them. (4)

The remaining 6 traits which were important in relation to stress and happiness include
trust, emotional stability, desire for control, extraversion, locus of control-chance, and repressive-defensiveness. Locus of control-chance refers to the tendency to think that events happen by chance alone, while repressive defensiveness is the tendency to avoid threatening information. (4) The trait most highly associated with happiness is repressive defensiveness, which makes a good case for the old adage "ignorance is bliss."

There are several other personality traits described which are included in the moderating factors' influence on the strength of the stress response. An individual's affect is very relevant to their reaction to external stressors. A positive affectivity (extroversion) is associated with more enthusiasm and energy, leading to eustress. A negative affectivity (neuroticism) is associated with anxiety and depression, leading to distress. Also, optimism is associated with stress resistance and a lack of stress responses, such as depression. (5) In addition, an individual's self-esteem and power motivation help determine how much stress the stressor will cause.

People with certain personality traits seem to be physiologically overresponsive to stress, and therefore more vulnerable to heart disease. Traditionally called "Type A" people have some poisonous traits such as frequent reactions of hostility and anger, which negatively affects their ability to deal with stress. (3)

Another essential moderating factor is demographic variables. With age, individuals
show less positive and negative affectivity. Ethnicity can also come into play, as well as socioeconomic status, and occupational status. The higher the status, the more self
esteem an individual tends to have, leading to better resistance to depression. In addition, gender has a big impact on reactions to the stressors. For example, more women experience negative affectivity than men. Also, women use different coping strategies than men. Women tend to use emotion-focused coping strategies, self-blame, seeking of social support, and wishful thinking, whereas men tend to use problem-focused coping strategies, planned and rational actions, personal growth, and humor. (5)

Other moderating factors which affect the how strongly a person reacts to an external
stressor include health habits, genetics and early family experiences, material resources, pre-existing stressors, and their ability to use coping skills. A healthy lifestyle, including healthy diet, physical fitness, and adequate rest and relaxation, leads to resistance to stress. Features such as positive or negative affectivity, optimism, using active coping strategies, and relying on social support networks are partially inherited, while a sense of personal control, using denial as a coping strategy, and responding with anger and hostility are partially due to childhood familial experiences. (5) In general, with more money, there are more coping options available to an individual.


1)MSNBC Health article titled, "Stress: It's All In Your Head."

2) Kenny, Janet W. "Women's Stressors, Personality Traits, and Inner-Balance Strategies," April 2002.

3)Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2003 article titled, "Stress (psychology)."

4)Current Directions in Psychological Science article titled, "Happy as an extraverted clam? The role of personality for subjective well-being."

5)"The Connection Between Stressors and Stress Responses."

| Biology 103 | Course Forum Area | Biology | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:20 CDT