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Session Overview

Photo of stress balls with different cartoon facial expressions on them.

What stresses you out? What is stress and how does it affect our body? In this lecture, we will examine stress, the neural substrates of stress, and the ways in which stress manifests itself physically and emotionally.

Keywords: PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, stress, embodied cognition, emotional pain, type a personality, ulcers, stress and mortality, stereotype stress

Stress balls are marketed as a coping mechanism for stress. (Image by Weas Frikis on Flickr. License: CC-BY-NC-SA.)

Session Activities


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Discussion: Stress

So, let's talk a little bit about the science of stress, the psychology of stress, and the physiology of stress. What's going on when you say, "I'm stressed out" – what does that mean from a biological and a cognitive perspective?… Read more »

Check Yourself

Describe the three stages of Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome.

Sample answer

The general adaptation syndrome is comprised of three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In the alarm phase, an organism prepares physiologically and psychologically to respond to a stressor. This includes the release of hormones like cortisol and the activation of the HPA axis. In the resistance phase, the organism mobilizes resources to adapt to the contiued presence of a stressor. This may include reducing non-essential metabolic activities in preference for those that support the stress response. Cortisol levels remain high during this phase if the stressor is chronic. In the exhaustion phase, the physiological cost of maintaining a heightened response to the stressor begins to take its toll. Resources may be diverted away from essential systems (cf. resistance phase) which cause damage to the body and brain.


What is hostility in the context of psychological science? What are some of the effects of hostility on health?

Sample answer

Hostility is a "personality trait associated with heart disease and characterized mistrust, an expectation of harm and provocation by others, and a cynical attitude." Hostile personality traits are present in individuals with a so-called "Type A personality." The heightened, chronic stress responses associated with hostility include high blood pressure and heart disease.


Coping strategies for handling stress can be either problem-focused or emotion-focused. Explain how these two approaches are different and similar. Identify general strategies that are examples of problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.

Sample answer

Problem-focused coping strategies are those that seek to change the external source of a stressor. This can include changing the environment itself, or changing how one interacts with the environment to avoid causing stress. Examples of general approaches to problem-focused coping include active coping (trying to remove or work around a stressor), planning (developing strategies for managing a stressor), and instrumental social support (seeking advice about specific actions from others), among others.

Emotion-focused coping strategies, meanwhile, are those that seek to change the internal response to a stressor. Rather than trying to reduce or remove the cause of stress, these strategies attempt to change the emotional response to the stressor – how it is experienced by an individual. Emotion-focused coping strategies include emotional social support (seeking affirmation and encouragement from others), venting emotions (talking about stressed feelings to others as a means to feeling better), and mental disengagement (trying to think about other, non-stressful things), among others.

Both emotion- and problem-focused approaches are viable methods for reducing stress.


Further Study

These optional resources are provided for students that wish to explore this topic more fully.

Book Buy at Amazon Saplosky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. 3rd ed. Holt Paperbacks, 2004. ISBN: 9780805073690. Book that Prof. Gabrieli recommends in class
Participate in research Project Implicit® Implicit Association Tests, Educational resource and research site for investigations in implicit social cognition, including more demonstrations and opportunities to participate in ongoing research.
Textbook supplement Study materials for Ch. 13, "Stress, Health, and Coping : Dealing With Life." In Kosslyn & Rosenberg, Psychology in Context, 3/e (Pearson, 2007) Practice test questions, flashcards, and media for a related textbook


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