eClass 2: Coping and Risk Factors in Stress Responses

Lion-Frieze-from-the-Palace-of-Darius-I-mid Coping is positive response outcome expectancies. This means that the individual expects that he or she will be able to handle the situation with a positive result. In these situations, there is a low level of subjective health complaints and low levels of psychophysiological, psycho endocrine, and psycho immune arousal[i].

Coping can be divided into two general categories:

  • Problem-focused coping: those strategies aimed at doing something to solve the problem.
  • Emotion-focused coping: its goal is emotion-regulation.
Helplessness and Hopelessness

When it is impossible for the individual to establish coping, other expectancies may develop. When the individual learns that there are no relationships between anything the individual can do and the outcome, we refer to this as helplessness. Overmier & Seligman found that dogs with previous experience with inescapable shocks did not learn avoidance tasks[ii]. They found that this state of “helplessness” generalized to situations where control is possible. Helplessness occurs when the perceived probability of avoiding the aversive stimulus with a response is the same as for no response. In other words, the response is without any perceived consequence for the occurrence of the aversive event. The organism has no control. This expectancy has been accepted as a model for anxiety and depression[iii].

Hopelessness is even worse. This term is used for an acquired expectancy that most or all responses lead to negative results. Hopelessness is more directly opposite of coping than helplessness, since it is negative response outcome expectancy. There is control, responses have effects, but they are all negative. The negative outcome is his or her fault since the individual has control. This introduces the element of guilt, which may make hopelessness an even better model for depression than helplessness.

Physiological and Cognitive Sensitization

Sensitization is an increased efficiency in a neural circuit, due to a change in the synapses from repeated use. This feed-forward mechanism increases the response to a stimulus.

Sensitization is a typical feature of pain pathways, pain produce pain. Patients referred to a back pain clinic for low back pain do not have back pain only, they also complain about general pain, headaches, tiredness, anxiety and depressed thoughts. Patients hospitalized for irritable bowel disease have similar comorbidity. The level of comorbidity is also a significant prognostic factor for spinal pain.

This basic neurobiological process may be assumed to have a cognitive analogue. Brosschot et al.[iv] have suggested that this cognitive correlate is an attentional bias, giving priority to thoughts and information related to fears and somatic complaints. They find that patients with subjective health complaints (unexplained medical complaints) show sensitization and extensive activation of cognitive networks related to illness and pain. Brosschot refers to this as the “night and day watch” of the sensitized organism.

Protective and Risk Factors

A range of personal and environmental characteristics plays a role in determining how we react to stress.

  • In terms of psychological characteristics of individuals, our views of our competencies and ourselves may influence our responses. For instance, individuals who attribute negative events in their lives to internal, stable, and global characteristics (e.g., "I failed a test because I am stupid"), and who feel a lack of control over important outcomes in their lives show increased vulnerability to depression in response to stress. In contrast, high levels of work, academic and social competence, high self-esteem, and adaptive coping styles may help individuals to deal effectively with stress, thereby protecting them against negative consequences.
  • External resources, such as the presence of a supportive social environment or strong friendships, also may buffer us from the harmful effects of stress.
  • Our responses to stress also may differ according to gender and age. Research conducted on young children has shown that girls and boys display different types of vulnerability. In particular, girls may be more likely to respond to stress with emotional distress, such as feelings of anxiety and depression, whereas boys may be more likely to respond to stress with behavior problems, such as aggression. So far, little consistent evidence has emerged regarding the impact of particular types of stress across development, but it is possible that certain stressors will be more or less salient at different life stages. For instance, school-related stress may become particularly important during middle childhood, whereas friendship-related stress may become particularly important during early adolescence.

An area that has received little attention concerns the positive consequences of stress. It has been said, "Whatever does not kill us makes us stronger." This statement reflects the rather counterintuitive idea that, under some circumstances, the experience of stress actually may promote healthy development.

For instance, encountering stressful situations may enhance our strategies for coping with future stress or may strengthen social bonds as we seek support or advice from friends and family. Moreover, successful coping experiences may foster a sense of self-efficacy and increase our self-esteem.


[i] URSIN, H. & H.R. ERIKSEN. 2004. The Cognitive Activation Theory of Stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 29: 567-592.

[ii] OVERMIER, J.B. & M.E.P. SELIGMAN. 1967. Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding. J. Comp. Physiol. Pychol. 63: 28-33.

[iii] FOLKMAN, S. & R.S. LAZARUS. 1990. Coping and emotion. In: Psychological and biological approaches to emotion. N.L. Stein, B. Leventhal & T. Trabasso, Eds.: 313-332. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey.

[iv] BROSSCHOT, J.F., W. GERIN & J.F. THAYER. 2006. The perseverative cognition hypothesis: a review of worry, prolonged stress related physiological activation, and health. J Psychosom Res. 60: 113-24.