Stress can produce some unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms. In response, people show various behaviour patterns called "coping behaviours." Coping behaviour is really a form of problem solving where the object is to safeguard one's own well-being but one is not quite certain how to do so. The two main types of coping behaviour are direct action and palliative.
Direct action tends to be dramatic, unthinking and automatic. Although it provides relief from stress in the short term, its long term effects may be deleterious as men or women under stress they can't cope with may decide to escape from their environment. For example, a student unable to cope with exam pressure may simply drop out of university.
In short, direct action involves physical or psychological action designed to remove or lessen stress, by making a rational (or perhaps irrational) effort to alter one's environment or circumstances.
Palliative behaviour can also take a number of forms. Firstly, there is the use of alcohol, tranquillizers or relaxation techniques, which are symptom-directed techniques, in that they are aimed at the physical and emotional effects of stress rather than its cause.
Secondly, there are intellectual defence mechanisms, which enable someone to disguise the existence of a real or imagined threat from him or herself. The most important of these are: displacement, repression, denial, rationalization, intellectualization and reaction formation.
Displacement simply means the redirection of activity into a different form. It is not a redirection of stress itself, but a redirection of direct coping activity in situations where the coping behavior is redirected and expressed as aggression, anger or sex. In the latter case, excessive sexual activity frequently hides the fact that a person is stressed and either unwilling or unable to alleviate the problem by direct coping behaviour. Sex undoubtedly alleviates mild stress. There is a sound biological reason why a person comes to use sex as a method of reducing stress: the early stages of sexual activity are controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system, which, as you may recall, opposes the action of the sympathetic system.
Repression means exactly what it implies: the suppression of stressful thoughts, perceptions and emotions from the conscious to the subconscious. Repression is unquestionably the most harmful palliative behaviour pattern because it can lead to severe depression and anxiety. This often happens when a man dies, leaving his widow alone after many years of marriage. Although her friends and relatives may say how well she seems to have got over the bereavement, and how quickly she has adjusted, in reality the stress and emotional impact of the death is being repressed. It may even be that the shock was of such magnitude that the woman felt no emotion at the time - this is not uncommon - and she went on living an apparently normal life. The stress, however, continues to build up until it finally erupts as a deep depression some months later.
There are many similar situations where a person who has experienced an enormously traumatic event may carry on to all appearances quite normally, while the stress builds up in the subconscious mind. Repression is actually very common. For example, you may accidentally 'forget' an appointment or invitation that causes you great anxiety, or you may repress memories of an incident which caused you great embarrassment so that they cannot be consciously recalled and so evoke further emotional discomfort. But whatever their cause, repressed thoughts, feelings and emotions do not just 'go away': they are retained in the subconscious, which is still affected by them. As we shall see, repression can cause anxiety, depression, phobias and worry.
Denial is a term which refers to psychological self-deceit. The student who is terrified by the prospect of his exams may neither decide to postpone them nor walk out in the middle; he may simply deny that they are of any relevance or importance to his future career, and that it will not matter if he fails them.
Rationalization involves reasoning out logically acceptable but false explanations for certain events. For example, suppose that an individual is competing for a greatly desired promotion at work. If he fails to get it, he may reduce his feelings of disappointment and failure by rationalizing that his employers were unfairly biased in favor of the other candidate or prejudiced against him. He may even convince himself that he 'did not want the job anyway'. Thus he accepts an interpretation of the situation which means he does not have to admit that he simply was not good enough for the job.
Intellectualization is a process which operates in many situations where potentially enormous stress exists. A doctor who sees an endless succession of seriously ill patients may come to regard each person as an intellectual exercise in diagnosis rather than a 'real' man or woman. Intellectualization thus involves emotional detachment-in effect, a switching-off of our emotions, so that we cannot feel the effects of the stress under which we are working or living.
Reaction formation starts with the repression of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and emotions which are then replaced by exaggerated versions of their opposites. For example, a man who lacks confidence tries to be the life and soul of the party; or a person with feelings of guilt about sexual activity develops some kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour.
The Benefits Of Stress
So far, we have been referring to stress in the sense of 'distress', but there are several ways in which stress can be beneficial or even enjoyable. First of all, dangerous situations or sports can be so uplifting and thrilling that adrenalin produces a sense of euphoria rather than danger. Similarly, joyous events may increase our arousal but our subjective impression is that they are highly enjoyable and well worth experiencing. We can be fairly certain that stress can be beneficial by considering what happens when we are subjected to too little excitement and activity. During periods of dull monotony we become bored and the edge is removed from our intellectual and practical performance.
Equally, many actors and performers require a good dose of adrenalin to arouse them sufficiently to add life and sparkle to their performances. And some exam candidates or men and women attending an interview are surprised to find that their increased arousal helps them to think more clearly and tackle the situation with far greater energy and determination than usual. But when one's level of arousal increases too much, it can be a hindrance rather than a help. When a person is over-aroused, he or she may feel nervous or frightened rather than excited, and, instead of performing well, may go to pieces. Clearly too little arousal can be just as bad as too much. Somewhere between is an optimum - a point at which your adrenalin flows just fast enough to make the brain sharper and quicker and improve our performance when you need to be at your best. That is the good and beneficial side of stress.