Introduction to Stress (Readings #1)

Reflecting on my past research projects, I realized that while I am heavily interested in interracial and intergroup interactions, I am actually exploring stress altogether. I examined whether being reminded of negative stereotypes during an intergroup interaction can cause stress and lead to specific attitudinal and behavioral responses. For example, a Black civilian being reminded that Blacks are depicted as thugs, violent, and not cooperative, may act more hostile or feel more nervous during a police interaction. Although my data comes from participants imagining they were in a police interaction, Sapolsky (2004) says it’s okay, because an individual’s stress response can be mobilized merely by the expectation of a physical or psychological insult. In this case, Sapolsky (2004) would categorize the concern of negative stereotypes as a form of psychological stress created by humans – as a zebra’s [physical] stress simply comes from life or death.

While the concern of negative stereotypes and being eaten by a lion are two very different stressors, I think it’s fascinating that Sapolsky (2004) illustrates to us how we actually turn on the same stress-response if either of the situations takes us out of allostatic balance. In this section of the chapter Sapolsky goes on to talk about how during a stressful moment our cognitive and sensory skills can improve, like enhanced memory or a sharper dictation of sensation (Sapolsky, 2004). However, I think this is interesting because greater sensory skills may ironically have negative outcomes. There are many times in life that we (humans) begin to self-monitor our behaviors during stressful moments, which may backfire. For example, basketball players are taught to build a routine in shooting free throws so it becomes habitual. But in a championship game with one second left, down by two points, a basketball player may feel stressed, self-monitor their shooting movements and miss both free throws. We also see this in stereotype threat literature. A Black civilian who thinks that an officer sees him as a criminal may become more stressed and anxious, leading to unnatural behavior (furtive movements) – which is seen as suspicious behavior by police (Najdowski, Bottoms, & Goff, 2015). Possibly, while a stress-response may increase your sensory skills to assist you in a given situation, it may also consequently cause more stress.

With this interesting backlash of stress, I’m curious if coping with stress or specific stress strategies can actually have an opposite effect? Last year when I started TA’ing a stats lab I remember feeling stressed after the first day because I didn’t know how to answer a lot of their questions. To calm myself I tried to revisit the day in my head and see where I went wrong and how I could improve in the next week. Lazarus (1999) describes this as secondary appraising as I’m attempting to evaluate my coping options. However, I became distracted and started thinking about how the students were perceiving me, if they would take me less serious, if they would give me bad evaluations, and if they would just ask me hard questions on purpose now knowing that I was having a difficult time. This ended up getting me more stressed than I initially was. I think it’s interesting that Lazarus (1999) keeps it blunt and says that (1) we have to recognize that sometimes a coping strategy may not work and we have to quickly abandon it and (2) often times finding a good coping strategy/process is simply good luck.

However, most importantly, Lazarus (1999) emphasizes that an individual cannot come to terms in coping with their stress without understanding their emotional process during/after the situation – since coping with the feelings of helplessness is different from feelings of aggression. Although the author recommends shifting to new coping strategies and recognizing an emotional state, how can I avoid the “distractions”? The doubt in my head that is creating more doubt and stress, which makes it difficult to cope with without going into that situation again – or in my case teaching the next week. Lazarus (1999) does discuss how our emotional process can “get in the way of reason” and misdirect our attention, but what ways can we control our emotional state to better assist our coping strategies during/after stressful situations?

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