Individuals differ dramatically in their response to a problem or a stressor. Some people are born with a temperament that predisposes them to higher or lower levels of tolerance to stress.
Your cognitive reaction to a situation plays a role in determining how stressful a situation is to you. This reaction is characterized by your appraisal of the nature, importance and implications of the event, and by your ability to effectively manage or cope with the event.
Your emotional responses to a situation are determined by your appraisal of both the situation and your coping abilities, as well as your temperament. For example, if you tell yourself, “I can handle this,” you will have a completely different emotional response than if you say, “This is terrible. I’m going crazy.”
Experts have developed several explanations for why certain people respond more positively or negatively to stressors. These include:
Our genetic makeup, which influences health and behavior. To some degree, it is human nature to feel stressed when we aren’t sure what to do or when faced with making a difficult or frustrating decision. And, some individuals may have a heightened level of arousal in the central nervous system, causing them to react more excitedly to events and adapt more slowly.
Experiencing something unusual or surprising causes stress. Researchers studying chimpanzees found that familiar and unfamiliar objects generally did not cause stress. But familiar objects shown in unfamiliar ways scared them. This reaction appeared to be innate; it was not based on a previous experience. In addition, half of all parents whose children are afraid of water report their children always had been fearful of the water; they had not had an initial traumatic experience that precipitated their anxiety.
Sometimes stress can lead to “positive reinforcement.” When we are feeling anxious, we may get attention or sympathy from our friends or family, for example. Attention or avoidance can reward us for our negative reactions.
Other psychological theories state that stress is born from internal conflicts, such as the struggle between our true or actual self and our ideal self, between unconscious views or needs or between our image of reality and actuality. For example, for the average student who wants to go on to a high-level college, taking entrance exams may be more stressful because he is unaware that he is putting pressure on himself to go beyond his own capabilities.
Past experience may color our view and how we interpret events, in turn determining our reactions and feelings. Anxiety, for example, may be a learned response to pain or mental discomfort. If you have one bad experience on a bumpy airline trip and then begin to expect that same level of discomfort on every trip, that expectation can color the future of your travels with a misinterpretation that all air travel is bad, even though it only happened once.
More recently, some psychologists have said we actually may “think or imagine ourselves into almost any emotional state.” We are not conditioned by our experiences in life to react a certain way; rather our inner thoughts determine our feelings and generate a sense of stress or calm. Those who catastrophize events or ask “what if” with an expectation of negative outcomes, without the data to determine whether their worries are true, add stress to their lives in situations that may or may not deserve a high level of emotional, cognitive or physiological responses.