Managing and coping with stress
Drug therapy is a biological method of stress management. Benzodiazepines (BZs), such as Valium and Librium, are anti-anxiety drugs that dampen down the activity of the nervous system to create a sensation of calm and relaxation. Beta-blockers (BBs) are anti-anxiety drugs that block the transmission of nerve impulses, to reduce heart rate and alleviate the negative physical effects of stress.
Psychological methods of stress management include: (1) Stress inoculation therapy (SIT), a form of cognitive behavioural therapy that reduces stress by restructuring emotional and behavioural responses; (2) Biofeedback, a behaviourist treatment that involves training people to reduce stress levels by using physical signals from their bodies.
Stress generally produces the flight-or-fight response in males, but a tend-and-befriend response in females. Females tend to use social networks more when coping with stress and emotion focused strategies, which aim to make individuals feel more positive. Males use problem focused strategies more, where stressors are directly confronted. Social support involves the degree of resources and assistance available from others to help cope with stress. Instrumental support involves others providing practical assistance, while emotional support involves others showing support and sympathy and esteem support involves others showing they hold an individual in high regard.
Fig 14.5 Used to reduce stress levels, the benzodiazepine Valium is the world’s most prescribed drug, but can be addictive
Kulik et al. (2013) assessed the effect of stress in mice being treated with drugs for prostate cancer. The first study used two types of male mice; ones implanted with human prostate cancer cells and ones genetically modified to develop prostate cancer. Both groups were given drugs used to treat prostate cancer. Half of each group were stressed, while half were kept stress free. The second study involved giving the mice a beta-blocker to reduce bodily functions. In study one it was found that in stress-free mice the drugs destroyed cancer cells and inhibited tumour growth. However, in the stressed mice cancer cells did not die and the drugs did not prevent tumour growth. In study two it was found that in all mice cancer cells were destroyed and tumour growth inhibited. It was concluded that stress reduces the effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs by stimulating adrenaline production, while beta-blockers inhibit adrenaline-controlled signalling pathways so that destruction of cancer cells can occur.
• Holcomb (1986) found that psychiatric patients responded better to SIT than drug treatments in reducing symptoms of anxiety, distress and depression. A 3-year follow-up study found that SIT treated patients required fewer hospital admissions for psychiatric episodes, suggesting that SIT is superior in long-term treatment of stress-disorders.
• Tamres et al. (2014) found that females use a wider selection of coping strategies and are more likely to seek social support to deal with stressors. Females were also more likely to engage in negative emotion-focused strategies, which explains why they perceive stressors as more severe than males did.
• Orth-Gomer (1993) found that the most common factors in males developing CVDs was smoking and lack of social support. Men with stressful lives who did not receive emotional social support were five times more likely to die than those who did receive such support. This illustrates the importance of social support.
Both SIT and biofeedback are based on solid theoretical foundations of a cognitive and behaviourist nature and both have research backing from laboratory and real-life based backgrounds.
BZs and BBs are easy to take, cost effective and popular with patients, as they are a known and trusted form of treatment.
Gender differences in coping strategies may reflect gender differences in types of stressors encountered; females experience more emotional stressors and males more practically based ones.
Different types of social support help in different situations, for example instrumental support in the form of babysitting is best for work commitment situations.
BBs and BZs do not address causes of disorders; such medications only temporarily halt negative stress effects. When treatment ends symptoms may reappear.
There are so many different components to SIT, such as relaxation, cognitive appraisal, life skills, etc., that it is difficult to assess which are the most effective ones.
Findings of gender differences in coping strategies are generally based on self-reports, which are prone to bias and so may not be totally valid.
If different types of social support are simultaneously given they can overwhelm and confuse an individual, making them less able to cope.
Research into stress has not only led to the formation of stress management therapies, it has also shown the benefits and disadvantages of each, allowing more constructive use of such therapies in addressing the negative effects of stress.