Stages of Stress and Coping Strategies
Stress is part of being alive. Although stress elicits various emotions and actions, all stress follows the same pattern. Zegans (1982) describes the following stages.
- Stage of Alarm
The first reactions are involuntary physical changes. This can be an increase in heart rate, the flow of certain hormones, and/or changes in galvanic skin responses. Here, adrenalin is secreted for energy.
- Stages of Appraisal
How the stress is interpreted depends on the person's psychological makeup, experiences, and age. An invitation to play on the team may be exciting for one person while for another it would arouse the fear of failing.
Susie and Julie, each age ten, went to the mountains with Susie's dad for a fun day in the snow. They were coming down the mountain road near sunset when one of the tires lost its air. They pulled safely off the shoulder. Susie's dad said he would put another tire on. As he went to the trunk to get the spare tire and equipment, Susie ran after him and said, "Oh, let me help." They looked at Julie and she was crying softly, When asked what was wrong, she said, "But what if we don't get home? It's getting dark and no one might see us here." Each girl appraised the situation differently.
- Search for Coping Strategies
Infants attempt to control the situation by crying, spitting out the food, or, if all else fails, falling asleep. As children grow, they can think more about the situation and similar situations. They recall past experiences and how people reacted. They learn coping skills from those around them. Some strategies help the child to adapt to the situation while other techniques are counterproductive.
When the people around children use positive coping plans, it helps children to choose more successful plans such as ignoring an unpleasant situation, compromising, or finding acceptable substitute satisfactions (Honig, 1986).
When children learn and use inappropriate techniques such as swearing or hitting, they often encounter additional stresses rather than resolving the existing problem. This is particularly true when an inappropriate behavior from home is taken into the child-care center or school or from school to home.
- Stage of Implementation
Defense mechanisms used by some children distort the situation, resulting in denial. Children may exhibit compulsive behavior and not want to try anything new.
Children who externalize the situation blame others or fate as the cause of the problem. They often respond aggressively and show little empathy for the children they may have hurt. Their actions and refusal to accept some personal responsibility are not very effective in adjusting to stress.
Children who internalize the situation to the degree that they accept some responsibilities for their actions are more successful in adjusting to and dealing with that situation and future stress.
The process of successful coping involves the following responses:
a. flexibility and creative responses;
b. open consideration of options;
c. thinking about reality and future consequences;
d. rational and purposeful thinking;
e. direction and control over disturbing negative emotions (Haan, 1982).
Younger children will not be able to solve problems and reason the way older children can. It is crucial that adults in children's lives understand the help and support they need. Society, through its laws, agencies, and institutions, must also protect children. Children thrive best in environments low in stress and with adults who are positive models. These adults guide them to become competent in copping with life's stresses. It seems that children's ability to cope with everyday stresses is more important in determining their well-being than the type or amount of stress that they experience (Hardy, Power, and Jaedicke, 1993).
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