“Stress is an unavoidable part of life” and is one of the most frequently researched issues within environmental psychology. Thus, this article evaluates the effect of environmental stressors on individuals. Part of the analysis is the definition of the concept of stress and an explanation of the physiology and psychology of stress provides the necessary information to understand the construct of stress. I selected three environmental stressors and evaluate the affect of those stressors on the individual. Those stressors are: temperature, chemical pollution, and noise. At last, the discussion of strategies to manage those three environmental stressors provides some examples to minimize the impact of environmental stressors on humans.
The Concept of Stress
From an environmental point of view, “stress has been defined as a state that occurs when people are faced with demands from the environment that require them to change in some way” (Veitch & Arkkelin, 1995, p. 118). The changes in which people have to adapt to is due to natural and technical catastrophes such as tornados, major personal life events like the death of a loved one, or daily hassles like routine rituals that affect human’s daily functioning. This interrelationship between the individual and its environment is of focus and environmental psychologists are not yet sure if stress is the threat itself or the person’s perception and response to such a threat.
In sum, stress can be thought off as …“both something that is happening to a person and the person’s response to what’s happening” (Veitch & Arkkelin, 1995, p. 120). Many components like psychological and environmental events, the perception of such, and the physiological and behavioral response of the individual are involved when stress occurs and explains the following description of the physiology and psychology of stress.
The Physiology and Psychology of Stress
The most immediate reaction to stress is a physiological one, for exposure to stress induces a rise in certain hormones secreted by the adrenal glands, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and changes in how well the skin conducts electrical impulses. Multiple biological systems are at work like the hypothalamus, cerebral cortex, reticular formation, limbic system, and autonomic nervous system. These stress responses may be adaptive because they produce an “emergency reaction” that is an arousal process of the sympathetic nervous system and may allow more effective coping with the stressful situation. During arousal, a system of nerve fibers, cells and axons in the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS) filters information allowing only the significant information to progress on to higher areas of the brain to be acted upon. RAS also maintains the function of making the cerebral cortex aware of the potential threat. In addition, Hans Seyle’s (1976) General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) incorporates the process of arousal and has three stages: the alarm reaction, the stage of resistance, and the stage of exhaustion. In the alarm reaction, the adrenal gland releases adrenaline, which makes one more aware of one’s surroundings as well as prepares the body to take action. When the body and mind begin to cope with the stressor, the stage of resistance is at work and if coping with the stressor is unsuccessful the stage of exhaustion sets in because the adrenal gland can no longer produce adrenaline.
An individual’s psychology (cognition and emotion), attitudes, beliefs, and perceptual predispositions influence the appraisal or way to perceive stimuli as stressful. Those psychological variables are thought to be promoters of physical stressors and as stressors in their own right. In other words, one’s susceptibility, anticipation of stress, and previous experiences influence one’s way of processing stress. Primary appraisal is the perception of a threat. This perception is often in anticipation of something happening or based on an experience in a similar surrounding. After consideration of the individual’s resources, which includes social variables, psychological resources, and constitutional resources, the individuals decides what kind of coping strategy is of use and implementation takes place – both mentally and physically. Secondary appraisal processes are already part of the coping strategy to internal and environmental demands to reestablish equilibrium. Environmental stressors are partly responsible for physiological and psychological disequilibrium of humans and thus, the following paragraphs provide some examples.
Environmental Stressors and their Effect
The three environmental stressors evaluated in this article consist of temperature, chemical pollution, and noise. The first description of a stressor is about temperature. Temperature is something that has a direct affect on every human being. Humans face changes in the natural temperature throughout the seasons as well as artificial changes with heaters and air-conditioners. Temperature can affect the human mind and body in many different ways. Extreme changes in temperature whether hot or cold can put physical demands on the body. It can affect the performance level of students such as poor performance in a classroom due to high temperature. The hotter the room grows, the less is the attention span, and the greater the cognitive interruptions would be.
Next, the following evaluation of a stressor is about chemical pollution. This is the introduction on contaminants into the land, air, or water system that can cause serious biological impacts on living organisms. According to Laurance, chemical pollution may have harmed the brains of millions of children around the world in what scientists are calling a ‘silent pandemic.’ The world is bathed in a soup of industrial chemicals, which are damaging the intellectual potential of the next generation and may increase the incidence of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, they say. One in every six children has a developmental disability, such as autism, attention deficit disorder or cerebral palsy, the effects of which may be lifelong (Laurance, 2006, p. 1).
The last evaluated stressor is noise and identifies any unwanted sound. For example, at home, this could be the sound of children playing and laughing too loud, the television and radio going at the same time, or the noise of all the appliances running in the kitchen. The affects that this could have on a person would be a child trying to do homework with all the sounds around him who would have a harder time completing the assignment than if the house or room were silent. Noise, therefore, can be considered a pollutant, a potential deterrent to normal interactions with one’s environment and a possible source of stress. Thus, strategies to manage such environmental stressors like temperature, chemical pollutants, and noise are necessary to prevent major health problems.
Temperature and noise are two environmental stressors that may lead to decreases in performance, cognitive functioning, and concentration. Managing temperature and noise stressors are an essential component to improving performance, cognitive functioning, and concentration. Managing the above environmental stressors is not only important in one’s personal life but also in one’s professional life. Many individuals work outdoors and are exposed to the elements on a regular basis. Environmental psychologists recognize the affect temperature and noise may have and have devised a plan to combat. They developed three approaches to managing stress: First focus on the stress itself; second, assume the stress is the direct result of the environmental stressor and focus on skill training; third effectively use group resources to manage stress. The first approach manages environmental stress by introducing breathing and relaxation exercises. In instances of temperature, dressing for the elements may manage the temperature stressor. For noise related stress, reducing exposure to the noise (e.g. noise reducing equipment) may manage the noise stressor. Second, assuming that fluctuations in temperature and noise are unavoidable, the focus rests on skill training. Temperature and noise should not faze an individual who is competent and capable of performing the task at hand. The third plan is to use effectively group resources such as superiors, co-workers or trained support staff.
Another type of environmental stressor is chemical pollution. Chemical pollution is enhancing environmental and health care costs. Landfills filled with toxic and hazardous litter, pollutants from industrial plants, and chemical emissions from trucks are only few of the types of chemical pollution that pose extreme risks to one’s health. Two methods are available for coping with this environmental stressor: Problem-focused coping (e.g., individual and/or group efforts to directly address the problem) and emotion-focused coping (e.g. efforts to control one’s psychological response to the stressor. An individual’s perception of the stressor decides how the individual will handle the stressor; addresses the stressor and takes action or tolerates the stressor.
The evaluation of the affect of environmental stressors on the individual incorporates the importance of the relationship between the stressor and the individual on a response-based and a stimulus-based definition as well as stress as a cause and effect. Psychological constructs like primary and secondary appraisal, arousal theories, and the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) explain the concept of stress. The physiology and psychology of stress deepens one’s understanding of stress by describing the affects of stressors like temperature, chemical pollutants, and noise. Those atmospheric and ubiquitous pollutants influence human performance and may diminish the well-being of individuals. Although humans adapt and acclimatize quite well, side-effects and accumulative effects may take their toll. Thus, strategies to manage such environmental stressors and to minimize its impact are necessary to increase human behavior and to find personal equilibrium.
Yours, Beate Landgraf
Veitch, R. & Arkkelin, D. (1995). Environmental psychology: an interdisciplinary perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.