Biological psychology

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Bodily response to stress

Stress is a response that occurs whn we feel like we cannot cope with our enviroment.

Sympathomedullary pathway: Initial shock triggers hypothalamus, which triggers the sympathetic branch of ANS. This stimulates the adrenal medulla, which releases adrenaline and noradrenaline. This causes heart and breathing rate to increase, pupils to dilate and muscles to tense (preparing us for fight or flight by providing us energy). Parasympathetic branch reverses these affects.

Pituitary-adrenal sysytem: Hypothalamus triggers release of CRF (corticotrophin releasing factor) which stimulates the anterior pituitary gland, which releases ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone). ACTH travels the body and stimulate the adrenal cortex which releases corticosteroids, this converts fats and protein to give us energy

Sympathomedullary pathway is used for acute stress. Where as the pituitary-adrenal system is used for chronic stress. 

Taylor et al found men are more likely to suffer stress due to male hormones reducing oxytocin affect. 

Regular activation of systems can be harmful, vessel damage, high cortisol levels etc. 

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Stress and physical illness

Long-term stress can affect the immune system

Krantz et al: Lab experiment, 39 participants underwent a stress-inducing task. Blood pressure was recorded and the extent in which heart vessels contracted. The higher the heart vessels contracted, the higher the blood pressure. Stress has direct influence on body functioning that can lead to CV disorders. Low EV/Individual differences/Timing.

Stress can also affect the immune system

Kiecolt-Glaser et al: Independant measures design, punch biopsy was used to create a small wound on 13 females who cared for relatives with Alzheimers, a control group had the same but did not care for relatives with Alzheimers. The wound of the carers took on average 9 more days to heal. Stress affects immune system. Sweeney also found similar results with people who cared for realtives with Dementia. Variables not controlled/Extraneous and confounding variables/Small sample/ Individual differences.

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Life changes

Major life events that involves change cause stress (Holmes and Rahe) 

Holmes and Rahe: Studied 5000 hospital patients records and noted any life events that occured before they became ill. They found a lot of patients had experienced a life change before they became ill, they also found the more severe the change the more the illness was related to stress. 

Holmes and Rahe created the SRRS (social readjustment rating scale) which consitisted of 43 major life events and asked people to rate them on a scale of 1-100 on how stressful they were (LCU(Life changing unit)). They then ranked these scores. They found a postitive correlation with a high score and chance of illness

Rahe et al gave 2500 American Navy sealmen the SRRS to complete based on the last 6 months before going on military duty. Higher LCU scores linked to increased risk of illness over the next 7 months.

However the SRRS does not seperate positive and negative life changes, which impacts how much stress is created. Daily hassels are not considered. Correlational not causal. 

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Daily hassles

Everday events that are stressful.

Kanner suggested daily hassels contribute more to stress than life changes.

Kanner et al:

100 adults asked to choose daily hassels (from a list of 117) they experienced in the last month, in a questionnaire. They rated each hassel depending on how stressful it was. This was repeated for 9 months. 

People who scored highly were more likely to have physical and psychological health problems. They also found scores that were high on uplift scale reported reduced stress.

Concluded daily hassels correlated stronger with stress and health than life changes. 

Cause and effect cannot be established, small sample, only quantitative data, relies on good memory recall, social desiribility bias may cause lies on questionaire. 

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Workplace stress


  • Relationships at work- undervalued/unsupported
  • Pressure- deadlines/load
  • Enviroment- conditions
  • Role- job security/promotion
  • Control

Marmot et al: 7000 civil servents in London, surveyed, asked about grade of employment and how much control and support they felt they had. Medical histories were followed up 5 years later, those who had low employment grade and felt little control were more likely to have a CV disorder. Those with low grade were 4 times more likely to of had a heart attack. Conclude feeling like you had little control and low grade at work was likely to lead to stress and illness. Only studied collar-workers, questionnaire, correlational- lifestyle factors.

Frankenhaeuser: 2 groups at sawmill, one group had repetitive task of loading machiene (noisy and isolated-little control). Other group had different tasks (more control and social). Stress levels obtained by urine sample and blood pressure. First group had higher levels of stress hormones and higher blood pressure. Concluded lack of control and social contact can lead to stress. High EV, supported by Marmot et al, does not account individual differences or extraneous variables.

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Individual differences

Type A- Competitive, impatient and aggressive 

Freidman and Rosenman: 3000 US 39-59 year old males, personality types were assessed through interviews and observation. None suffered CHD at start. 8 1/2 years later 257 developed CHD 70% were type A. Extraneous variables were considered. Concluded Type A had higher chance of developing stress related illnesses. Categories are simplistic/Correlational/Limited sample/Social desirability bias.

Type B- Easygoing, relaxed and patient

Hardy (Kobasa)- Commited, See challenges- Controlled (high internal locus)

Kobasa: 800 US business executives, SRRS. 150 classed as highly stressed of these those who had high illness records scored low on the hardiness test and visa versa. 

Stress is also related to gender (Taylor et al Oxytoxin) (Social roles) and culture (class/beliefs)

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Biological methods of stress management


  • Benzodiazepines- Slow down the activity of the central nervous system (CNS). Increases the bodies response to our own natural anxiety relieving hormone GABA, which slows down neuron activity, making us more relaxed. 
  • Beta-blockers- Reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Reduces symptoms caused by high levels of cortisol which weakens our immune system. 

Biofeedback: Focuses on internal physical processes that can help us relaxed in stressful situations. 

  • Feedback to physical stress responses
  • Taught to control responses
  • When controlled it is rewarding, inticing them to do it sub-consiously 
  • Techniques are tailored to everyday life.


Both are effective (Kahn et al found benzodiazepines affective compared to a placebo, but only deal with symptoms rather than the causes.

Drugs cause side affects, but are easier to use than biofeedback.

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Psychological methods of stress management

Involves people to think differently. Effective with the source of the problem. Provides skill, confidence and control to the problem. 

Stress inoculation training (Meichenbaum): 

  • Conceptualistation- Identify fears and concerns with therapist
  • Skills acquisition and rehearsal- Develop skills such as positive thinking and relaxation
  • Application and follow-through- Practise skills in real situations with help of therapist

Found to work best with short-term stressors.

Hardiness training (Maddi): Individauls try to be hardy (Controled,Commited and Challenged)

  • Focusing- Recognise physical symptoms of stress
  • Reliving stressful encountersAnalyse stressful situations, see how they can be overcome
  • Self-improvement- Take on challenges to build confidence and greater sense of control.

Maddi found 54 managers who took training had better job satisfaction and decrease in illness. 

Weaknesses: Individuals must be determined, results ungeneralisable, highly complexed.

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