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Exposure And Responses To Stressors, Effects Of Economic Stressors On Marital Behaviors, Societal Differences, Demographic Factors, And Family Stressors

Stress research includes attention to events or conditions that may cause harm and to the responses aroused by those stressful events or conditions. These outcomes include felt distress, disrupted interaction, and poorer health. The overall stress process includes both stressful agents and stress outcomes (see Pearlin et al. 1981). This process also includes two other major sets of variables: social factors that influence exposure to stressful conditions, and individual and group resources that shape efforts to cope with stressors.

Although early stress research focused on unpleasant physical stressors (Selye 1982), social scientists studying families have been particularly interested in social stressors—events or conditions that are linked to individuals' and families' social characteristics, positions, and roles.

The concept of social stress calls attention to both environmental/social demands and individual/family capacities or resources; stress occurs when there is a discrepancy between these capacities and demands. Such stressors can come from external demands on families and family members, or they can arise within family roles themselves. Theoretically, a discrepancy can be in either direction: demands could be greater than a person's capacities, or demands could be far below individual capacities. Thus, restricted opportunities can be at least as stressful as high demands: Carol Aneshensel (1999; see also Wheaton 1999) calls attention to stressors that occur when aspects of the social environment obstruct an individual's ability to attain sought-after ends.

One early and influential approach to studying social stressors focused on change per se as stressful. Thomas A. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe (1967) developed a checklist of stressful life events aimed at capturing the set of events that had happened to an individual. These checklist approaches to the measurement of social stress were based on two key assumptions. First, they assumed that one could calculate a standard estimate of the amount of change demanded by a specific event, such as divorce or the birth of a child, and that this amount would be generally the same for all who experienced that event. Second, they assumed that one could capture the effects of the accumulation of several events in a short period of time by summing the amount of change implied by each, and that this total amount of change was the critical dimension linked to stress outcomes.

Subsequent research, however, has cast doubt on each of these assumptions. Change per se does not seem to be the key dimension producing negative outcomes: changes that are undesired, involuntary, unexpected, and involve role losses generally have more negative effects than other changes. Nor is it the case that the same event has uniform effects on different people. Consistent with the concept of stress as a discrepancy between demands and capacities, much depends on the resources and coping repertoires that individuals and families possess.

In addition, the impact of transitions and eventful changes depends in part on the circumstances prevailing prior to a specific life event. A notable example is marital termination: although the end of a marriage is generally viewed as a stressful event, termination of a conflict-filled or unsatisfying relationship may actually improve well-being. And because spouses may differ in how satisfied they are, this example also suggests that the same family event will not necessarily affect all members of a family in the same way. In an influential analysis, Blair Wheaton (1990) has shown that in the case of role exits, including retirement, widowhood, divorce, and a child's move away from home, the more stressful prior conditions in that role, the less the impact on mental health. Similarly, Susan Jekielek (1998) finds that children's response to parental divorce is less adverse when there has been more marital conflict.

Effects of specific life events also depend in part on the subsequent level of chronic problems. It is largely because major life events typically result in an enduring alteration in social circumstances, thereby increasing chronic problems, that they affect individual and family outcomes.

Chronic problems in any given role can also lead to other stressors, in a process that Leonard Pearlin and his colleagues describe as stress proliferation—the tendency of stressors to beget other stressors (Pearlin, Aneshensel, and LeBlanc 1997). They illustrate this process in a study of informal caregivers to people with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). As the illness progresses, the difficulties faced in the role of caregiver expand, straining one's capacities to manage those demands. Moreover, these strains affect the caregiver's ability to enjoy the opportunities, and manage the stressors, embedded in other roles such as work roles and social and leisure activities. Once these are affected, the altered conditions in these other roles can have an additional, independent effect on the caregiver's health and well-being.

Thus, the concept of social stressors reaches beyond the notion of discrete life events to include chronic or persisting circumstances, such as low income, unpleasant working conditions, role strains, and conflicts among multiple social roles, as well as the resources that individuals and families are able to bring to bear in their efforts to deal with their circumstances. Because both those circumstances and resources are likely to be linked to social position—as indicated by one's race, gender, marital status, and economic position—this broad definition of social stress brings stress research closer to traditional sociological topics such as social stratification and race and gender discrimination. It offers a more comprehensive way of thinking about the way that social circumstances, including normatively structured family and occupational social roles, shape individual opportunities, individual distress, and family well-being.

Research analyzing the connection between social contexts and stress outcomes for individuals and families has examined several key links. First, research has examined how stressors originating outside the family can affect individual family members' emotional well-being (see, for example, Windell and Dumenci 1999). Second, researchers have investigated how each individual's emotional well-being in turn affects family interaction; these studies find that individuals who are struggling with emotional turmoil or depression are less available for satisfying interaction and more prone to become aggressive and argumentative (Elder 1974). Third, studies also examine how and whether one family member's emotional state can be transmitted to other family members (Larson and Almeida 1999); initial results from these studies suggest that fathers' negative emotions aroused in the workplace "spill over" and affect both spouses and children, but mothers' work-linked emotions are less apt to adversely affect other family members. In turn, of course, negative emotions aroused by difficult family conditions can spill over and affect workplace interaction and performance.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families