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Psychosocial stress

Definition: Psychosocial stress is the result of a cognitive appraisal of what is at stake and what can be done about it. More simply put, psychosocial stress results when we look at a perceived threat in our lives (real or even imagined), and discern that it may require resources we don't have. Examples of psychosocial stress include things like a threat to our social status, social esteem, respect, and/or acceptance within a group; threat to our self-worth; or a threat that we feel we have no control over. All of these threats can lead to a stress response in the body.

When psychosocial stress triggers a stress response, the body releases a group of stress hormones including cortisol, epinephrine (or adrenalin) and dopamine, which lead to a burst of energy as well as other changes in the body. The changes brought about by stress hormones can be helpful in the short term, but can be damaging in the long run. For example, cortisol can improve the body’s functioning by increasing available energy (so that fighting or fleeing is more possible), but can lead to suppression of the immune system as well as a host of other effects. Epinephrine can also mobilize energy, but create negative psychological and physical outcomes with prolonged exposure. That's why it's important to manage psychosocial stress in our lives so that the stress response is only triggered when necessary. It's also important to learn stress relief techniques to effectively reverse the stress response so we don't experience prolonged states of stress, or chronic stress.


Lazarus, R. S. (2005). Emotions and interpersonal relationships: Toward a person-centered conceptualization of emotions and coping. Journal of Personality, 74, 1–38.

Storch, Maja (Jul 2002). Psychoneuroendocrine effects of resource-activating stress management training. Health Psychology, 26(4), 456-463.

During ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland psychosocial stress was very evident. People in their own country simply did not feel safe. This led to a state of mistrust within and communitiesbecame very suspicious of strangers and acted accordingly. The tension in the air as it were,seemed to lift when members of these same communities visited other places on holiday for example only to reappear on their return home. This led to increased levels of medication and indeed self-medication through the abuse of substances such as alcohol and food in both communities in quantities hitherto unknown and in many cases the church, even though it could have been seen as a divisive factor was a welcome refuge for many. Slowly but surely after the ‘Good Friday’ agreement things seemed to return to more normal proportions and for quite some time both communities enjoyed a state of relative calm.

The next major psychosocial challenge came in Ireland with the sex scandals involving the church and the behaviour of some of its hierarchy. Something that many people had believed in and trusted almost without question for centuries was now ‘unsafe’ as it were, leaving its faithful followers often profoundly traumatized. The increased prosperity brought about by the ending of the troubles and the rise of the Celtic tiger did give some people at least some comfort to cushion the blow.

This relative comfort was shattered during the recession of 2008/9 when the ‘safe havens’ of banks could not be trusted as the general public were asked to bail them out due to questionable lending policies. The effects were devastating and psychosocial stress increases dramatically. There seemed to be no safe places where people could go to get advice as professionals too were not to be trusted. Government at the time however seemed to be doing all they could to steadythe ship as it were and people just got on with everyday life.

The ‘on the run revelations’ increased stress levels in Northern Ireland however when a large section of the community realized that the British government could not be trusted as the famous ‘get out of jail free’ letters to some former republican ‘terrorists’ were finally revealed. At the same time banks were accused of rigging markets in several countries and other questionable practices eroding public confidence and increasing psychosocial stress even further. This was added to by the seemingly impotent powers or lack of will on the part of the judiciary to bring the perpetrators to justice. It looked as if bankers could ‘get away’ with stealing billions and a housewife shop lifting a loaf or garment to feed or clothe her family was incarcerated and labeled a criminal.

Psychosocial stress is very real and the powers that be need to take measures to do whatever it takes to renew public confidence in institutions or the consequences may be dire. Is the judiciary too about to fall on its own sword?

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