Not everyone experiencing the same stressful challenges gets sick or overcome by worry and anxiety. In the early 1960s, psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman of the University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco were the first stress researchers to shift their focus from stress to coping, which they defined as “efforts to master … demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the organism.”
One of Dr. Lazarus’s and Dr. Folkman’s key contributions to our understanding of stress was to recognize that the effects of stress could be tempered or amplified by our assessment of the situation and our abilities to deal with it. The effects of a stressful challenge are not simply a result of the challenge itself; they also greatly depend on our responses.
In the early 1980s the world’s biggest company, AT&T, fell apart due to a change in regulatory laws. Hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly out of work or uncertain of their financial and career futures. Seven percent of the laid-off executives died within a year of this event, and many others fell ill with stress-related responses.
Suzanne Kobasa, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, studied the effects of this uncontrolled human stress experiment and noticed that there was a cadre of executives who, rather than collapsing under the weight of this stress, seemed to thrive during and after the corporate dismantling. Her now famous study identified characteristic traits in these people that she came to call the “three Cs,” which stand for challenge, control, and commitment.
When faced with a big change, these “stress hardy” individuals responded to it as a challenge; they felt that they could have some control over what happened to them; and they felt committed to making the best of it, for their sake and that of others. Their response to stress protected them from adverse physical reactions. This may not be the only successful coping mechanism, but it dramatically demonstrates that how we respond to stress makes a huge difference in how it affects us.
Our coping responses are generally learned, and they are frequently not as effective as they could be. The great thing is, we can continue to learn, and become much more stress-hardy by learning to worry better.