Stress Management: Arousal and Value Judgement

Taught by Professor Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, Ph.D.

Stress is, at its core, how we communicate with ourselves. Instead of being afraid of stress, learn to listen to it and use it as a tool that facilitates self-awareness and self- understanding. Don’t try to reduce or eliminate stress. Instead, as you’ll see in this lecture, learn to make stress work for you.

Watch lecture 5 from the series How to Make Stress Work for You, and follow along with the summary below.

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The Continuum of Stress

  • Let’s begin by considering a continuum of stress. On one end, we have eustress—the high arousal of positive experience. On the other end, we have distress—the high arousal of negative experience, which we normally just call stress. In the middle, we have what stress researcher Brian Luke Seaward calls neustress, which is the experience of sensory stimuli that have no consequential effect. This is simply noticing what is and not feeling any emotional response to it.
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  •  Within the category of distress are acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is intense and disappears quickly. Chronic stress may be mild to moderate, but it lingers over a prolonged period of time.
  •  According to the Yerkes-Dodson curve, when stress is too low, we are bored and have poor performance, but when stress is too high, we are overwhelmed and have poor performance. In the middle is the amount of stress where we feel optimally aroused and perform at our best. Of course, each person’s curve will be different, based on your own history, perceptions, and physiological preferences.
  •  Researchers now understand that the body knows the difference between good stress and bad stress. Your brain, immune system, and hormones all reflect differences based on the emotional experience of your arousal. Seaward now defines stress as “the inability to cope with a perceived real or imagined threat to one’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptations.” Seaward points out the importance of the word perceived because a stressor to one person may not be a stressor to another.

Value Judgment

  • Stress is a simple equation of arousal plus value judgment. But value judgment is an extremely complicated equation in and of itself. Cultural values shape personal values, and your personal values will affect your perception, which creates your experience of stress.
  • Perception is created from a variety of inputs, including your personal history and memory, your cultural context, and the specific environmental context of your work, your family, and your neighborhood.
  • New ideas about stress management take into account the fact that we never directly experience any stimuli. Any time you perceive a stimulus in the environment, information is sent to the brain where you experience the process of interpretation.
  • In phase one, the raw input occurs: inputs like sights, sounds, or tastes. In phase two, processing occurs. This is where your interpretation combines your memory, your analysis, your reasoning, and your conscious interpretation to create your perception of those stimuli. In phase three, the output occurs: your speech or action.
  • According to this model, when you speak and act, you are not responding to the raw stimuli but to your perception of those stimuli. A first step in stress management is to realize and accept that what we are responding to in life are our own perceptions, not the raw stimuli that we experience.
  • Here’s an exercise that can help: Think about a stressor which you experience every day, perhaps traffic or a certain person. Once you’ve thought of something, consider that the thing itself is just a raw stressor. It is only a stressor because of your perception.
  • Yes, it may be something that would cause most people stress. But when you take away the value judgment, it becomes a raw stressor: simply a stimulus in the environment. The way you process and interpret this stimulus is what causes your stress. Your perception is the source of your stress.
  • That doesn’t diminish or devalue your feeling of stress and upset. In fact, if the stress is in your perception, it becomes critical that you should become aware of the role of perception in your experience, because although you cannot control the raw stressor, you can do something about your perception.
  • Consider anxiety, which is a normal, healthy part of our functioning: It’s what alerts us to get out of way of a moving car. Similarly, if you have a presentation coming up at work or another high-stakes situation, anxiety provides the impetus to prepare.
  • Sometimes, though, anxiety reflects stress gone awry. You stress too often and too much, and about things that shouldn’t elicit stress. Think of the analogy of an alarm clock going off at the wrong time. The alarm clock is supposed to go off when you set it, but if it starts going off at random times, you need to repair the alarm clock.

Tendencies and Predispositions

  • Each of us has our own set of genetic, personal, historical, and environmental factors that, combined, created our tendency for stress. We can see from the early days of infancy that some babies are more prone to stress and anxiety than others. Some children are, from birth, naturally calm. Other babies are fussy, colicky, and difficult, as if they are sensitive and uncomfortable in their own skin.
  • The majority of babies fall in the broad middle, where parental intervention matters a great deal. Early childhood interactions may set up patterns and tendencies of stress reactivity that the child will play out throughout their lifespan.
  • The clinical psychologist Dr. Marvin Zuckerman proposed the diathesis-stress model of psychopathology, which holds that we have a certain constitutional predisposition to certain psychological or mental conditions.
  • However, the diathesis (or predisposition) is not sufficient to produce a disorder but requires other factors in order to occur. These factors are environmental stressors. How much of the environmental stressor it takes for the psychopathology to occur depends on our personal predisposition and, therefore, our genetic vulnerability.
  • For a person with a high amount of genetic vulnerability to anxiety or depression, mild or moderate stressors may lead to the experience of anxiety or depression. Someone with a low level of genetic vulnerability may not experience anxiety or depression unless they experience a much higher level of stress.
  • When looking at how we respond to stress, we should consider our own predisposition to stress reactivity. It’s important to consider how we respond to stress and to proactively address our stressors through effective coping strategies and the developing of stress resilience.
  • Think of your past experiences with stress and the experiences of your family members, particularly parents and siblings: Are they typically calm or are they highly reactive? Even regardless of that answer, you should be mindful of the more severe or chronic stressors in your life and develop strategies to help you to continue to cope effectively.
  • Parental influence and childhood experiences within the nuclear family are particularly influential in developing our psychological health because of the interplay of genetics and parental influence. Anxiety disorders run in families, and if you have a parent with an anxiety disorder, you are more likely to have anxiety yourself. Twin research shows that some portion of that tendency is due to genetics and some portion is due to family environment and learned behavior.

Familial Strategies

  • One study from Johns Hopkins University looked at whether it is possible to mitigate familial influence through early intervention. The researchers looked at families where at least one parent had an anxiety diagnosis but a child between the ages of 6 and 13 did not yet have an anxiety diagnosis.
  • In half of the families, they conducted an active preventative intervention, with eight weeks of family therapy. The other half served as a control group and simply received a handout about anxiety disorders without any training or information about specific strategies to address anxiety.
  • After a year, only 5 percent of the children in the therapy group had developed anxiety, compared with 31 percent in the control group. These one-year results suggest that an effective way to address the development of anxiety is through early prevention.
  • One key preventative strategy from the Johns Hopkins study was teaching parents more productive ways to protect their children from situations that make them anxious. Parents often want to protect their children, and when a child expresses anxiety, the parent may shield the child from that situation or scenario.
  • It isn’t that you should force the child into a situation that makes him or her anxious, but rather that you can work through the anxiety with the child and help the child understand his own competence rather than shielding him or her.
  • Kids don’t need shielding from their fears. They need loving support and help to face them, and to develop a sense of self that they are capable of facing them. It’s still protecting your child, but protecting them by giving them the opportunity to learn how to manage their anxiety.

Pain as a Stressor

  • Some occurrences, such as pain, are inherently stressful.
  • In acute pain—when you’ve had surgery, cut yourself, or broken a bone—a physical stimulus affects the body, and the nervous system sends signals up the spinal cord to the brain to let your brain know that you have been injured.
  • Sometimes, the nerve cells become overactive. When this happens, weak or non-sensitive stimuli, such as touch, re the nerve cells, which then indicate pain to the brain. Pain experts believe that this hypersensitivity of the nervous system is involved in chronic pain.
  • Doctors know that chronic pain physically occurs in the structure of the body; it’s not just in your head. But doctors also know that what is in your head can make pain worse. The fear of chronic pain, especially when it ares, and the worry that it will never go away can make both the intensity and duration of the pain worse.
  • Research on mindfulness strategies, such as meditation, and cognitive behavioral strategies, such as reframing and distraction, show that helping people with chronic pain gain a sense of control can help reduce both the intensity and duration of the pain.
  • Chronic pain exacerbates stress, and chronic stress exacerbates pain. Mindful awareness may be the best strategy to break the cycle.
    • For instance, tension headaches can be a side effect of stress. When you get stressed, sleep-deprived, hungry, or strained from excessive screen time, physical tension builds up in the muscles in the scalp.
    • Consistency and stress management are the best treatments for tension headaches, including regular, moderate exercise; a regular sleep schedule; and regular meals so that you don’t experience roller-coaster blood sugar. Further, research published in The Journal of Neuroscience has documented the benefits of meditation for tension headaches.
  • Research shows that chronic pain reduces your memory and attention, willpower, and resilience to stress. Other chronic stressors, such as debt and poverty, have similar effects; for instance, research shows that when people live with financial scarcity, they have less cognitive capacity and less willpower.
  • Brené Brown suggests that whenever we find the stress of fear and worry overtaking us, we should acknowledge our core emotion. Often, what we are really feeling is vulnerability. We are afraid of the unknown, of the stress that never stops and continues to get worse, or of being unable to cope. Brown suggests that we face the monster by saying out loud: “I am feeling vulnerable.” We can then acknowledge that we’ve gotten locked in our fear brain and make a conscious choice to come back to this moment.
  • In moments of stress, remember to stop and acknowledge: “I am feeling vulnerable.” Stress is, at its core, how we communicate with ourselves. Instead of being afraid of stress, learn to listen to it and use it as a tool that facilitates self-awareness and self- understanding. Don’t try to reduce or eliminate stress. Instead, learn to make stress work for you.

Activities and Questions

  • Consider your personal predisposition to stress. What is your tendency, based on past experience, with regard to stress reactivity? What about the tendency of your close family members, such as parents and siblings? Based on this information, what information should you consider about your own potential for stress reactivity?
  • How does your environment influence the values you have in ways that create stress? Consider the cultural, environmental, corporate, and familial values that you may have adopted. What are the stressors that you can mitigate or eliminate by reorganizing and making new choices? What are the stressors that you can reframe as just the ants at the picnic?
From the Lecture Series: How to Make Stress Work for You
Taught by Fitness and Wellness Consultant: Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, Ph.D.