Theories of Stress, Conflict & Emotions in Psychology

Increases in arousal are generally associated with stress, which occurs as a result of being exposed to a stressor (something that causes stress).

For example, having an argument with someone, losing your job or fearing that your life is in danger are all examples of stressors which can cause stress.

Stress itself is defined as a mental, physical or emotional strain on the body. Generally, stress occurs occasionally and only in response to a stressor.


Stress is a mental, emotional or physical strain on the body.

However, for some people, they are under a constant state of stress known as chronic stress, which can have very harmful long-term effects on the body such as accelerated aging and the development of disease.

Hans Selye – Stages of Stress

Hans Selye was a Canadian researcher who subjected rats to various stressors such as very cold or hot temperatures and loud noises. These stressors where also chronic in nature, which means that he exposed the rats to these stressors for long periods of time.

Hans Selye

Hans Selye found that when rats were placed under stress they responded in a predictable manner.

What Selye found was that under such conditions the rats were forced to adapt to their environment, a process known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

There are three main stages associated with the general adaptation syndrome: the alarm reaction, the stage of resistance and the stage of exhaustion.

Alarm Reaction

scared eggs

When you feel stressed your body starts to prepare itself to deal with the stressor that you're being exposed to.

In response to a stressor, the rat (or any living organism) experiences an increased state of arousal where their heart rate increases, their rate of respiration increases and their muscles tense up in preparation to deal with the stressor (either escape from it or fight it, i.e., fight or flight response).

Stage of Resistance

rat on running wheel

With continued exposure to a stressor your body adapts to the stress it's under and learns to live with it.

Chronic exposure to a stressor results in the body getting used to the stressor and is characterized by a reduced level of arousal.

Even though the conditions may be bad, the rat learns to live in its new environment and is capable of reproducing and learning new things.

Stage of Exhaustion

smoke coming out of man's head

Being in a constant state of stress will eventually take its toll on your body, possibly leading to death.

Prolonged exposure to a stressor (chronic stress) eventually takes its toll, and the rat dies a premature death.

A post-mortem examination of the rat showed that its adrenal glands were swollen, which indicates that they had secreted a lot of hormones to allow the body to deal with the stressor.

Life change units

The research Selye did on rats showed how stress affects the body, and eventually leads to the development of disease and premature death.

One way to measure how much stress you are exposed to, is to calculate the amount of life change units (LCU) you accumulate in two years.

man with "life" on t-shirt

Stress can be measured by calculating how many "life change units" you accumulate over a two-year period.

These units are part of a scale known as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), which was created by the researchers R. H. Rahe and T. H. Holmes.

According to this scale, a person is given a score for certain changes that occur in their life, with the maximum value of 100 being assigned to a person whose spouse has died.

Other values, such as 50 for getting married or 11 for getting a traffic ticket, are added up over a period of two years to give a total score.

If this score is greater than 150 life change units, then according to the social readjustment rating scale, a person is said to be at an increased risk of becoming ill.

A score over 300 means that there is a high risk of suffering from some sort of health problem.

Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale

Life event Life change units
Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Death of a close family member 63
Imprisonment 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Business readjustment 39
Gain a new family member 39
Sexual difficulties 39
Change in financial state 38
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Begin or end school 26
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in church activities 19
Change in recreation 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in eating habits 15
Change in number of family reunions 15
Vacation 13
Christmas 12
Minor violation of law 11

Stress & Personality

In addition to the type of experiences that you have in your life, the type of personality you have can also affect the level of stress that you are exposed to, and therefore, also affect your health.

One such personality commonly associated with stress is the type A personality.

Type A Personality

angry man

A person with a type A personality gets angry very easily and has a higher risk of premature death.

The type A personality is characterized by behavior that is hostile and impatient towards others. People who display type A behavior are found to be at a much greater risk of suffering from heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.

Type B Personality

woman relaxing

Those with a type B personality like to take things easy and relax. They also tend to live longer than type A people.

The opposite of a type A personality is a type B personality, which is characterized by a lack of hostility towards others and a willingness to allow things to occur at their own pace. Type B personalities have been found to be at a much lower risk of heart and cardiovascular related problems.

What we learn from these two different personality types, is that humans have the capability to create a self-induced stress by their own behavior.

So depending on the type of thoughts that you have and the actions which you take, you could be keeping your body fit and healthy or putting it at risk of accelerated aging and disease.

Types of Conflict

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin identified four main types of conflict.

Conflict is a major source of stress for the body, and according to the psychologist Kurt Lewin, there are four ways that you can categorize a conflict situation in which you are forced to make a difficult choice as shown below:

• The Approach-Approach Conflict

• The Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict

• The Approach-Avoidance Conflict

• The Double Approach-Avoidance Conflict

Let’s take a quick look at each of these now.

Note: Approach = Like / Avoidance = I don’t Like

Approach-Approach Conflict

picking up chocolate

An approach-approach conflict is when you like all the available options. The conflict comes from having to choose the one you like the most.

This type of conflict occurs when there are two desirable alternatives (positive goals), but you can only choose one of them.

An example of an approach-approach conflict could be trying to decide between two different countries that you want to emigrate to. Even though you like both countries, you can only choose one.

Approach-Approach Conflict = You like both options, but can only choose one.

Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict

woman looking at rain cloud

An avoidance-avoidance conflict comes from having two undesirable options to choose from. So no matter what you do, the outlook looks grim.

This type of conflict occurs when you want to escape from or avoid two undesirable alternatives (negative goals).

The conflict that is generated by this type of situation occurs because by moving away from one negative goal, you automatically move towards the other negative goal. This is also known as a no-win situation, because no matter what you do, you lose.

For example, you need a job and receive an offer from two different employers. However, you do not want to work for either of these employers, because it’s not the sort of work that you are looking for. But because you need the money, you are forced to choose one of them.

Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict = You have to choose between two options, both of which you do not like.

Approach-Avoidance Conflict

good duck evil duck

When you see something as having both good and bad consequences, it's called an approach-avoidance conflict.

This type of conflict occurs when you see the same goal in both positive and negative terms. For example, suppose you want to marry someone with a different religion to you, but your parents say that they will disown you if you do.

In this case, the same goal (getting married) creates conflict because it is seen as having both positive and negative outcomes. Usually, when the goal seems out of reach you will have an approach tendency (desire it). But when in the presence of that goal, the avoidance tendency seems to dominate.

In other words, you miss whatever it is that you are trying to get when away from it, but when you have it, you start thinking about the bad consequences of being with it.

Approach-Avoidance Conflict = What you want has both a good and bad outcome.

Double Approach-Avoidance Conflict

boy holding cake and carrot

A double approach-avoidance conflict is created by having two options, each of which have both good and bad consequences.

This type of conflict occurs when you simultaneously see two goals in both positive and negative terms.

For example, suppose that you are on a diet and have the choice between some junk food (goal 1) and some healthy food (goal 2). You think about how tasty the junk food would be, but you also think about how it will break your diet.

When you start thinking about the healthy food (goal 2) you think how it is the best food to eat on your diet, but at the same time, you feel bored with eating healthy food all the time and want to treat yourself.

Double Approach-Avoidance Conflict = You have two options, both of which have good and bad outcomes.


Life would be very different if we did not have emotions. In some ways it would be better, as we would not feel negative emotions such as anger or fear and so would never feel unhappy.

But without emotions, we would also be unable to experience the good things in life such as love, joy and laughter and so would never feel happy.

milk love

Although emotions can at times be very painful, they also make life worth living.

So even though we may dislike experiencing certain emotions, emotions play a very important role because without them we would be nothing more than robots just existing without any pleasure or displeasure.

What are emotions?

The word “emotion” originates from the ancient Greeks, who believed that when someone shows a particular state such as happiness, they smile because their soul is coming out of their body.

As a result, the soul was believed to be making an “exit motion” which eventually became shorted to “e-motion” and then “emotion”.


The ancient Greeks believed that emotions occurred as a result of the soul coming out of the body.

The ancient Greeks may have been onto something with their description of the soul coming out of the body, because at the physiological level, an emotion is defined as a disruption in the homeostatic baselines. As a result of this disruption, our heart rate, pulse and blood pressure can all change when we experience an emotion.

At the psychological level, this homeostatic disruption is generally experienced as increased levels of excitement or calmness, and depending on the emotion, these will be experienced as either pleasurable or unpleasurable.

We can therefore summarize the psychological dimensions of emotions into: excitement-calm and pleasant-unpleasant.

happy and sad faces

There are two main dimensions of emotions: excitement-calm and pleasant-unpleasant.

The pleasant-unpleasant dimension of emotions is called a hedonic tone, which relates to an ancient philosophical doctrine called hedonism which states that people are attracted to situations which are pleasant and repelled from situations which are unpleasant.

These two dimensions of emotions can be used to generate four categories of emotions:

(happy, joy)

(anger, fear)

(relaxed, tranquil)

(sad, depressed)

As you can see from the descriptions given above, each of these four categories can be used to describe all of the different types of emotions that we feel.

Things Common to all Emotions

There are three things that are common to all emotions:

• Cognitive effects

• Physiological effects

• Behavioral effects

Let’s take a quick look at each of these now.

Cognitive Effects

man holding brain

Whenever you experience an emotion you have certain thoughts relating to that emotion in your head.

The cognitive aspect of emotion involves the thoughts that a person has when they are experiencing a particular emotion. For example, you may be feeling happy and then say to yourself “what a wonderful day it is today“.

Physiological Effects

human body

All emotions cause some kind of physical effect to occur in the body.

The physiological aspect of emotion refers to the disruption of the homeostatic baselines that were discussed earlier. For example, while you are experiencing the emotion of fear your heart rate and pulse begin to rise.

Behavioral effects

children playing

Emotions have a powerful influence on the way we behave.

The behavioral aspect of emotion involves the actions that people take when they are experiencing an emotion (how they behave).

For example, if you are feeling very happy, then you might hug the person next to you. Or if you are feeling afraid of something, you might run away from it.

As you can see from these descriptions, experiencing an emotion has an effect on the way you think, the functioning of your body and the way you behave.

Therefore, by knowing what sort of emotional state a person is in, you may somewhat be able to predict what they are thinking and what they are likely to do.

Theories of Emotion

There are three main theories of emotion which attempt to explain the emotional process:

• The James-Lange Theory

• The Cannon-Bard Theory

• The Cognitive Appraisal Theory

Note: Whilst there may not be one “right” theory, they are all helpful in understanding how we respond to emotions and how they affect us.

The James-Lange Theory

man running away from bear

This man got more than he bargained for when he decided to tranquillize a bear. According to the James-Lange theory, running away from the bear would have increased this man's level of fear.

This theory states that emotion can be brought on by an action. For example, James said that if you were to see a bear in the forest and run away from it, the action of running will increase the amount of fear that you feel.

The reason for this is because running increases arousal by making your heart rate and rate of respiration increase. A good example of the James-Lange theory put into practice can be seen during emergency drills, such as fire drills.

When in a life threatening situation, such as a fire, people are instructed to walk and not run. By walking, arousal is not increased as much as it would be when running which should then allow people to remain calmer and experience less fear during the fire. If everyone were to run however, the increased arousal that action would cause could very well result in widespread panic.

So overall, what the James-Lange theory tells us, is that the actions we perform can intensify or downplay the emotions that we feel. If we are feeling afraid and act afraid, then we will increase our fear. If we feel afraid but act brave, then our fear will decrease.

Cannon-Bard Theory

boy hiding behind chair

The Cannon-Bard theory states that when your body starts preparing itself to deal with a threat, it is then that you start to experience a particular emotion such as fear.

The Cannon-Bard theory is also known as the thalamic theory, and centers on the brain’s thalamus and it’s role as a relay station. When we receive information via our senses it arrives at the thalamus, where it is then sent up to the cortex and down to the spinal cord.

What this means is that we become conscious of the cause of an emotion at the same time the physiological changes are occurring in our body as we prepare to deal with that emotion.

For example, if you see something which scares you, you recognize it as a threat or as dangerous at the same time your body is preparing to run away or defend itself. This saves you time in responding to dangerous situations.

Cognitive Appraisal Theory


How you label something can determine how you respond to it.

The cognitive appraisal theory is also known as the “labelling of arousal hypothesis”, and states that how you “label” a particular state of arousal will determine what sort of emotion you will feel as a result.

For example, if you are climbing up a mountain and your heart starts beating faster, then you might decide that you are feeling afraid, and as a result, will start to feel afraid.

If, however, you were to define that state of arousal as feeling excited instead of afraid, you would then begin to feel excitement rather than fear.