The Cognitive Activation Theory of Stress


Acute stress is a highly adaptive response, but it may become chronic, and then we need to rethink the way we live.

1. What is stress?

Life can be stressful. Acute stress is all right, but acute stress may turn into chronic stress, and then we need to rethink the ways we do things in order to overcome it. Chronic stress has adverse effects on our health and well-being.

Stress increases arousal and evokes wakefulness. It affects the nervous system, which releases stress hormones that influence our body in various ways. The stress response is basically an adaptive bodily response, but chronic stress has adverse effects on the body (click here for a review).

Too many stressful life events or stressors pose a risk for the development of stress, especially if we don’t have the necessary psychological resources to deal with them. Some people tolerate higher stress levels than others.

People also differ in the ways  they give meaning to stressors. Research has shown that people who have a  stress-is-enhancing mindset experience lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than people who view stress more negatively (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013).

The cognitive activation theory of stress (CATS) gives us an explanation of the stress response (Eriksen & Ursin, 2002). According to  CATS, we feel stressed whenever there is a discrepancy between our set value and our actual value. For example, we get stressed if we have a deadline (set value) that we are incapable of keeping (actual value). 

It  motivates us to decrease the discrepancy between set values and actual values. With respect to the example above, we can do this by increasing our workload so that things get done in time, but this is just not a sustainable solution. We often succeed in the short term, but we rarely do in the long run because we get worn out by chronic stress.

2. How do we prevent stress?

The stress response can be mediated by psychological resilience. Resilience is the ability to withstand environmental stressors, and it is through effective coping strategies that we build up our resilience. 

If your coping strategies are inadequate or insufficient, you are at an increased risk of developing stress. You can try to adapt your coping strategy to the specific situation so that you cope most effectively.

When you get stressed, you may begin to feel that you lose control, and that there is nothing you can do to avoid or improve the situation (see helplessness). We don’t have an infinite amount of psychological resources to deal with stressors. We can only do our best to adapt to a stressful environment.

If we have too many unrealistic set values, either because we have made them ourselves or because of our job situation, we should consider the impact they have on us.

Do we expect too much of ourselves, or is the work load just too much? How does it affect our mind and body? We should be aware of this. Have you felt stressed lately? How do you cope with it? Leave a comment below.

Image: Fukecha Nabil