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Self-Efficacy and the Perception of Control in Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

stressed manDr. Albert Bandura, an influential social psychologist, coined the term "self-efficacy" to describe people's internal beliefs about their ability to have an impact on events that affect their lives. Your self-efficacy is your belief in your own effectiveness as a person, both generally in terms of managing your life, and specifically with regard to competently dealing with individual tasks. In the context of stress, self-efficacy describes your beliefs about your ability to handle stressful situations. A large amount of research has demonstrated quite convincingly that possessing high levels of self-efficacy acts to decrease people's potential for experiencing negative stress feelings by increasing their sense of being in control of the situations they encounter. The perception of being in control (rather than the reality of being in or out of control) is an important buffer of negative stress. When people feel that they are not in control, they start feeling stressed, even if they actually are in control and simply don't know it. Another reason that people feel stressed is when they feel out of control because they do not possess the appropriate coping skills, resources, etc. to adequately cope with the situation.

When a given demand (e.g., passing an exam, winning a race) is perceived as something you can handle because you expect you will do well based on preparation or past experience (e.g., because you have studied for the exam or trained for the race), you are likely to perceive the demand as a challenge and as an exhilarating experience. After the event is over, you may even have a resulting boost in self-esteem because you worked hard to meet the demand and succeeded. If, however, the demand seems beyond your abilities, you will likely experience distress. Across time, feeling unable to respond effectively to stressful situations can further decrease your sense of self-efficacy, making you even more prone to experience distress in the future.

Coping Skills

A coping skill is a behavior or technique that helps a person to solve a problem or meet a demand. Coping skills are problem-solving techniques or tools; they make it possible to solve problems or meet demands more easily and efficiently than might otherwise be possible.

People who have learned a variety of different coping skills are able to handle demands and solve problems more easily and efficiently than people who are not as knowledgeable about how to cope. Because they are more easily able to meet demands, people with good coping skills are less likely to experience negative stress reactions than are people with more poorly developed coping skills. In addition, people with well-developed coping skills typically develop a higher sense of self-efficacy than do their peers who have poorer coping skills, and thus are less likely to suffer the negative impact of stress reactions.

Coping skills are something that can be learned. If you don't have good coping skills, you can study techniques that will allow you to get better at coping over time. All of the stress-reduction techniques that we will shortly be presenting in this document (in the sections covering Stress Management and Stress Prevention strategies) can be thought of as coping skills. In essence, they are tools that you can learn and then "carry around" in your personal toolbox to help you become better at managing your stress.

Stressor Characteristics

Coping skills, self-efficacy, and appraisal are all characteristics that people bring to a stressful circumstance. They are internal to the person, meaning that they "reside in" the person who needs to respond to an activating event, rather than being a characteristic of the event itself. In contrast to these internal ways that people may react to stress, there are also characteristics that are inherent to the stressful event itself which have little or nothing to do with appraisals or coping skills. These external aspects of stressful events, which are listed below, also influence people's ability to meet stressful demands.

  • Intensity has to do with the magnitude or strength of the stressful event. The actual intensity of a stressful event has a lot to do with the context in which that stressful event is taking place. A dead cell-phone battery is generally a fairly low-intensity stressor when you have alternative ways of communicating, and/or your actual need to communicate is currently low. When your need to communicate is high, however, and your options for doing so are limited (e.g., if you have been injured in a car accident on a remote highway and need to call for an ambulance), it's an entirely different story. In this later circumstance, the same stressor quickly gains in intensity and ability to cause negative stress.

  • Duration has to do with how long the stressful event lasts. A short-term stressor such as a weekend house guest will tend to cause less stress than a long-term stressor like needing to become the primary care-taker for an older relative.

  • Number has to do with the total quantity of stressors occurring in your life at once. A minor stressor might not be much when it occurs in isolation, but it can become a "straw that breaks the camel's back" when you are already coping with several other stressors at the same time.

  • Level of expertise has to do with how skilled you are in handling stressful situations. It is easier and less stressful to deal with situations and events when we are familiar with handling them. Practice with a particular kind of stress-provoking situation tends to make that situation easier to deal with. The more you practice a skill (e.g., such as playing an instrument, or rehearsing a presentation), the more automatically you can perform and the less stress you are likely to feel when an event requiring that skill occurs.