To What Extent can psychological research provide useful forms of stress management techniques?

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“Psychological Research doesn’t always appear to have any usefulness but this is not true of research into stress”

To What Extent can psychological research provide useful forms of stress management techniques?

The application of research into stress management can be divided into two categories; physiological methods and cognitive therapies. However, the usefulness of both variations of stress management techniques has been disputed by many psychologists.

        Biofeedback is a physiological method of stress management and is a technique employed in order to reduce the activity of the autonomic nervous system and therefore the physical manifestations of stress. The participant learns how to control involuntary or voluntary muscles that are not normally controlled, which reduces the effects of stress in terms of the illnesses associated with it. There are three stages in biofeedback. Firstly, the individual learns of their own physiological activity by way of a mechanical measure, for example a blood pressure or heart rate monitor or an EEG which looks at brain waves. Secondly, the participant is trained in strategies that research has found to reduce stress, for example relaxation training, in quiet conditions. This is so that the participant can master such strategies without additional stress. Finally, the participant will transfer this knowledge into everyday situations.

        Research has shown that biofeedback has been successful in producing long term and short term reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and brain wave rhythms, for example Budzgnoski’s study that looked at anxiety headaches. This suggests that the research that led to the employment of biofeedback as a method of stress management was useful. Miller and Dicara’s study supports the claim that biofeedback is a useful technique.

        Miller and Dicara [1967] questioned whether bodily responses could be learned through operant conditioning. They completely paralysed 24 rats and artificially respirated them. The rats were in one of two groups; half of them were rewarded when their heart rate increased, half were rewarded when it decreased. The rewards where given by artificially stimulating the part of the brain that produces sensations of pleasure. At first, rewards were given for random instances, but gradually, longer and larger change was required [shaping]. They found that in the “fast” group rats increased their heart rates from 422 bpm to 510 bpm, whereas the “slow” group decreased their heart rate from 400 bpm to 316 bpm. Such significant differences were found in all but two of the groups of rats that were investigated.  As the rats were paralysed they could not be using any voluntary control and therefore control of involuntary muscles [in this case the heart] could be learned via operant conditioning. This supports the idea of biofeedback because it suggests that the claim that biofeedback can allow participants to control involuntary muscles [for example heart rates, blood pressure and brain waves] is true because it is possible to learn such control. However, the usefulness of this study to support biofeedback is limited primarily by the fact that it cannot be assumed that principles that apply to rats can be generalised to humans in the same way. Behaviourist psychologists may suggest that the same stimulus-response links are apparent, however other psychologists highlight that the level of cognitive influence is much greater in humans than in other animals and this may affect the level of control achieved. Also, attempts to replicate this study have never been as successful, for example Dworkin and Miller [1985].

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        Biofeedback as a technique of stress management has been criticised by Gatchel [1997] who claimed that the suggested therapeutic efficiency of it had been severely exaggerated or even wrong as the benefits through the reduction of stress may be because a sense of control has been re-established and not due to any purely physical means. Also, it has been suggested by other psychologists that it is hard to distinguish whether it is biofeedback or the relaxation training involved in it that has led to its beneficial effects. Attanasio highlighted that individual differences are not accounted for in the method of ...

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