My question is whether the feeling of stress goes away progressively in the absence of reflective thought.

Example: you notice someone looking at you and think "maybe I have something on my face". Let us assume that this produces stress. If you do not use your internal dialog or any kind of visualization etc., is there any way that the stress can continue/grow or will it inevitably subside?

Has there been any research on this?

  • $\begingroup$ To be clear, are you equating stress with negative affect? $\endgroup$
    – mrt
    Mar 29, 2015 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ @mrt Very interesting point. I think for this question I would prefer to concentrate on the particular feeling of stress. I think my question could be phrased similarly for other emotions like anger, fear etc. and therefore be a major or even decisive factor in negative affect. For now though I feel it is clearer to concentrate in one emotion in order to get more focused answers. $\endgroup$
    – Dionysis
    Mar 29, 2015 at 10:26

3 Answers 3


In your example, you are describing social stress. I think you are right that social stress is mainly driven by reflective processes. Also, social stress without reflective processes sounds quite implausible to me.

However, we should keep in mind that stress can come from various sources, some of which are non-social. For example, one common way to induce stress in psychological experiments is to use a physiological (as opposed to a psychosocial) stressor. In the classic cold pressor test, participants are instructed to put their hand into ice water. This starts a stress reaction, as measureable for example by increases in cortisol. I think it's pretty safe to say that reflective processes are not the driving factor here.

For a review on different methods to induce stress in the lab, see for example: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181831/


Stress is the release of an adrenaline. The release of an adrenaline could make stress grow in the absence of cognitive mental processing. People who are vulnerable to stress may experience stress for longer and greater extent than people who are less vulnerable to stress (People who genetically vulnerable to stress could develop a psychotic disorder. People who drink a lot of caffeine or lack in sleep could be more susceptible to subtle stress triggers).

Stress may go as far as a panic attack. The human brain and physiology will act to subside it (I don't know enough physiology to tell you about the mechanisms of adrenaline in the body, but I do know that the brain will block some of the visual cues perceived to prevent psychological trauma and by doing so avoid extra stress).

Classical conditioning could lead to more stress than usual if the person who experienced the event associated it with something more stressful.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your comment. I am not sure about the justification of the claims. For example you state "The release of an adrenaline could make stress grow in the absence of cognitive mental processing". How do you know that is true? Why was the adrenaline released? Any references or even examples to illustrate the points? $\endgroup$
    – Dionysis
    Jan 26, 2015 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ I do remember that it starts from hypocampus, then it goes to release of cortisol, then release of adrenaline. Some peoples physiology is different. The question is more into physiological psychology. I dont know physiology to be honest and your question concentrates more on its aspect than the cognitive aspect.. but I think there might be some medical research out there into the physiology of stress and how some people are only able to cope with it in abnormal manner. Do you regard the reflective thoughts as being conscious or are they also subconcious? $\endgroup$
    – XWorm
    Jan 27, 2015 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ I regard them as conscious. They can be automatic. $\endgroup$
    – Dionysis
    Jan 27, 2015 at 14:18

I'm not certain on research regarding this issue. However, if I were to propose a hypothesis...

  • Given: Stress is the immediate reaction to a perceived potential or immediate threat.
  • Given: The initial recognition of the stressor triggers the fight(address), flight(avoid), freeze response.
  • Given: Success of the fight response requires resolution or conversion of the stressor into a non or less stressing condition.
  • Given: Success of the flight response requires removal of one's self from the effect of the stressor, usually by means of escape or devaluation of the stressor itself.
  • Given: The freeze response leaves one trapped in the conflict state, unable to take action.
  • Given: Both the fight and freeze responses keeps one actively reflecting on the stressor until the stressor has been resolved, converted, removed, or devalued.
  • Therefore: only the flight response offers the opportunity to not reflect on the stressor in the presence of the stressor by diminishing its value as a stressor.

Conclusion - Since the only way to eliminate reflective thought in the presence of a stressor is to devalue the stressor, It's more accurate to say that the feeling of stress goes away because of reflective thought rather than in the absence of it. In fact, any presence of a stressor necessarily precludes the possibility of an absence of reflective thought. Put another way, the human mind literally spends all day processing fight/flight/freeze responses over its entire list of impending stressors in order of priority. Everything we do is a matter of processing the importance of resolving a particular stress immediately.

So a better question would be: Is it possible to be absent of reflective thought in the presence of a stressor?

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the vey interesting answer. I really liked the breakdown of possibilities. I am however asking about what happens after the initial reaction and therefore in the absence of the stressor. $\endgroup$
    – Dionysis
    Jan 25, 2015 at 21:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci.SE. Your text is probably not really an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jan 25, 2015 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ My apologies. I was attempting to answer the question from the way it's worded. Even for the case of a stressor that appears and is then removed, the answer in my conclusion generally covers that. If the distressing nature of the stressor is its mere existence, then the stressor will not be devalued by its mere removal. Think of a neurotic person. The mere knowledge of the existence of the stressor is enough to prevent them from not thinking about it. The only thing that can get that person's mind off the stressor is an incursion of a higher priority stressor. $\endgroup$
    – Arkain
    Feb 10, 2015 at 17:56

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