Environmental Stress and Health
Gary W. Evans
Although environmental conditions play a prominent role in health and psychological processes, antecedent factors in these processes have largely been neglected within health psychology. Instead, the focus has been on various markers of health, with considerable attention to stress-related mechanisms, interceding between the environment and health. Another focus within health psychology that has directed attention away from environmental factors has been coping resources, with the examination of either social support, personality, or coping strategies that potentially alter the impact of environmental demands on health. But what characteristics of the environment itself are likely to impinge on health and psychological processes? When this question has been addressed within health psychology, environment has been operationalized primarily in social terms. Family and work social climates, as well as sociocultural and economic conditions, predominate in the few environmental studies in health psychology. This chapter intends to draw greater attention to the potential role of the physical environment in health and psychological processes.
Why might the physical environment be important to health psychology? For one reason, the physical environment clearly impacts health. Adverse physical conditions can cause toxicological reactions, challenge homeostatic balance, produce physical trauma, or function as vectors bearing pathogens. Physical factors can also be a source of environmental demands that pressure coping resources.
A second reason the physical environment is worthy of scrutiny within health psychology is because the environment can be modified and thus becomes a potential intervention target to improve health and well-being. Third, environmental conditions are objective and thus can be measured more readily in reliable and valid ways. For example, researchers can system- atically monitor density or noise levels in precise, accurate ways that can then be examined as possible causal factors in health. Fourth, physical environmental conditions tend to be stable. Increasingly, research suggests that chronic environmental demands are most likely to have negative impacts on health (Lepore, 1995). Finally, the concept of psychological stress that is central to several formulations of health, behavior, and disease (see chap. 17, this volume) has been utilized to broaden understanding of how physical features of the environment can influence human health and well-being.
There are at least three major ways in which the physical environment might operate as a psychological stressor, straining human adaptive capacities. First, this can occur when a stressor directly loads, or pressures, the system. Both crowding and noise, for example, create a surfeit of stimulation that can directly overload the system, causing discomfort, negative affect, and under some circumstances, the marshaling of adaptive resources. Both negative affect and adaptive responses to challenge or threat in turn directly affect neuroendocrine and cardiovascular functioning. Physical stressors can also interact with psychosocial conditions to exacerbate negative affect and/or psychophysiologic mobilization. For example, noise plus high workload demands leads to more serious health outcomes than workload levels alone. Noise and crowding frequently covary with other psychosocial risk factors (e.g., poverty, inadequate working conditions), and thus have the potential to contribute to multiple risk situations.
A second manner in which the physical environment can contribute to stress is by damaging or ameliorating coping resources themselves. People rarely respond to suboptimal physical or psychosocial conditions passively; instead, they