The Role of Stress in Motivation, Emotion and Health

Different psychological perspectives offer various explanations for the concept of motivation. One such perspective is drive reduction theory, which posits that people are motivated to engage in behaviors that reduce or eliminate unpleasant states of arousal (Hull, 1943). A related perspective, arousal theory, suggests that people are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal, neither too high nor too low (Berlyne, 1960). Finally, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs proposes that people are motivated to meet basic needs such as food and shelter before moving on to higher-order needs such as self-actualization (Maslow, 1943).

While each of these perspectives offers a unique take on motivation, they all share one common thread: the role of stress in motivating behavior. Specifically, research has shown that stress can serve as a powerful motivator, leading people to engage in behaviors that they otherwise might not (Dienstbier, 1989). For instance, end-of-semester exams often lead students to study harder and more diligently than they would have otherwise. Similarly, the threat of losing one’s job may motivate employees to work harder and more efficiently.

In addition to its role in motivation, stress also plays an important role in health. Specifically, research has shown that stress can have a negative impact on the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illness (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). Stress has also been linked to a number of other health problems, including heart disease and ulcers (Sapolsky, 1996).

While stress can have negative consequences for health, it can also lead to positive health outcomes if it is managed effectively. For instance, moderate levels of stress have been found to improve memory and boost immunity (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). Furthermore, research has shown that people who perceive their stress as manageable are more likely to cope with it effectively and experience fewer negative health consequences (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Finally, managing stress in a healthy way can lead to increased vitality and life satisfaction (Rosenzweig et al., 2010).

While motivation, emotion and stress are all closely linked concepts, they each play a unique role in our lives. Motivation is what drives us to engage in certain behaviors, emotions are the feelings we experience as a result of those behaviors and stress is the pressure we feel when faced with challenges or demands. Together, these three concepts help us to understand why we do the things we do and how our actions can impact our health.

Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96(2), 84-100. doi:10.1037//0033-295x.96.2.84

Hull, J. G. (1943). Principles of behavior: An introduction to behavior theory. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396. doi:10.1037//h0054346

Rosenzweig, S., Reivich, K., Gillham, J., Kaye, D., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2010). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 55(1), 76-88. doi:10.1037/a0018559

Sapolsky, R. M. (1996). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The importance of stress in health and disease (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W.H. Freeman & Company.

Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601-630. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.130.4.601


There are several different types of motivation, including intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and social motivation.

Emotions can affect our motivation by either increasing or decreasing our level of interest or engagement in an activity.

Stress is a response to a perceived threat or demand and can impact our health and work performance if it is not managed effectively.

There are several effective stress management techniques that can help to reduce the negative effects of stress, including relaxation techniques, exercise, and healthy coping mechanisms.

Some healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress include journaling, deep breathing exercises, and spending time in nature.

There are several things that can be done to create a positive work environment that promotes productivity and well-being, such as providing employees with autonomy and flexibility, encouraging communication and collaboration among team members, and promoting a healthy work-life balance