Social factors in psychopathology: stress, social support, and coping processes

Annu Rev Psychol. 1985;36:531-72. doi: 10.1146/


Our review has focused centrally on the etiologic significance of social factors in the development of psychopathology. Our implicit assumption has been that social factors in general, and stressors in particular, may play a causal role in the development of psychopathology. Yet the evidence is clear that the vast majority of people who are exposed to stressful life events or to chronic stress situations do not develop significant psychiatric impairments. For this reason, research interest over the past decade has shifted to factors like social support and coping strategies that may ameliorate the impact of stress. We have examined some of the important empirical results from recent studies of stress, support, and coping, and we have discussed ways in which these new understandings have informed long-standing attempts to explain group differences in emotional functioning. In each section of the review we have attempted not only to summarize existing results but also to provide some evaluation of the literature and suggestions for future research. It is important to recognize that the contributors to the work reviewed here do not all share a common research agenda. Some of them are primarily committed to unraveling the psychosocial determinants of a particular clinical disorder. Others are mainly concerned with the effects of a particular stressor. Still others are interested in the processes that link stress to health across a broad array of stress situations and health outcomes. In the face of these diverse interests, it is little wonder that our understanding of social factors in psychopathology is uneven. There is good reason to believe, however that these diverse strands of research are beginning to converge on a common conception of the stress process and on a common research design. The conception at present is only in rough form, but its outlines are nonetheless capable of description. At its center is the notion that stress exposure sets off a process of adaptation. It recognizes that this process unfolds over time, and it acknowledges that this process is modified by structural factors as well as by personal dispositions and vulnerabilities. There is growing recognition that the analysis of this process requires longitudinal methods. Also, it is becoming increasingly clear that experimental interventions are required to unravel the parts of this process that link stress and health. It is too early to know if this nascent convergence will lead to an integrative theory of adaptation, yet it is almost certain to promote methodological and conceptual rigor and facilitate replication and cumulation of findings.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • African Americans / psychology
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cognition
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Family
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Risk
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Adjustment
  • Social Class
  • Social Environment*
  • Social Support*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Whites / psychology