What is Stress?
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From a UK survey the Mental Health Foundation (2018) found that, in the year 2017-2018 74% of people felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. 46% reported that they ate too much or ate unhealthily due to stress. 29% reported that they started drinking or increased their drinking; and 16% reported that they started smoking or increased their smoking. 51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed and 61% reported feeling anxious. Of the people who said they had felt stress at some point in their lives, 16% had self harmed and 32% said they had had suicidal thoughts and feelings. 37% of adults who reported feeling stressed reported feeling lonely as a result. The Health & Safety Executive (2018) estimated 15.4 million working days were lost in 2017- 18 as a result of stress, anxiety or depression.
So what is stress?
As good a definition of stress as any comes from Richard Lazarus & Susan Folkman (1984): “…negative emotional and physiological process that occurs as individuals try to adjust to or deal with environmental circumstances that disrupt or threaten to disrupt, their daily functioning”.
Randolph Nesse & Elizabeth Young (2000) state that the first step to understanding the nature of stress is to understand how it enabled the earliest humans to cope with the immense and often very dangerous physical challenges they faced. Walter Cannon (1932) argued that, faced with a predator which threatened their life, human beings could either stand their ground, defend themselves and kill or ward off the predator…or they could escape by running away or climbing to safety. Their chances of survival would be increased if their minds and bodies changed in way which improved their ability to do one or other. In this sense, the stress fight-or-flight response is a survival mechanism employed by the BEIGE vMEME.
Stress as a biological response
Looking back to the Gestalt Cycle – see Fig 24 – when we perceive something that requires a response from us that will be taxing or challenging in some way, the hypothalamus releases noradrenaline (in its neurotransmitter form) to trigger the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system – see Fig 50.
Put rather simply, as a result of this the pupils enlarge to admit more light, the liver releases sugar for energy, and the adrenal glands release the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline to prepare the muscles for action. Breathing becomes deeper and more rapid to oxygenate the blood. Blood vessels dilate and contract, redirecting blood away from the digestive system – slowing it down – and towards the brain and muscles. Meanwhile the heart beats faster to aid that circulatory process. As a result of which the muscles tense. Perspiration acts as a cooling mechanism for muscle activity raising body temperature. ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach and a dry mouth from the lessening of salivation may be side effects of these dramatic changes in the body’s physiological state.
Endorphins are released to block pain and additional blood platelets are produced so that blood can clot more easily in case of injury.
If the stress is maintained for even a short length of time – say, over 5 minutes – then the hormone cortisol is released which is the ‘fuel’ for maintaining the stress condition. Stress also increases activity in the immune system which helps protect the body from disease pathogens.
The result is a heightened readiness to respond, both physically and mentally.
Brilliant! A wonderful N BEIGE level fight-or-flight survival mechanism for Life Conditions A – being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger ‘X’ millennia ago or attacked by hooligans on a modern city centre street.
Not so good for Life Conditions C facing shame at your own inadequacy or Life Conditions D worrying about whether you’ve done something the way you should have done.
Quite why we should have get physiologically stressed in the way we do for problems at higher levels is something of a mystery. Genome Lag – the failure of the human genome to adapt in certain respects to very different environmental conditions from 35,000 years ago – has been put forward as an explanation.However, while genome lag is scientifically proven, it is far from being a comprehensive explanation. Clearly the physiological stress reaction is appropriate at times.
Minor excitation of the sympathetic system can be positively helpful at times. Who would not want to be a little excited on a first date with an attractive member of the opposite sex? Doesn’t everybody want to feel at least a little energised when facing an important exam?
Dr Hans Selye, one of the greatest researchers into stress, called such low-level positive stress ‘Eustress’ and believed it was essential if we were to remain alert and interested in life. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified that entering the fine zone between being bored and being anxious is critical for achieving the optimal peak performance he calls ‘flow’ in athletic, artistic and/or intellectual endeavours.
It is possible that elements of what we understand the physiological stress reaction to be are related to the functioning of vMEMES and their shifting under pressure – described in Chapter 9. Clare W Graves found noradrenaline to be significantly more present than adrenaline when someone was dominated by RED in their thinking but adrenaline to be significantly higher than noradrenaline when BLUE was utmost.
In fact, on one occasion Graves even shifted a volunteer’s thinking from RED to BLUE by injecting him with adrenaline. As the adrenaline was burned up, the volunteer’s thinking centred again around RED. It seems Graves had artificially created temporary vMEMETIC change.
For all this, when the stress reaction pervades consciousness to the point of becoming disabling, then clearly it has become pathological.
Worse still, in his concept of the General Adaptation Syndrome, Selye identified that chronic long-term stress leads to exhaustion, with failure of the parasympathetic system (which, to put it a little simplistically, tries to calm your body down and regain a physiological balance). Additionally, the immune system can collapse, leading to stress-related diseases.
The groundbreaking studies of Dr Meyer Friedman & Dr Ray Rosenman are of significance here. Investigating links between stress and coronary heart disease, they identified the kind of stress-related self-expressive behaviours often associated with RED – competitive, impatient, restless and pressured – which they termed ‘Type A’, as making people more vulnerable to heart attacks. Some ORANGE behaviours – ambitious, drive for achievement – also fitted into the Type A profile
The meaning of the physiological experience is, of course, a Meta-State; and, like any Meta-State, it can be Meta-Modelled – broken down to provide understanding of the experience – and often a new positive Meta-State created. (Oh, that shot of adrenaline is going to give me the alertness to solve my problem!)
It’s impossible not to be in a state of physiological stress if you have a genuine stressor impacting upon you. However, the way you Meta-State will impact significantly upon your ability to cope. (More about this later in the chapter.)
To be almost trite: remember stress is just a feeling!
The physiological experience itself is not the stressing factor.
Eysenck hypothesised that people high in Neuroticism have a more responsive sympathetic branch of the body’s autonomic nervous system than others. (The sympathetic branch is responsible for the physiological