Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Vulnerability to Stress


Clearly some people get stressed more easily than others and some have the experience of stressfight or flight  – more strongly than others. So what are the factors that influence these phenomena?

A vMEMETIC approach
One way of looking at this is to take a Maslowian viewpoint – ie: people have needs and having those needs unfulfilled causes stress. The vMEMES identified via the work of Clare W Graves are then the drivers to fulfil those needs.

Of course, Graves held that motivational system (vMEMES) emerge in symbiotic interaction with the life conditions in the environment – an internal response to external stressors and almost certainly the first emergence of a vMEME is an example of epigenetic modification. Graves’ position has been upheld completely by Chris Cowan (2004). However, Don Beck (2002a), with his concept of the Prime Directive, does imply that there is a maturational factor in the emergence of vMEMES. He has not said explicitly that vMEMES are programmed to emerge in sequence as someone develops through life, irrespective of the life conditions; but the implication that maturation matters is inescapable.

The position Beck appears to be working towards is perhaps best represented in the idea of ‘push & pull’ factors Lawrence Kohlberg (1963) put forward as leading the moral development of children in his Stages of Moral Development. Since Graves mapped his hierarchical systems to the stages of moral development Kohlberg identified, this seems an entirely valid direction to explore.

Strictly speaking, more in keeping with the theories of Sigmund Freud (1923b) than Graves, Kohlberg sees moral development as being driven by internal, maturational forces – ‘push’ factors. Yet Kohlberg and others working with his line of thought also have clear evidence that views on morality could mutate under pressure from life conditions – eg: discussion with influential others (Karen Maitland & Jacquelin Goldman, 1974) – the ‘pull’ factors which more support the orthodox Gravesian position. Since Beck himself, by saying that some people may ascend the Spiral with a discernible preference for one side or the other, effectively allows for the maturational factor, one suspects that Kohlberg pretty much had it right. Just when and how push happens is strongly influenced by pull – but push there is!

This means there is a sense in which the state of each vMEME forms part of the life conditions inside us – which reinforces the point Peter McNab makes in Aligning Neurological Levels – a Reassessment that what is happening to us – internally as well as externally – are equally part of the ‘environment’.

We have to consider both the vMEME’s needs – part of our internal life conditions – and its ability to respond to external life conditions. In meeting its needs, a vMEME will impact upon the environment, running through the loop of Reciprocal Determinism.

Once they have been activated in someone’s psyche, the vMEMES of the 1st Tier have needs which, in terms of Marie Jahoda’s (1958) concept of Ideal Mental Health, must be fulfilled for well-being. (It’s probably not appropriate to think of the 2nd Tier as having needs, since they are more about ‘being’ than ‘subsistence’ or ‘deficiency’ – though understanding of those vMEMES is still fairly limited.)

So what kinds of things stress vMEMES? Because what stresses the vMEMES dominating someone’s vMEME stack will affect seriously their ability to cope.

For example, drawing upon Graves’ original letter-pair coding, the P RED vMEME will find the imposition of D life conditions of order, discipline and compliance frustrating. Q BLUE will find an environment populated by fast-thinking and innovative R ORANGE-led types bewildering and perhaps threatening.

The chart left provides a basic summary of key stress factors for vMEMES of the 1st Tier. Essentially stress factors comprise life conditions which don’t support the needs – as Maslowian drivers (Abraham Maslow, 1943) –  of vMEME activity. Life conditions which don’t support the dominant vMEME (S) must cause stress.

vMEMES will change in the MEME stack to meet the life conditions. But what if the life conditions inhibit the expression of certain vMEMES? What if the needs of certain vMEMES are never fulfilled?

Eg: the young child whose PURPLE can’t find security at home. Say they come from a one-parent family in material deprivation where mother is a prostitute and a junkie. Home, with ‘clients’, pimps, dealers and other junkies on the scene and mother ‘blissed out’ a lot of the time is hardly likely to be a ‘safe place’. The child goes to school, their PURPLE looking for safety. But, BLUE is working ineffectually in the school so there is little discipline but a lot of RED bullying. Such C life conditions will not enable desperate O PURPLE to have its needs met but will rather result in the emergence of P RED. Only a RED that doesn’t have a sound PURPLE foundation on which to learn to express itself healthily. Not only is RED’s manifestation likely to be thoroughly unpleasant in such a scenario; but what does the child do about having its PURPLE safety-in-belonging needs met?

As both Maslow and Jahoda identified, for someone to be mentally healthy, they must have their needs met at each level.

However, there may also be an inherent tendency towards the can or can’t cope attitude, deriving from the individual’s temperament. Eg: someone with a Melancholic temperament is more likely to believe and feel they can’t cope. Hans J Eysenck (1967) hypothesised that people high in the temperamental dimension of Neuroticism – a  key element in the Melancholic temperament – have a more responsive sympathetic branch of the body’s autonomic nervous system than others. Such people have a natural tendency towards Depression and anxiety and thus are more vulnerable to having a pessimistic appraisals.

Some people remain very calm during emergencies; some people feel considerable fear or other strong emotions; and some are terrified by even very minor incidents.

Eysenck suggested that people tending towards the Unstable end of the Neuroticism axis had a problem of ‘sympathetic hyperactivity’ in the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus. These organs in the brain’s sub-cortical limbic system were originally identified by James Papez (1937) as the principal mediators of bodily arousal associated with emotion. More recently the pioneering work of Joseph LeDoux (1992; 1996) has emphasised the critical responses of the amygdala to alarming sensory stimuli. It stimulates the hypothalamus to create the physiological syndrome we call ‘fight or flight’.

From observations of timidity in domestic cats, Jerome Kagan, Steven Resnick & Nancy Snidman (1988)  put forward the notion that this sympathetic hyperactivity is due to having higher levels of noradrenaline which arouse the amygdala, So, effectively people high in Neuroticism are born with a limbic vicious circle: the amygdala is easily aroused by an excess of noradrenaline; and, when aroused, it stimulates the hypothalamus to make more noradrenaline!

‘Personality’ and stress
‘Personality’ is a much overused term – in fact, Arthur Reber & Emily Reber (2001) consider it “…a term so resistant to definition and so broad in usage that no coherent simple statement can be made.” However, a substantial number of key figures in the Psychology and Psychiatry – including Eysenck – have used the term in key theories.

One such area is the relationship between ‘personality’ and stress – and in particular how some ‘personality types’ are more vulnerable to stress and illness than others.

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

A later study by Stephanie Booth-Kewley & Dr Howard Friedman more specifically related this vulnerability to the kind of chronic negative states RED/Choleric is capable of getting itself into – eg: hostility to others, feeling aggrieved, ‘hard done by’, etc).[1]

However, stress can be just as dangerous to those oriented towards the conformist/self-sacrificial side of the Spiral – termed ‘Type Cs’ by Friedman & Rosenman. They saw Type Cs as sociable but repressed (PURPLE/Introversion/Impulse Control), industrious and conventional (BLUE) and as reacting to stress or threat with a sense of helplessness (Melancholic). Hans Eysenck summed up a growing body of evidence when he clearly linked Type C severe and ongoing suppression of self to forms of cancer.[2]

Clearly neither getting yourself into either an extreme state of acting out stress or total sublimation of stress is healthy. Yet it would seem a tendency towards Unstable on the Neuroticism axis is going to predispose you to dealing with the need for a challenging or taxing response in a stressed way.

[1]‘Psychological Predictors of Heart Disease: a Qualitative Review’ – Stephanie Booth-Kewley & Howard S Friedman in Psychological Bulletin #101 (1987).

[2]‘Personality & Stress as Causal Factors in Cancer & Coronary Heart Disease’ – Hans J Eysenck in ‘Individual Differences, Stress & Health Psychology’ – M P Jaisse (ed) (Springer-Verlag, 1988). Work Eysenck drew upon included studies such as ’Life Events & the Occurrence of Cancer in Children’ – T J Jacobs & E Charles in Psychosomatic Medicine #42 (1980) and ‘Patterns  of Expression of Anger & Their Psychological Correlates in Women with Breast Cancer’ – T Morris, S Greer, R W Pettingale & M Watson in Journal of Psychosomatic Research #25 (1981).