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Stress Adaptation and the Psycho-Physiological Effects on the Body Essay

‘Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. ’ So says the Chinese proverb, (The Quote Garden, 2010) and in this writer’s opinion, the phrase is accurate, in a very broad sense. Tension, or stress can be defined as the ‘arousal of the mind and body in response to demands made on them’ (Schafer, 2000). Schafer emphasises repeatedly in his definitions of stress that it is the person’s response to these demands, rather than the demands themselves which can influence stress.

Stress depends very much on a person’s interpretation of an event (Burton, Weston & Kowalski, 2009), and as a result of this interpretation, the adaptive responses that the body and mind activate to cope. The purpose of this essay is to explain the body’s physiological processes for adapting to stress, and also to look at psychosocial sources of stress and possible defence mechanisms used for coping. These discussions will be illustrated by the use of the following case study. In this case study, a woman who is sharing a car pool is often suffering from minor illnesses and has recently been diagnosed as having a stress related illness.

As stress itself is not necessarily a negative impact, it would be reasonable to presume that the woman’s arousal level is either too high or too low, causing her stress to become distress (Schafer, 2000). We are exposed to stress daily and in a multitude of ways that may at first seem meaningless, such hearing someone begin to speak or seeing a movement in our peripheral vision. Although these events may seem mundane, our body reacts to even these small events by setting in motion the stress response. Schafer (2000) states that even while talking a person’s blood pressure usually rises and then falls immediately afterwards.

These initial stress responses are the body’s way of preparing itself for physical reaction if necessary, either by fleeing from a threat or facing it. This is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response (Burton, et al, 2009), which helps both animals and humans alike prepare to respond immediately when facing perceived danger. The stress response begins with perception. Stressors are perceived by the peripheral nervous system (PNS) via the somatic nervous system through sensory impulses (Brannon & Feist, 2004); for example, stressors may be seen by the eyes, or heard or even felt, smelt or tasted.

These sensations send afferent neurons to relay information to the brain via the reticular activating system (RAS). Even before messages are sent to the cerebral cortex via the RAS the limbic system will attach emotion to these messages. The limbic system and more specifically the amygdala are involved with the interpretation of emotion (Burton et al, 2009), and since stress is often emotion related this interpretation plays a big part in how stressors are perceived. The emotion-tagged messages are then sent on to the cerebral cortex for further high-level interpretation.

Before a reaction occurs a more advanced mental process must interpret and then appraise the stressor (Asterita, 1985; Lovallo, 1997, as cited in Schafer, 2000). This takes place in the cerebral cortex, which is exceedingly more advanced in humans than in animals due to the vast number of cortical cells, allowing humans to give more complex thought to stressors (Schafer, 2000). Perhaps due to this higher level of processing Schafer (2000) proposes that an individual’s reality can be set by their own interpretations of events: whether to the good or detriment of the individual.

Some information is first sent to the hypothalamus which also interprets non-conscious information, and through the autonomic nervous system can activate the sympathetic nervous system through which arousal occurs to aid the body in coping with the stress. This can work by activating the adrenal medulla, which secretes hormones into the bloodstream, such as adrenaline which acts on the liver, causing it to send more glucose into the bloodstream for a ready source of energy (Burton et al, 2009), vital in escape from danger.

In the woman in the case study, daily stressors will send these hormones through her body allowing her to temporarily cope with high stress situations. Adrenaline may secrete if she panics realising she is running out of time and needs to be somewhere, at the same time speeding up respiration and elevating body temperature. At the same time the endocrine system is also working in tangent with the sympathetic nervous system, by causing the thyroid to secrete thyroxine into the bloodstream, which increases the rate at which fuel is consumed by the body (Schafer, 2000).

The pituitary gland also secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which works to stimulate the adrenal gland, and as this increases sex hormone production declines, which can explain why interest in sex can also decline during stressful times (Schafer, 2000). On the Holmes-Rahe life events scale for rating stress, sex difficulties are listed as one of the top 15 life stressors (Holmes & Rahe, 1967, as cited in Burton et al, 2009). So, loss of interest in sex can be caused by stress, but is also in itself a stressor, thereby creating further stress.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), identified by Hans Seyle (1974) consists of three stages; alarm, resistance and finally exhaustion. If the woman in our case study is suffering from stress related illness, it is likely that she has been exposed to some level of stress for a continual period of time. When the stress first began, her body would have reacted as described above, in preparation for ‘flight or fight’. This is the first stage of the GAS—alarm. Her body could not remain in this stage however, and has now proceeded to the second phase—resistance.

In this stage, her parasympathetic nervous system have normalised her heart rate and respiration, however her blood glucose levels and adrenaline remain elevated. In this stage, her body has begun to adapt to the stress – however it remains on high alert (Burton et al, 2009). She is experiencing illness and minor maladies because all of her defences are being used to help her cope with the stressors in her life, and there are none left to protect her body against illness.

When someone is in the second phase of GAS for an extended amount of time, the person may engage in behaviours to create a new balance between the stressor and their ability to adjust to it called coping mechanisms (Kunert, 2005) or adaptive behaviours. These could include activities such as engaging in an hour of meditation after a long hectic day at work to relieve tension, learning a new skill that may help with an increased workload, or using the services of a financial planner to assist with money worries.

While there are many adaptive behaviours that people can engage to help with coping, there are also many maladaptive behaviours. These could include social withdrawal to avoid appearance anxiety, and addictions such as to prescribed medicine taken to help with anxiety, or alcohol addiction. Alcohol has commonly been theorised as a coping mechanism for stress. The tension-reduction hypothesis states that motivation to drink alcohol increases with perceived stress levels (Conger, 1956 as cited in Rice & Van Arsdale, 2010; and Rice & Van Arsdale, 2010).

Rice and Van Arsdale (2010) in their studies found stronger links between stress and drinking for women compared to men. Considering this information the woman in the case study may turn to alcohol to cope with the perceived stress upon her. The third and last stage of the GAS is exhaustion. If the woman in the case study remains in the resistance phase for too long, her body will eventually wear down, her physiological defences will be exhausted, resulting in greater exposure to a serious or even life-threatening disease. Vulnerable organs such as the heart are the first to go during this stage (Burton et al, 2009).

There are many studies that have related psychosocial factors as contributing to perceived stress (Kunert, 2005). Psychosocial sources of stress are vast; each person’s experience of the social environment, including family, friends, school, work, church, neighbourhood, community, region and nation can be a source of stress (Schafer, 2000). Environmental or economic factors may also be a source of stress. Deteriorating economy can cause job-insecurity and limited resources, as with limited money and resources coping strategies become limited to what is available and affordable.

The woman in the case study many have monetary issues which are causing her continued stress, as money problems are not usually something that can be remedied swiftly, except in the case of an unexpected windfall just as a lotto win or unexpected inheritance. She might also be experiencing relationship troubles with her family or partner, which may also need significant time to resolve. Sometimes, when people aren’t able to confront their stressor directly to try to cope they will use defence mechanisms as a coping tool instead.

Some common defence mechanisms are denial, repression and projection (Morris & Maisto, 2005). The woman in the case study may use denial to cope with her stress. For example, if the others in the car pool with her were to say to her that her husband should be helping her more with her daily jobs she may defend her husband’s character vehemently (even to herself), even if she does agree with them but feels she cannot rectify the situation with her husband. Another defence mechanism she may use could be projection of emotion toward one thing onto another.

If her boss has reprimanded her at work for something, and then a family member admonishes her without intent she may take out her frustrations on the family member in place of her boss to whom she cannot. In conclusion, stress is as much biological process as it is psychological. The woman in the case study would be experiencing many internal physiological coping strategies that will aid her to fight or flight if necessary, but if kept in this state perpetually the body will eventually wear itself out leaving her exposed to illness.

Her perceived stress could have come from a number of sources in her social environment, and in addition to internal coping strategies she may use defence mechanisms or maladaptive behaviour to further assist her in coping. We all experience stress. It is how the individual perceives the stress and copes with it that will ultimately influence our experience of the world.

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