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Stress
What is it and what causes it?

© David L. Hoffmann BSc (Hons), MNIMH

It seems difficult to define a situation as stressful without taking into account the responses of the people who might be involved. The degree of stress a particular environment might cause has to be seen as a spectrum. There is no doubt that, for most people, walking down the meridian of a freeway to look for a gas station would be stressful, while watching a sunset from a flower-strewn mountain meadow would have little inherent stress, unless it's June and you have hayfever!

Stress as a Response
The second category of physiological theory we'll look at views stress as the response to an adverse, or stressful, situation. This approach is based on the work of the physiologist Hans Selye. Selye theorized that the stress response is a built-in mechanism that comes into play whenever demands are placed on us, and is therefore a defense reaction with a protective and adaptive function. In other words, there is a general physiological reaction to all forms of stress, which usually acts in our own best interests. Selye called this reaction the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This theory suggests a three-stage process of response:

  1. An alarm reaction.
  2. A resistance stage, which represents a functional recovery of the body to a level superior to the pre-stress state.
  3. An exhaustion reaction, in which there is a depletion and breakdown of the recovery of stage 2, due to continuation of the stressful situation.

The limitation of this inflexible physiological model of stress is that it ignores the purely emotional or mental factors that can produce a wide variation in the way we respond to potentially stressful situations.

Stress as a Perceived Threat
Much recent research suggests that specific situations or objects are threatening to us because we perceive them as such, rather than because of any inherent characteristics. According to this category of research, stress occurs when we cannot cope with or adjust to the demands made on us-when it all becomes too much. The degree of stress is partially affected by what is going on in general, but is more intimately connected with how we perceive the factors involved and how we are feeling at the time.

Responses to Stress
There is now a large body of research about both the physiological and the psychological responses to stress. It is easier to explore these responses separately, as we'll do here, but keep in mind that they need to be looked at in conjunction with each other in order to be fully understood.

Physiological Responses
The regulation of physiological responses to threats or stressful demands is handled mainly by the adrenal gland. Immediate response is controlled mainly, though not completely, by the adrenal gland's central medulla, while long-term response is handled by the surrounding cortex. The initial response-preparing the body for what has been called the fight-or-flight reaction-involves:

  1. Increased nervous-system activity.
  2. Release of adrenaline and/or noradrenalin into the blood stream by the adrenal medulla. These hormones support the nervous system through metabolic activity. The body's response to these chemicals includes:
    • increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
    • surface constriction of blood vessels, so that the blood leaves the skin to provide the muscles with more sugar and oxygen (which is why we go white with shock).
    • mobilization of the liver's energy reserves through the release of stored glucose.
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About The Author
Whilst working in conservation and lecturing in ecology and the eco-crisis for the University of Wales, David Hoffman became convinced that to heal the world, to embrace planetary wholeness and responsibility for it with hope, he as an individual had to be whole within himself....more
 
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