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Biology 202
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

How We Cope (or don't cope) with Stress

Laurel Edmundson

Most of us have experienced the unpleasant effects of stress-heightened anxiety, gastrointestinal distress, sleeplessness, appetite loss, and so on. These days there is significant emphasis in corporations, schools, and in individual families placed on learning how to effectively cope with stress and not let it control your life. But not much attention has been focused on the positive aspects of stress. What, if anything, is good about it? Does it serve any purpose beyond making us tense, miserable people who require aromatherapy and regular visits to the masseur? Stress may well be a healthy impetus for change or adaptation. The universally negative connotation of the word may not be a reflection of the stressors themselves, but of our own maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Stress has many different meanings. The first definition of the word listed in the Random House Dictionary is "physical, mental, or emotional tension." (8) David Mahoney and Richard Restak, authors of a new book on longevity, say "stress is best thought of as the way we respond to a physical or emotional demand." (4). Hans Selye, a pioneer in this field, identified two distinct types of stress: Eustress and Distress. "[The former] is the positive and essentially valuable form of stress that will contribute to the well-being of an organism." (2). The latter, on the other hand, results from "stress [that has become] unpleasant or harmful." (2). The American Psychological Association distinguishes among three different kinds of stress-acute, episodic acute, and chronic. Acute stress, the most common type, is caused by such day-to-day pressures as deadlines, problems at work or school, fender-benders, spousal arguments, and so on. Episodic acute stress describes the frequent recurrence of acute stress. The lives of those who suffer from episodic stress "are so disordered that they are studies in chaos and crisis." (6). Finally, chronic stress is the most severe of the three. It is "the grinding stress that wears people away...when a person [doesn't] see a way out of a miserable situation...It's the stress of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a despised job or career." (6).

However it is defined, stress is not a new issue for animals. Ever since living organisms inhabited the earth, they have had stressful situations to contend with, whether it to be fending off predators, giving birth, acquiring food, or adapting to a changing environment. But the stress most modern humans refer to is quite different from that which is inherent in survival. In a technology-driven world in which so much emphasis is placed on achievement, the pressures from jobs, peers, and families can be enormous. Especially in post-industrial countries like the United States, expectations about education and financial success are quite high. In discussing the competitive lifestyle of many North Americans, Ghadirian says "...in such a society even happiness, like a product, is subject to measure and display. If one is not happy, he should pretend to be happy, otherwise he has not succeeded in his life." (2).

As the world becomes more advanced technologically, new stressors are created. A good example is the abundance of modern information systems, such as email, pagers, cellular phones, and personal computers, which have developed to facilitate the quest for success. These days, a person can (and often does) receive phone calls and messages at any time during the day or night, whether they are riding a New York City bus or hiking a mountain in Vermont. 24-hour availability has become commonplace. While these advances in technology do provide convenience, their presence can also be a burden. It can make a person think that he or she should be available to answer questions and address problems at all times. This expectation is, of course, enough to drive even the sanest among us mad!

So how do we humans cope with stress? Too often, not very well. For diverse reasons, many people have developed maladaptive coping mechanisms. "Maladaptive coping is a response to challenge or stress that works neither to reduce anxiety nor to resolve the situation." (1). When an individual does not successfully deal with stress, the negative effects can manifest themselves both physically and emotionally. Physical symptoms are often most obvious; "Stress [has been] linked to the six leading causes of death-heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide." (5). Other psychophysiological disorders, such as bronchial asthma, peptic ulcers, and migraine have also been connected to stress. The human body does produce some natural anxiety-reducing substances; endorphins, "the body's own opioid product, which is released spontaneously or in response to physical and psychological stress and suffering," (2). serve to reduce pain and anxiety and induce euphoria. However, medicine hasn't yet come to understand how to control such natural chemicals. Instead, doctors often prescribe tranquilizers to distressed patients, and many people turn to alcohol or other drugs. Unfortunately, abuse of such substances is common, and can lead to some of the health problems mentioned previously.

While perhaps more subtle, psychological effects of maladaptive coping can be equally damaging. Denial or refusing to deal with a situation can lead to "severe anxiety, fear, grief, despair, rage and depression." (2). Avoiding responsibility or contact with others often worsens an individual's plight, because it deprives him or her of peer and family support. Community or social support is sometimes the single most beneficial resource for people under severe stress. "In one study of patients suffering form coronary artery disease, half of those without friends and relatives were dead within five years-a rate three times higher than among patients with spouses or friends." (4). Often, people suffering from chronic stress don't or can't reach out for support. As is characteristic of those who endure chronic stress, they feel hopeless and no longer search for solutions to their problems. Not surprisingly, violence and suicide rates are high among this population. (6).

If we know that stress can cause these physical and psychological problems, it might seem difficult to believe that it could also serve any positive purpose. But it can. When handled appropriately, stress can actually foster learning, development, cooperation, excitement, and even joy. The most familiar adaptive reaction to stress is self-defense, which is essential for survival. "A person [or animal] facing critical threat...uses certain emergency measures to protect his well-being and integrity. Some of these measures are based on instincts and neurophysiological reflexes..." (1). The "fight or flight" response is triggered when the walnut-sized amygdala of the brain receives sensory information that is viewed as potentially dangerous. The amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). The release of CRH triggers the pituitary gland's discharge of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn stimulates the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol. Cortisol in the bloodstream causes an increase in glucose production, providing the necessary fuel for the brain and muscles to deal with stress. (7).

After being able to protect itself, an organism must be able to successfully adapt to changing environmental conditions. This is the basic tenet behind Darwin's The Origin of the Species. Darwin claimed that "species evolved through differential propagation of favorable variations...[These variations] could enhance life through a competitive edge in struggles with predators, environmental conditions, members of the same species, and struggle for progeny." (3). Since only the fittest members of a species survive, it is the favorable traits that are passed on to future generations. While we don't necessarily think of humans in these stark terms, it is true that the individuals who can adjust their behavior and attitudes have an easier time in life. Learning to be flexible and cooperate with others when faced with change are valuable skills.

In cooperating with others in a community, important interpersonal bonds are (often unintentionally) created. Forming such support networks can be profoundly reinforcing when dealing with adversity. Aside from the positive physical effects companionship appears to have on struggling individuals, the support of peers and family also provides important emotional comfort. "The stronger the bond of love and unity within the members of a family or community, the greater will be its healing power at the time of crisis." (2).

Stress is clearly not solely an outside force-we do have some control over it. Interestingly, many people choose to do inherently stressful things with their lives because of the ultimate satisfaction or fulfillment they bring. Athletes certainly fall into this category. Training for an event or just getting in shape can be a difficult, often painful experience. But the feeling of accomplishment, energy and good health that come with achieving the goal make the hardship worthwhile. People who choose to raise a family are another example. Most people know that raising children is a challenge. The act of childbirth itself is an intensely stressful event. Despite this fact, women continue to have babies and families flourish. The strong desire to love and care for one's own tends to overshadow the trepidation associated with raising children. "Caretaking is a core phenomenon found in all mammals and is reciprocal to attachment. [It] involves a psychobiological bond which facilitate retrieval, protection and rescue and it facilitates nurturance, home-building, and psychophysiological regulation." (3).

Stress can also serve as an impetus for production and creativity. The world would probably not be so rich with talent and intellect if there weren't societal pressures to earn a living and do something meaningful in life. Inertia is a strong force in nature and humans can easily succumb to its pull. Studies have shown, for example, that students perform better academically when working under pressure. "Students of a Canadian community college were asked to participate in a research project aimed at reduction of their stress-related exam anxiety. The volunteer students followed an intensive and systematic relaxation program. At the end of their academic year, they were reported to show a substantial improvement in their exam-related anxiety, but they also showed a drop in their motivation and their academic performance." (2). While exam and other academically-related anxiety may be uncomfortable, it does appear to improve performance.

If given time to think about it, I think most people would independently come up with at least some of the positive aspects of stress that I have discussed. It is therefore interesting that the word has such a negative connotation. To most, stress is synonymous with headache, stiff neck, upset stomach, yelling boss, crying baby, and financial woes. The conclusion I have drawn from this fact is that people (including myself) suffer more from their own maladaptive coping mechanisms than from the stressors themselves. True, it is difficult to find positivity in some kinds of stress-abuse, violence, sickness, and death are devastating. But if people learn to control their thinking and behavior about more trivial issues, they will be in a better frame of mind to handle the more traumatic events.

WWW Sources

1) High Technology Careers Magazine, Manager's Corner REFERENCE SITE

2) Article: "Human Responses to Life Stress and Suffering"

3) modified chapter from From Survival to Fulfillment: a framework for the life-trauma dialectic

4) excerpt from The Longevity Strategy

5) American Psychological Association Help Center

6) American Psychological Association Help Center

7) investigators pinpointing fear activity in the brain

Other References (8) Random House Dictionary, Classic Edition. New York, 1983.


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