Dr. Gautham's

Neuro Centre

(Established in 1988)

A Neuro-Behavioral Medicine Clinic

Dr. Gautham's Neuro Centre
4/68 P C Hostel Road
Chetpet
Chennai, Tamilnadu 600031
India

ph: +91 98410 10197
alt: +91 44 4285 9822

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Understanding Stress

Stress is a bodily response to a person's perception that "demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize."

There are two types of instinctive stress response that are important to how we understand stress and stress management: the short-term "Fight-or-Flight" response and the long-term "General Adaptation Syndrome". The first is a basic survival instinct, while the second is a long-term effect of exposure to stress.  

A third mechanism comes from the way that we think and interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.  

 

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Actually, these three mechanisms can be part of the same stress response " we will initially look at them separately, and then show how they can fit together.

"Fight-or-Flight"
When an animal experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. These hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. And as well as this, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening events.

Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This reduces our ability to work effectively with other people.  

With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. And the intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments based on drawing information from many sources. We find ourselves more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions. 

It is easy to think that this fight-or-flight, or adrenaline, response is only triggered by obviously life-threatening danger. On the contrary, recent research shows that we experience the fight-or-flight response when simply encountering something unexpected.  

The situation does not have to be dramatic: People experience this response when frustrated or interrupted, or when they experience a situation that is new or in some way challenging. This hormonal, fight-or-flight response is a normal part of everyday life and a part of everyday stress, although often with an intensity that is so low that we do not notice it. 

There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach. Our Relaxation Techniques section explains a range of good techniques for keeping this fight-or-flight response under control.

The General Adaptation Syndrome and Burnout

 While the Fight-or-Flight response works in the very short term, the General Adaptation Syndrome operates in response to longer-term exposure to causes of stress.

When pushed to extremes, animals react in three stages:

  1. First, in the Alarm Phase, they react to the stressor.
  2. Next, in the Resistance Phase, the resistance to the stressor increases as the animal adapts to, and copes with, it. This phase lasts for as long as the animal can support this heightened resistance.
  3. Finally, once resistance is exhausted, the animal enters the Exhaustion Phase, and resistance declines substantially.

 


In the business environment, this exhaustion is seen in "burnout". The classic example comes from the Dalal Street trading floor: by most people"s standards, life on a trading floor is stressful. Traders learn to adapt to the daily stressors of making big financial decisions, and of winning and losing large sums of money. In many cases, however, these stresses increase and fatigue starts to set in.

 At the same time, as traders become successful and earn more and more money, their financial motivation to succeed can diminish. Ultimately, many traders experience burnout.

Stress and the way we think
Particularly in normal working life, much of our stress is subtle and occurs without obvious threat to survival. Most comes from things like work overload, conflicting priorities, inconsistent values, over-challenging deadlines, conflict with co-workers, unpleasant environments and so on. Not only do these reduce our performance as we divert mental effort into handling them, they can also cause a great deal of unhappiness.

In becoming stressed, people must therefore make two main judgments: firstly they must feel threatened by the situation, and secondly they must doubt that their capabilities and resources are sufficient to meet the threat.  

How stressed someone feels depends on how much damage they think the situation can do them, and how closely their resources meet the demands of the situation. This sense of threat is rarely physical. It may, for example, involve perceived threats to our social standing, to other people"s opinions of us, to our career prospects or to our own deeply held values. 

Just as with real threats to our survival, these perceived threats trigger the hormonal fight-or-flight response, with all of its negative consequences.