What is the science behind freaking out and keeping cool? This discussion session complements the prior lecture session Stress.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the science of stress, the psychology of stress, and the physiology of stress. What’s going on when you say, “I’m stressed out” – what does that mean from a biological and a cognitive perspective? Whatever our psychological and physical response to a stimulus that alters the body’s state of equilibrium is, that’s the technical definition of stress. So, while the body is going along in homeostasis, some stimulus comes along and reminds you that the world is a difficult and challenging place, and your physiological and mental systems have to deal with that. Whatever they do, that’s the stress response: the bodily changes that occur to help a person cope with a stressor.
The stimulus that causes stress can be either external (in the world) or internal (something we’re thinking about), and it can be either acute or chronic. Acute means that it happens and then it’s over; chronic means that it’s going on for a long time. And these stressors can be, for example, physical, psychological, or social.
Complete this chart with your own examples of different types of stressors:
For example, how would you characterize sleep deprivation? How about addiction?
So, the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is one way of quantifying the physiological response to stress. It starts with the alarm phase, where you recognize the stimulus and decide you need to tackle it. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and deactivates the parasympathetic nervous system. It releases glucocorticoids, the stress hormone and the biological marker of stress. Once you have appraised the situation and decided what to do, you enter the resistance phase, in which the body mobilizes its resources to return to equilibrium: it releases adrenaline, it keeps consciousness going, it prepares whatever physiological response you need. Once you’ve handled the stressor, you enter the exhaustion phase. You realize you’ve expended a lot of resources trying to keep yourself in equilibrium during the resistance phase, and it’s been physiologically expensive for you. You’re beat. This phase is associated with the negative effects of stress: getting sick, sleeping too much, and so on.
Stimuli aren’t inherently stressful. We interpret and appraise them, and then decide what we’re going to do about them. So let’s say you walk into this room and you see a snake. The first thing you have to do is appraise the situation, and the primary mechanism for appraisal is: am I in danger? If your primary appraisal says that this is not a bad thing, then you’re okay. Maybe it’s just an adorable picture of a snake.
But if it is dangerous, you engage in secondary appraisal and determine what to do. And you basically have two options: you can run away (the flight response) or you can face it head on (the fight response).
Once you’ve gone through these appraisal steps, how much stress the situation causes you is related to your perceived control over the situation. Typically, perceived control decreases stress. But when it comes to perceived control, there are a couple of caveats. Some people need control, and others find it even more stressful to be in control of a situation. Say you’re in a class that has a group project, and you’re the group leader. It’s your job to make sure that the 5 other people in your group submit their materials on time, and you’re the one the teacher will hold responsible. So, does that cause you more stress or less stress? Explain why, and give an example from real life.