Tuesday, July 11, 2006

stress management : The Underlying Mechanisms...

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.

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.

Some of the early work on stress (conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932) established the existence of the well-known fight-or-flight response. His work showed that 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.

Power, but little control...

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
Hans Selye took a different approach from Cannon. Starting with the observation that different diseases and injuries to the body seemed to cause the same symptoms in patients, he identified a general response (the “General Adaptation Syndrome”) with which the body reacts to a major stimulus. 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.

Selye identified that when pushed to extremes, animals reacted in three stages:

First, in the Alarm Phase, they reacted to the stressor.
Next, in the Resistance Phase, the resistance to the stressor increased as the animal adapted to, and coped with, it. This phase lasted for as long as the animal could support this heightened resistance.
Finally, once resistance was exhausted, the animal entered the Exhaustion Phase, and resistance declined substantially.
Selye established this with many hundreds of experiments performed on laboratory rats. However, he also quoted research during World War II with bomber pilots. Once they had completed a few missions over enemy territory, these pilots usually settled down and performed well. After many missions, however, pilot fatigue would set in as they began to show “neurotic manifestations”.

In the business environment, this exhaustion is seen in “burnout”. The classic example comes from the Wall 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. We look at this in more detail in our section on burnout.

.© Mind Tools Ltd, 1995-2006

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