The definition of stress and its history


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Stress is defined as an organism's complete reaction to environmental demands or pressures. When stress was initially studied in the middle of the twentieth century, the term was used to refer to both the reason and the experienced effects of these pressures. More recently, however, the term stressor has been used for the inspiration that aggravates a stress response. One continuing discrepancy between researchers concerns the definition of stress in humans. Is it principally an external response that can be measured by changes in glandular secretions, skin reactions, and other physical functions, or is it an internal interpretation of, or reaction to, a stressor; or is it both?

The meaning of stress depends on the approach that psychologists follow. Straightforwardly, stress just means 'effort, demand upon energy'. Almost everything can create this stress position; a loud noise, a deadline, revision, late transport, or even simply getting up in the morning. However, there are three ways of approaching a definition of stress;

Stress can be classified in terms of all individuals reacting in the same biological way, to the same stimulus. This is the 'stimulus based model', i.e. the stimulus causes the stress but our reaction is identical physiologically. Any awareness of a stress stimulus activates the hosts' physiological response. This is general both across time (every time we encounter a stressor) and society.

Stress can be defined as reliant upon the person's answer to the stressor. This is a more downbeat way of looking at stress. The individual is portrayed as 'suffering from stresses', 'feeling stressed'. The individual is seen as having an immature coping mechanism. This internal response may also be down to diverse personality types or cultural influences, but the management of stress is seen as coming from internal change.

The most accepted way of viewing and studying stress nowadays, is to use an interactions' approach. This means we may all be faced with the same external stressor (stimulus) but the stress response that we display will fall heavily on our individual differences, gender or culture. In simple terms, the phrase 'exam' is the same stimulus, but some characters will be feeling tense and worked regarding this near event, while other will appear more calm and less stress fluctuation. Psychologists try to find out the factor affecting this interaction and stress management depends on the perceived interaction and response.

The term "stress" is conceptualised in many different ways by psychologists. Here are just a few:

"A state of psychological and physical tension produced, according to the transactional model, when there is a mismatch between the perceived demands of a situation (the stressor[s]) and the individual's perceived ability to cope. The consequent state of tension can be adaptive (eustress) or maladaptive (distress)."

Brody, R and D Dwyer (2002) Revise Psychology for AS Level, Hove, Psychology Press, p210

In my perception, this explains that stress is regarded as any given situation and an individual own views on this, whether they have "set the bar too high" or if it is achievable. For example, the situation is running the London Marathon. One person may have been training for many months or even years for this annual run and they feel they can achieve their goal, but another person who has not been training at all may feel confident when signing up, but as the day becomes closer, they begin to realise that the task is almost in-achievable, therefore becoming stressed.

"The non-specific response of the body to any demand"

Seyle (1950), in Eysench, M and C Flanagan (2000) Psychology for AS Level, Hove, Psychology Press, p137.

This view explains that stress to them means that the body reacts in many ways to every situation given to that individual, no set response is guaranteed for the notable "challenge".

"A pattern of negative physiological states and psychological responses occurring in situations where people perceive threats to their well-being which they may be unable to meet"

Lazarus & Folkman (1984) in Gross, R; R McIlveen and H Coolican (2000) Psychology: A New Introduction for AS Level, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p60

This explanation claims that stress is a response from the body which is triggered by a situation which the brain interprets and becomes "threatened and overwhelmed". E.g. your first day at a new job. You arrive at your desk, given a long list of jobs needed completing, as its your first day, you don't know what to do so your brain reads this, resulting in the body reacting (shaking, sweating etc).

The physical response of stress is all about the rapid mobilisation of energy. Hans Selye is credited with popularising the word stress as it is used today. Selye noticed that animals which were put in sustained stressful conditions all developed the same physical problems such as stomach ulcers, weight loss, abnormal changes in the size of glands (some shrunk, some enlarged), and impaired immune system functioning. Selye (1976) proposed that when exposed to sustained pressure there would be a standard response. He called this the General Adaptation Syndrome and divided it into three phases;

Phase one - Alarm Reaction. Immediate reactions of the organism to the stressful conditions, similar to Walter Canon's (1939) theory of the fight or flight response.

Phase two - Resistance stage. The animal adapts to the demands of the stressor. However, this adaptation requires adaptation energy and this is gradually used up until the animal can no longer resist the stressor.

Phase three - Exhaustion. At this stage, the animals' resistance to the stressor is so weakened that diseases become apparent.

Most of the long-term adverse changes that Selye observed were due to the effects of another hormone involved in the stress response, cortisol. Cortisol has useful short-term effects; including mobilising energy stores and making us feel more alert. However, for various complex reasons, the long-term effects of cortisol are to down-regulate the immune system, disrupt the reproductive system, suppress the inflammatory response and even to damage areas of the brain which affect memory and mood.

Joseph V. Brady (1958) trialled on monkeys the consequence of stress within different job roles and personalities. Brady positioned the monkeys in 'restraining chairs' and conditioned each one to initiate a lever. Electric shocks were given every 20 seconds unless the level was actioned in the time span. This study came to an unexpected stop when many of the monkeys passed away from perforated ulcers. To analysis this Brady used a 'control monkey'. He positioned an 'Executive Monkey' in the restraining chair, which could press the lever to put a stop to the electric shock. The other monkeys had no power over the lever, leaving only the 'Executive' monkey with the psychological stress of pushing the required button.

The schedule to the electric shocks was six hours on followed by six hours off and after twenty-three days of this, the executive monkey died. Brady then attempted a variety of schedules, but no monkeys died from this. He then returned to the original 'work schedule of six on, six off' and tested the stomachs of the Executives and discovered that their stomach acidity was at its peak during the rest period.

The maximum risk materialised when the sympathetic arousal closed and the stomach was filled with digestive hormones. This was a parasympathetic rebound related with the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which began development of ulcers in the Executive monkeys. Throughout all the variations of the experiment, not a single yoked control monkey ever developed an ulcer. This proposes that the ulcers were a symptom of the excessive stress encouraged by having the control over the other monkeys fate. Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome proposes a similar effect in the Exhaustion phase.

There were two Whitehall studies, the first investigates the social factors of health, mainly cardio respiratory disease longevity and mortality rates within United Kingdom civil servants aged between twenty-four and sixty-five. The early study, Whitehall I Study, was carried out in 1967 and carried on for over ten years. A second chapter, the Whitehall II Study, inspected the health of 10,308 civil servants aged thirty-five and fifty-five. Only one third of these 'experimentees' were women while the remaining two thirds were men.

Whitehall II studied people within the working age. It looked into the links between work, stress and health. Whitehall II discovered organisation at work, climatisation at work, social influences, early life experiences as well as health behaviours all play a factor in determining the health social gradient. As partakers in this investigation resumes through adulthood, the research is concentrating on health inequalities and the aging population's ability to function adequately. With an ever increasing population of senior citizens in the United Kingdom, there is a vital need to establish what causes social inequalities and to study long-term repercussions on an individuals' ability to function and have a healthy retirement. The social gradient in health is not so much a spectacle confined solely to the British Civil Service. All the way through the developed world wherever researchers have gained information to investigate, they have witnessed the social gradient in health. Health inequalities are a worldwide matter affecting people across the social gradient in rich, middle income, and poor nations. To have the ability to address inequalities in health it is essential to understand how social organisation affects health also to find ways to develop the state and circumstances in which people work and live.

The Whitehall II fields of study in the lowest employments grades did demonstrated a higher chance of having many of the established hazardous factors of coronary heart disease (CHD): an inclination to smoke, lower height-to-weight ratio (higher chance of obesity and diabetes), less leisure time, and higher blood pressure. However, even after amending these factors to a more normal level, the lower employment grades were unfortunately, still at greater chance of a heart attack; another factor was at work.

Some have directed the reason of CHD to cortisol, a hormone created by the body as a response to stress. A consequence of cortisol release is a reduction in the immune system's efficacy through lymphocyte manipulation. One theory illuminating the connection between immune-efficiency and CHD is that infectious pathogens such as herpes or Chlamydia are partially to blame for coronary diseases, thus a body with a chronically suppressed immune system will be less able to avert CHD.

A substituted option to the cortisol explanation is that self-esteem is a key contributing factor and that the relationship between a professional accolade and self-esteem gives an explanation for the health gradient. The study favouring this observation related low self-esteem in test subjects with a greater decline in heart rate variability and higher heart rates in general-both established CHD risk factors-while acting out stressful tasks.

At this current time there is no universally-accepted mode of causality for the occurrence exposed by the Whitehall studies. Clearly stress is associated to a greater risk of CHD, but so are many other unconventional factors. In addition to this, "stress" seems to be too non-specific. There are various kinds of stress in one's day-to-day life and each kind could contribute in a different way.

The theory of Type A and Type B personality is a type of theory that describes a pattern of behaviours that were once regarded to be a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Since its commencement in the 1950s, the theory has been widely disapproved of for its scientific shortcomings. It nonetheless continues in the form of pop psychology within the general population.

Type A individuals can be portrayed as impatient, controlling, concerned about their status, highly competitive, ambitious, aggressive, having difficulty relaxing; and are occasionally detested by individuals with Type B personalities for the way that they're constantly rushing. They are often impressively achieving workaholics who multitask, drive one's self with deadlines to meet, and are uneasy about delays. Because of these attributes, Type A individuals are often portrayed as "stress junkies."

Type B individuals, in comparison to type A's, are described as patient, relaxed, and easy-going, basically lacking any sense sense of urgency. This can also be illustrated as lazy and lacking ambition. Individuals who live with their parents well into their adulthood are an example. Because of these traits, Type B individuals are often depicted by Type A's as apathetic and disengaged. There is also a Type AB mixed profile for people who are not easily categorised or not fit into A or B purely.

Meyer Friedman portrayed a suggestion in his 1996 book, Type A Behaviour: Its Diagnosis and Treatment, that Type A behaviour is expressed in three major indicators. One of these symptoms is thought to be concealed and therefore less observable, whereas the other two are more visible;

Symptoms of Type A Behaviour

Time urgency and impatience, resulting in irritation and exasperation.

Free floating resentment, which can be started by even minor events.

Ready for action, this made them familiar towards achievement which caused them to be stressed due to them wanting to be the greatest at whatever they may be doing i.e. sports or in work.

Type A behaviour was first explained as a likely risk factor in coronary heart disease (CHD) in the 1950s by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and R. H. Rosenman. After a nine-year investigation of healthy men, aged thirty-five to fifty-nine, Friedman & Rosenman approximated that the risk of coronary heart disease in Type A individuals is double than that of otherwise healthy individuals. This research had a huge effect in inspiring the development of the field of health psychology, in which psychologists view how a person's mental state affects his or her health in a physical state.

Type A/B theory has been put under scrutiny on a number of grounds e.g. statisticians have disputed that the original study by Friedman and Rosenman had serious limitations, comprising of large and unequal sample sizes, and less than one percent of the variance in links explained by Type A personality.

Psychometrically, the actions that define the syndrome are not highly associated, indicating that this is a collection of separate tendencies, not a logical pattern or type. Type theories universally have been slated as overly simplistic and incapable of assessing the degrees of variety in human personality.

Researchers also found that Type A behaviour is a poor predictor of coronary heart disease. Research by Redford Williams of Duke University, states the unfriendliness component of Type A personality is the pure and simple risk factor thus, it is a high level of conveyed anger and hostility, not the other components of Type A behaviour that constitute the problem.

On the basis of these condemnations, Type A theory has been termed outdated by many researchers in contemporary health psychology and personality psychology.

To conclude, all three of these theories demonstrate positive relations between situations, theories and stress, however, as stress is an 'un-defined' phrase, not one nor is the other able to give us further insight into how to control the stress - illness relationship. The comparison between all three however, is that a combination of cognitive approach along with behavioural approach creates a physiological reaction.

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