The alarm response is not an appropriate way to deal with longterm threats and demands. Here we need to make continual adjustments over a relatively long period of time. This involves mainly another part of the stress response called the resistance reaction.
Many of the demands we face today are not necessarily directly life-threatening (life or death situations) but nevertheless pose threats and challenges to our personal security and well-being. These demands are usually emotional rather than physical in nature. Some arise unexpectedly and suddenly and last only a short time whilst others persist for a long period; gnawing away day after day, week after week and even year after year. These long-term demands may include maintaining and protecting our own and our family’s well-being and relationships, finding and keeping a job or earning a living and striving for promotion. Dealing with these situations is often distressful since it can involve struggling to establish control or fearing that control might be lost and, as a result, the safety and well-being of self and family is threatened.
How then is it decided which part of the stress response is activated so that the body can deal appropriately with the situation it faces?
Activation of the appropriate part of the stress response is the result of our assessment of the situation and how we think we can deal with it. This interpretation process then sets into motion a physiological reaction by the body to produce the right type of stress response. It is important to distinguish here between situations that are sudden, life-threatening ones, such as jumping clear of a car, and those which pose no actual physical threat to our life, such as being interviewed for promotion at work. For sudden, life-threatening situations there is an immediate and total activation of all parts of the stress response. However, for situations which are more psychological or emotional in nature, the stress response is activated to an appropriate degree to enable us to deal effectively with the demands we face. In this blog we are dealing mainly with the latter category.
Another point to remember is that any expression of the stress response is based on either the alarm (fight or flight) response or the resistance response, or both. For example, the alarm response is usually triggered just enough to allow us to deal with immediate and short-acting demands which are not life-threatening, so we may experience a little aggression or a little fear. However, sometimes we may feel so emotionally threatened by a situation (whether or not it is warranted) that the alarm response is activated to such a level that we become quite aggressive – we decide to ‹“fight’ mentally and our body is prepared for fighting. This is one way of coping with the situation.
On the other hand we may feel that the demand is too much for us to handle so we become scared – we mentally ‹“run away’ from the situation while at the same time our body is geared for flight. Our emotions, for example fear or anger, therefore play a major part in our interpretation and assessment of the situation we face and hence the degree and pattern of activation of our stress response.
Interpreting the situation
Basically we can interpret a situation in three ways:
‚ ‹“I can cope with this situation’ – perceived coping ability outweighs perceived demands
‚ ‹“I am not sure whether I can cope with this situation’ –
doubt about perceived ability to cope with perceived demands
‚ ‹“I cannot cope with this situation’ – perceived demands outweigh perceived coping ability.
If we feel that we can handle the situation, the stress response is activated within the normal zone of the stress balance and we do not feel stressed. If we are uncertain about coping or if we feel unable to cope with a demand, the stress response will be activated beyond its normal zone giving rise to varying degrees of distress and accompanying mental ‹“fight or flight’ or ‹“resistance’ reactions. When we feel confident that we can deal with a demand, the stress response goes into the eustress zone. In this case we often look forward to the challenge that a situation presents and as a result we experience eustress.
The differences in the extent of activation of the stress response within or beyond the normal zone of the stress balance depend on how you view or interpret situations around you and on how you feel about those situations. This means that stress is not in the environment but is a state within you. The way in which you transact with the environment determines how much and what type of stress you create for yourself.
Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them.