Stress

From THE HOMOEOPATHIC PRIMER by Rajgopal Nidamboor, 1994

All of us encounter pressures and stresses in some areas of life. While some people allow these pressures to created serious maladjustment, others cope with them effectively. By definition, a stressor is an environmental stimulus that acts on an organism in ways injurious in physical and psychological sense. They usually produce anxiety, tension and most importantly, physiological arousal. A stressor changes the way an organism responds, by inducing a response to stress.

Stress is a non-specific response by an organism to demands made on it.

Basically a product of an affluent society, stress is doubtless the buzzword of our times. The more successful a person, the more he gets alienated from his family, friends, and to quite an extent from himself. Stress and frustration become an inseparable entity, there and then.

Frustration is an infinite process as far as human adjustment to it is concerned. Some frustrations like business competition, social taboos and tensions are reactions which cannot be attacked directly. Daily life too has its share of frustrations : marital problems, money problems,  workplace problems and so on. But then the human mechanism is so marvelously fabricated that these stresses are overcome sometimes, sometimes yielded to, or just accepted all through life.

For the sake of convenience, frustration may be classified into three main constituents:

  1. Environmental: Environmental type is usually experienced in the physical plane of life : from major catastrophes like floods, drought and communal violence to minor ‘tragedies’ like stray dogs bracing themselves up and keeping one awake at night, the rain playing the spoilsport in an exciting cricket match, and working under an unpleasant boss.
  2. Personal: While personal frustrations are due to feelings of inferiority, the conflict form may be illustrated by the Jekyll-and-Hyde type of behavior, where one will wants to do something, and the other forbids it. The latter may be seen when a person has both the positive and negative aspects of a goal set by himself.
  3. Conflict: To stay calm and cool all the time happens outside the realms of reality. It cannot happen in life. There is not a single healthy person who doesn’t have a series of minor conflicts every now and then. The minute one bottles up any feelings, one is putting some stress on the system. Think of yourself as a pressure valve. And pressure is the conflict that is in your emotions, all the time.

One of the common reactions to stress is aggression. One cannot tell the boss to jump off a cliff. The keeping quite leads to frustration – and the bottled up feelings are brought forth on the first scapegoat available: ashtray, stray cat, or the wife. On the other hand, there are times when a situation demands a less aggressive stance which leads to one bearing agrudge. One has to bear with it often. Because stress can even work for you. It is the psychological trigger which makes us run faster to a proposed goal.

 

Coping with stress

People faced with constant stress tend to become either defence- or task-oriented. Frued described various mechanism by which people distort reality in order to defend themselves against pressures in the environment. However, most psychologists, more so behavioural specialists, recommend task-oriented coping strategies, which can be summed up in four steps:

  1. Identifying the source of stress;
  2. Choosing an appropriate course of action for stress reduction;
  3. Implementing the plan; and
  4. Evaluating its success.

Opinion is divided, as some researchers claim that defence-oriented methods could be even more useful than task-oriented ideas.

Withdrawal is one defence-oriented method of avoiding stress by way of

  1. Repression, the process of excluding a thought of pain, shame or guilt;
  2. Fantasy, a retreat into a make-believe world;
  3. Beatnik reactions, where oddity rules supreme and the person becomes aloof; and
  4. Regression, where the frustrated person returns, without cognizance, to his earlier period of life and comfort.

Sublimation and substitution are other forms that regulate stress. While the former is an indirect expression of the sexual urge, the latter is the conscious quality of desire which may take the shape of indecent behaviour. There are several other defence processes: Reaction formation, where there is a replacement of puritanical behavior; Projection, where the person may put the blame for his failure on someone else; Compensation, where a charming etiquette is developed to erase some deplorable behaviour of the past, and intellectualization, which encompasses three basic mechanisms, viz., 1. Rationalization, where logic takes the highspot; 2. Isolation, where persons almost “seal off” from life; and 3. Undoing, which involves ritualistic “cleansing” of hands: of a superstitious belief that anything touched would bring bad luck.

It is a different proposition to measure and study stress, because the phenomenon happens to be a non-specific reaction, response to be precise. With the conceptualization of individual responses to stress in terms of a general adaptation syndrome by Hans Selye, who investigated the behavioural and physical changes in stressful situations, people’s response to a stressor was divided into three stages: an initial period of alarm, followed by a longer phase of resistance, and a final stage of exhaustion.

Alarm produces escalated physiological arousal: of excitement, anxiety, or fear. While metabolism is speeded up dramatically, along with shunting of the blood to the brain, individuals may experience symptoms such as anorexia, insomnia, headaches, ulcers, or hormonal changes.

Since individuals cannot stay highly aroused for too long, the alarm response gives way to resistance, where the behavioural responses become more restrained. In the resistance phase, individuals may exhibit symptoms like irritability, impatience and anger, besides continued fatigue. The stage can persist for a few hours, days or even months and years together.

The final stage of exhaustion affects both emotional and physical health. If the individual’s stress status of an extreme nature is not relieved, the results could be anything from maladjustment, withdrawal to in extreme cases even death.

 

Physiological, behavioural and cognitive responses to stress are as follows (Beach, Burns & Sheffield).

Type of response Effect
Physiological Escalation in heart rate and blood pressure; muscular tension; slowdown of digestive system; and release of adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Behavioural Fall in performance level; shunning of stressful situations; passivity and inertia
Cognitive Distortions in thinking; decreased  intellectual functioning; ruminative, unproductive, anxiety-generating patterns of thought. Indecisiveness.

 

So far as the innumerable stress-related diseases and conditions are concerned, it would only be proper to place them in the right perspective on the basis of the systems affected and the resulting conditions. (Beach, Burns & Sheffield)

System affected Resultant condition
Cardiovascular Coronary artery disease, hypertension, strokes, rhythm disturbances of the heart.
Muscular Tension headaches and muscle contraction backaches.
Locomotor Rheumatoid arthritis and related inflammatory diseases of the connective tissue.
Respiratory Allergic disorders: asthma and hayfever.
Gastro-intestinal Ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, nausea / vomiting, and ulcerative colitis,
Genito-urinary Diuresis, impotency, frigidity.
Skin Eczema, neurodermatitis, acne.
Others Fatigue and lethargy.

 

Anxiety is as old as civilization. Its evolutionary origins are not too difficult to understand, because the ability to flee is one of the most primitive traits of animal behavior vis-à-vis the need for survival. A core concept in many concepts of maladjustment, Freud viewed anxiety as the result of constant conflict among id, ego and superego. His defence mechanisms also represent strategies for defending against anxiety. When people fail to use the defence mechanisms, anxiety could pervade both the person’s daily activities and even his dreams.

A generalized feeling of fear and apprehension that may or may not be related to a particular event or object and often accompanied by increased psychological arousal, anxiety refers to a wide range of symptoms: fear, apprehension, inattention, palpitation, respiratory distress, sweating, dizziness and fear of death. The propensity for anxiety, which is usually acquired, may be due to some cause, shock, for instance, in early childhood.

Yet another example is the ‘stick’ given by parents or teachers to curb socially deprecated methods of fulfilling desires such as the sexual urge, or the need for achievement of status. A trouble child will eventually show fear, generalized anxiety and avoidance behaviour owing to past experience. It should, however, be borne in mind that these responses to anxiety often evoke sympathy and affection from other people, and that social attention rewars the person for playing the anxious role.

There are basically three types of anxiety disorders, viz., generalized anxiety disorder, simple phobic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Let us limit our consideration to Generalised Anxiety Disorder. This form of anxiety is characterized by persistent anxious state for at least one month, sometimes accompanied by problems in motor tension, autonomous hyperactivity, apprehension, and concentration. If the problem has no obvious source, it is called free-floating anxiety, a state of chronic anxiety. Free-floating anxiety is, by definition, persistent anxiety not clearly related to any specific object or situation, accompanied by a sense of impending doom.

Many people experience occasional stress. Sometimes they have sleeplessness, or feel that life has no meaning at all. When this effect, or emotional response, becomes so depressed or sad, a change occurs in the individual’s behavior, in his outlook and overt behavior. The person is then said to be suffering from depression. Some behaviours are classified, in the context, as symptoms of Major Depression. A disorder characterized by loss of interest in almost all usual activities, major depression is evidenced by a sad, hopeless, or discouraged mood. Its other symptoms include insomnia, loss of appetite, loss of energy, feelings of unworthiness and guilt.

Labelled as the common cold of psychiatric disturbances, depression may be biologically or genetically based in its origin, as evidence suggests. It may also be caused on account of some mental and/or physical factor, as also retardation of motor/psychical activity, leading to social withdrawal, digestive disturbances and gloom. Patients of true depressions are potential suicide risks.

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