Stress – An Introduction to stress

Talib, P. (1999)

1.1 The Concept:

Stress that people complain about is a feeling of tension or pressure when they feel that the demands placed on them exceed the resources they have to meet them (Moore, 1995). It is an unpleasant emotional experience associated with elements of fear, dread, anxiety, irritation, annoyance, frustration, anger, sadness, grief and depression (Janis and Levinthal, 1968).

StressThe word ‘Stress’ is derived from the Latin sword `stringere’, which means to draw tight. The concept has been borrowed from natural sciences. During 18th and 19th century, stress denoted ‘force, pressure, load or strain’ exerted upon material . object that resists these forces and attempts to maintain its original state. Thus stress in engineering is known as ‘the ratio of the internal force brought into play when a substance is distorted to the area over which the force act'(Pestonjee, 1992, p.15). Viewed from this angle, ‘Stress’ is a force which acts on material, the consequences of which are termed ‘strain’. That is to say, stress is the cause and strain the subsequent effect (Haward, 1994, p.347). This particular usage of the concept, primarily in physics and engineering, has influenced how stress affects individuals. Thus, external forces (or loads) are visualised as exerting pressure upon an individual producing strain.

In common parlance, however, the term stress is used to connote a variety of meanings. For example, the tern; ‘stress’ and ‘strain’ are used interchangeably in a non-scientific manner. The confusion exists amongst psychologists as well as common man. The common man fails to distinguish three sources of str’ess. Stress may arise because of frustration, conflict or pressure (Coleman, 1973, p.19). Frustration occurs when the ability to achieve a desired goal is delayed or blocked. This may be caused due to physical handicaps or deprivations severely restricting our life activities and satisfactions. People experience stress when they can no longer have control over what happens in their lives. Resulting frustrations cause stress. Conflict occurs not from a single obstacle but when a choice must be made between two or more goals, means, priorities etc. Pressure involves demands that force us to speed up or intensify our efforts. This stems from our aspirations, standards and values. In addition, stress may arise because of a threat i.e. an anticipated harm from a potential source. These broad sources of stress-frustrations, conflict, pressure and a potential threat are vital for understanding total stress pattern that an individual faces. As the str’ess may emanate from either of these roots, personal experiences of stress differ. “Fhis explains the oft quoted remark that str’ess means different thing to different persons’.

There are conceptual differences also regarding stress. For McGrath’s (1970, pp.10-21), “Stress is a (perceived) substantial imbalance between demand and response capability, under conditions where failure to meet demand has important (perceived) consequences”. Hans Selye, the researcher and theorist who pioneered investigation of stress, defines it in broadest possible terms, as anything that places an adjustive demand on organism. It is the body’s “non-specific response to any demand placed upon it”. It is a highly energised state when an organism is faced with a situation that threatens or places unusual physical or psychological demands upon it. Extremes of this highly energised state are where there is overactivation or heavy demands in terms of time or responsibilities; and hypostress, in which the individual suffers from lack of activation characterised by lassitude and boredom. Pestonjee (1987) notes that it is natural and healthy to maintain an optimum level of stress. Only when the stress in left unchecked and unmanaged, it creates problems in performance and affects the health and well being of the individual. Thus, Pestonjee views stre’ss as stimulant also. So, a distinction has been made between productive or functional stress (stress for creative work, entrepreneurial activity, competition etc.) and non functional stress. This type of stress is called eustres-s as opposed to negative one i.e. distress.

1.2 Physiology of Stress

Its noted in the previous section is concerned with a stimulus and the organism’s response to it. Thus in the wake of a stressful stimulus various parts of our body are influenced including brain. Brain impulses are associated with our psychological processes. This influence occurs partly through the autonomic nervous system, partly through the endocrine glands with hypothalamus serving as a connecting link between the two (Levi, 1967 pp. 9-15).

1.21 The Autonomic Nervous System: Human body has important group of nerves that regulate our internal organs – the heart, intestine, glands etc. These nerves- the autonomic (independent) nervous system-has its center in the part of brain known as hypothalamus. The term autonomic indicates that human body does not exercise conscious control over it. Autonomic nerves are classified in two groups -sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic system accelerates the activity of heart and lungs but stimulate the digestive system. The body can adjust to the demands of life by increasing or decreasing the relative activation of one of these two systems.

1.22 The Endocrine Gland: The autonomic nervous system functions closely with endocrine glands in helping the body adjust to the demands of the environment. These glands produce hormones, which are  distributed through blood to all parts of the body. These hormones serve to regulate body’s various functions. Among hormone producing glands, pituitary (hypothesis) is an important one. Located at the base of brain, it is a center for the regulation of hormones. Pituitary gland influences the activity of other glands by discharging biologically potent substances. One of these substances is adreno-cortico-tropic hormone (ACTH) which acts upon the adrenal glands. Hormones of adrenal glands are instrumental in heightening the body’s state of readiness, preparing it to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ and stepping up its performance in
critical situations. In short, endocrine glands function in collaboration with autonomic nervous system. This collaboration is achieved through pituitary, the center of endocrine glands and hypothalamus.

1.3 Stress and General Adaptation Syndrome

Dr. Hans Selye contends that when a body is confronted with a threat it reacts with a defence plan. Selye calls this ‘plan of defence’ as General Adaptation Syndrome. Adaptation means adjustment while ‘syndrome’ indicates that the different forces are coordinated in their effort to adjust to the environmental changes, the adjective general’ emphasises the extensive nature of the defensive reactions. Three stages of the physiological response of the body when confronted with the stressors are: the alarm stage; resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage.

1.31 The Alarm Stage: When an organism encounters a threatening situation, the body alerts the defence system. The initial and swift reaction against the stressor is generated by the two parts of the autonomic nervous system — the sympathetic and para-sympathetic. Together they attempt to adjust the body functions to meet the stressors. Physiological reactions in this situation has been explained in the earlier section. In the alarm reaction the heart pounds, the pulse rate races, breathing quickens, the muscles tense and digestion is retarded or inhibited. The situation biologically prepares the organism to ‘fight or run away’. When the threat is removed or diminished the physiological function involved in this alarm reaction subside and the organism regains its internal equilibrium.

1.32 Stage of Resistance: if the stress continues the organism’s resources are mobilised to deal with the specific stressors. Although the stre’ssful stimulus may persist, the symptoms of the alarm stage disappear, the individual has apparently handled the stress successfully. Maximum adaptation occurs during this stage. The symptoms characteristic of the alarm reaction disappear. Resistance increases to levels above normal. However, if the stressor persists, or the defensive reaction proves ineffective, the organism deteriorates to the next stage.

1.33 Stage of Exhaustion: Under conditions of prolonged stress, the body reaches a point where it is no longer capable of maintaining resistance. In this stage, hormonal defenses break down and many reactions that appeared during alarm stage may reappear, often in intensified form. Further exposure to stress leads to exhaustion and the organism collapses.

Pestonjee (1992, p.20) points out some shortcomings of this theory. He explains that the context of Selye’s work is different. So far as infra-human subjects are concerned the alarm-resistance-exhaustion typology is a plausible explanation. But this may not fully explain the behaviour of human beings under stress. Major stre’ssors that afflict human beings are generally intrapsychic or social (interpersonal / interactional). This aspect has not been given due consideration in this approach. Moreover, the reactions of infra-human objects are more direct, perceptible and hence easily measurable. This is not true of human subjects as their responses are always mediated through several layers of cultural and social filters.

1.4 Nature and Consequences of Stress

Pestonjee (1992, pp.21-25) has identified three important sectors of life in which stress originates. These are — jobs and organisational sector; the social sector; and intrapsychic sector. Job and organisation sector includes the totality of the work environment (task, atmosphere, colleagues, compensation, policies, etc.). The social sector refers to the social / cultural aspect of one’s life. It may include religion, caste, language and other such factors. This is an important sector for a country like India where stre’ss may originate. The intrapsychic sector includes things that are intimate and personal to the individual like temperament, values, abilities and health. Stress may originate in any of these sectors or in an area that falls in between them. Pestonjee’s diagrammatic representation is useful in understanding the process of str’ess. These diagrammes show the stages that a person may undergo in experiencing various stressors. In the first stage, the stress emanating from three sectors of life is well within the stress tolerance limit of the person. In the second stage, increase in stress in one sector causes a dent in the person’s personality. Till this stage the str’ess is manageable. However, in the third
stage stressors or loads become unmanageable leading to negative consequences in the form of emergence of stress related diseases. If unchecked the person may slip into the last and most intense phase wherein complete disintegration of personality takes place (Figure 1.1-1.5).

Summing up the discussion a few things may be noted. Stress, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s experience of stress may have little in common with another person’s encounters Nv ith stress. Pestonjee’s diagrammatic representation shows that the stress is cumulative. Minor stresses may summate to produce a major stress. Prolonged emotional stress, the kind that is a part of the everyday work environment, can produce wear and tear on the body, with the effects that may prove irreversible if not treated in time. The stress tolerance level may vary from person to person but everyone is susceptible to the ravages of stress.

The first step in coping with stress is to understand the phenomenon of stress. Some stresses afflict general population. There are still others, especially in the category of job stressors, that are unique to specific occupational groups. This study attempts to understand role stre’sses that are prevalent among a uniquely high stress occupation — policing. Chapter 3 presents a discussion on the job and organisational stress. Out of the three sectors of life identified earlier job and organisational sector is an important one in which the stress may originate. Chapter 3 delves into the problem of role stress among police personnel — the focus of this study.

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