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26 Jan 08 – Selye…What is Stress?

26 January 2008

On this day in 1907, Hans Selye was born. Selye is best known for his work in the area of stress and the development of the concept of the “general adaptation syndrome.” The general adaptation syndrome is Selye’s term for a three-stage process that is carried out in response to prolonged states of stress. First, a state of alarm occurs; next, resistance (attempts to cope) occurs; and, finally, exhaustion occurs. According to Selye, stress is a nonspecific response of the body to any demand.

Cannon Bard Theory

Selye was heavily indebted to Walter Cannon. Cannon was a physiologist who developed both the idea of “fight or flight” (the belief that animals respond to threat either by attacking or running away) and “homeostasis” (the belief in a steady-state condition in all open systems). He also developed, with psychologist Philip Bard, the Cannon-Bard Theory of emotion. According to the Cannon-Bard Theory, people feel emotions first and then act upon them. This can be seen to be the basic feature of Selye’s general adaptation syndrome, wherein the feeling of emotion is characterized by the alarm state and all of its accompanying physiological responses and the action related to the emotion occurs in the resistance stage.

James-Lange Theory

An alternative to Cannon’s theory was the James-Lange Theory. More accurately, Cannon’s theory was an alternative to the James-Lange Theory. In fact, William James was Cannon’s professor. Though Cannon had a great deal of respect for James, he disagreed with this theory. The James-Lange theory is named after both William James and Carl Lange (a Danish physician and psychologist), who both independently developed this theory. According to the James-Lange theory, emotions are the result of changing physiological conditions within the body; they are an effect not a cause.

Two Factor Theory

Another alternative is the Schacter and Singer’s (both psychologists) Two Factor Theory. According to the Two Factor Theory, emotion has two factors (hence the name): physiological arousal and cognitions. Cognitions are used to interpret the meaning of the physiological reactions to outside events.

My alternative

I would like to propose the possibility that stress is simply associated with ignorance, properly construed. That is, being ignorant (not knowing) about various factors (whether they be natural or fantastical) leads one to develop a state of existential anxiety. In other words, faced with uncertainty of the context, the individual is left with a fear of not being: the fear of death. This visceral fear immediately potentiates into the various bodily reactions that are characterized in the general adaptation syndrome. The existential anxiety state is so primordial that it is almost “built in,” much like Kantian pro forma concepts. We all possess this tendency, which is why the general adaptation syndrome is pretty much a universal finding.  In fact, we could conceive as the person as fundamentally inseparable from and continually in interaction  with the context in which he or she exists. The response, then, is nonreflective (not requiring reflection and immediate) because of the inseparable character of the interaction.  The continuation of alarm and failed resistance, characteristic of “disorders” such as post-traumatic stress disorder, however, are the result of our interpretations of the phenomena of which we are ignorant when we are separated from the immediacy of the context in such a way that we continually avoid ever facing the reality of it (similar to the two-factor theory). This interpretation is built on our own “abstracted” (e.g., disconnected, separated) construction of the world/rlity (or worldview) and functions to direct our future actions (for the sake of avoiding the feared phenomena). Unlike the simplistic perspective of the flight or flight response that Cannon developed, humans also have the capacity for confrontation, especially with other people, which does not always mean fighting. Instead, we can dialogue and address problems as they arise, which mitigates the existential anxiety that is the basis of stress.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.


January 26, 2008 - Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , ,

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