When an animal (man included) is confronted with a threat in the environment, a response is triggered to protect the animal from danger. When the threat or danger is real and may lead to serious consequences to the wellbeing of the animal it leads to stress. Stress is defined “as an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures,” it is both a psychological and biological condition (Piper, 2008, p. 2). In human beings, the response to the environmental threat depends on a number of factors which include personality, physical development, and general health. Stress normally occurs when the adaptive ability of an individual is exceeded by the environmental threat (stressor). “During acute stress, the mind and body respond with a fight or flight responses that involve the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of stress hormones” (Piper, 2008, p. 3). Psychological and biological stress models have been put forward to explain the events that take place when one is under stressful conditions.
Hans Selye (1907-82), was a Canadian scientist who discovered that people who were plagued by chronic diseases exhibited certain similar symptoms. Selye noticed that the symptoms were linked to stressful conditions; he set up experiments to test the hypothesis. He subjected rats to distinct physical stress factors which included; shock, heat, poison, and sound. “The rats showed enlarged glands, shrunken thymus glands and lymph nodes, and gastric ulcers. Selye then developed the three Stage model of the stress response. This model consists of alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.” The three stages outline the process he termed “the general adaptation syndrome (GAS)” (Fukunishi, 2004, p. 63).
The first stage (alarm) entails the production of adrenaline to stimulate the various response pathways after a threat (stressor) is detected. In the second stage (Resistance), the body activates mechanisms to try to adapt to the changes in the environment caused by the stressor. This is followed by the third stage referred to as exhaustion, this is the last stage of the GAS response model and is characterized by the “depletion of all the body’s resources” leading to the inability of the body to function normally. If stage the stage persists, a long-term impairment may result as the functional ability of glands, particularly the adrenal gland, the immune system is overstretched. “The outcome can manifest itself in obvious illnesses such as ulcers, depression, diabetes, trouble with the digestive system and even cardiovascular problems” (Fukunishi, 2004, p. 64). Other physical and mental problems will add to the list as the condition escalates further.
In stressful conditions, “the hypothalamus stimulates the activation of the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system and particular hormonal secretion from the pituitary gland” (Piper, 2008, p. 8). The hormones are meant to maintain homeostasis whereby they enhance the body’s adaptive ability to stressful conditions. The hormones released lead to; “increased heart and lung activity, flushing, stopping or slowing down of the gastric activity, constriction of blood vessels, liberation nutrients for muscular activity, dilation of blood vessels in the muscles, mydriasis, and inhibition of the lacrimal gland” (Amirkhan, 2002, p. 17). Cortical, a hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex and that functions to regulate carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism as well as maintain blood pressure during the stress response. Cortisal stimulates gluconeogenesis and inhibits the effects of insulin leading to increased blood sugar levels. Under stressful conditions, gluconeogenesis is vital for glucose generation for muscular activity.
According to Selye’s biological model, chronic illnesses result in stressful conditions. Stress leads to the overproduction of ACTH “which often lead to elevated levels of cortisal in the blood” (Fukunishi, 2004 p. 63). This will cause high levels of blood sugar and the high levels will, in turn, lead to conditions like obesity, diabetes in extreme cases the body’s immune system is compromised. Other conditions include gastric disorders, depression, and other mental and physical conditions.
“According to Lazarus’s psychological stress model, a psychological situation is stressful if only it is appraised as such” (Amirkhan, 2002, p. 8). Cognitive evaluation is important to ascertain if an environmental circumstance is potentially hostile, and may cause injury/damage or a challenge. The assessment (appraisal) occurs in two (primary and secondary stages), “the primary appraisal which is influenced by both person and environmental factors, and triggers the selection of coping processes” (Amirkhan, 2002, p. 8). “Problem-focused coping is directed at managing the problem, while emotion-focused coping processes are directed at managing the negative emotions. Secondary appraisal refers to the evaluation of the resources available to cope with the problem and may alter the primary appraisal” (Piper, 2008, p. 23). During the primary appraisal, Lazarus explains that there must be a certain amount of threat in the environment to trigger the stress response. The stress, especially if prolonged leads to disorders such as psychosomatic disorders, anxiety depression, coronary heart diseases, immune suppression, and other physical and mental problems.
Individuals are often confronted with problems on daily basis. These daily problems lead to stressful conditions as described above by the two models. The way a person responds to stressful conditions has a direct link to the development of illnesses. “Coping can be described as the behavioral and cognitive effort a person uses to manage the demands of stressful situations” (Chang & Strunk, 1999. P. 105). There are a number of ways through which coping is manifested. The first method is the feeling in control. This method of coping with stress in exhibited in both animals and human beings. This kind of coping mechanism more often occurs when one has little or no control over the stressor. For instance, if an individual is told that he/she is suffering from a genetic disorder that is causing other effects such as obesity, the person will have no control over the situation and thus it will tend to be more stressful.
On the other hand if one has been told that he/she can effectively control weight by exercise and diet control, he/she will be more relaxed as it will come as their will be a feeling that ‘I am in control’, this coping will be probably the best method of dealing with the situation (Piper, 2008). The second method of coping with stress can be referred to as the optimism and pessimism style (Chang & Strunk, 1999). The style is based on individual beliefs that make people believe that they can control stressful conditions in their life. Others believe that the world is overly unpredictable and uncontrollable and thus they make no effort to control stressful conditions in their life (Amirkhan, 2002). The third method is through “approach and avoidance coping” this way, the affected person focuses on the source of stress and the reactions associated.
When a person becomes extremely vulnerable to stressful conditions social support is more often indicated as a remedy. Social support can effectively protect individuals from the worst effects of stress (Piper, 2008). In a study conducted Fukunishi et al, the various methods of coping with stress were examined. This included “social support, dealing with illness, and mood states among people not yet diagnosed as having glucose tolerance abnormality” ( 2004, p. 64). The results indicated that inadequate utilization of social support was related to the onset of stressful conditions (Piper, 2008). “Social support can be defined as the subjective sensation in which the individual feels that he or she is cared for and loved”(Amirkhan, 2002, p. 13).
There are different methods through which social support can be determined. The first is the use of the social network questionnaire. The “social support questionnaire includes items that relate to marriage, children, a significant other or confidant, other relatives, friends and participation in social or community activities that may involve strangers” (Amirkhan, 2002, p. 13). The inventory of behaviours that can receive social support is used to determine the kind and extend of support that can be received from these sources concerning emotional, informational and financial benefits (Chang & Strunk, 1999). It also requires that the participant to identify the frequency of occurrence for all the listed items in the past period, often the preceding month. These results are often satisfactory in indicating the type and amount of social support that is available but fail to indicate their significance in relation to the associated stressful conditions. This critical information can be achieved through the utilization of a different method referred to as perceived social quiz (Amirkhan, 2002). This technique examines “the subject assessment of the degree to which the emotional support received has enhanced a person’s sense of satisfaction and well being” (Piper, 2008, p. 34). Some studies were contacted among the elderly to determine the role of religion in their social wellbeing. “Specifically, the attendance of religious functions, the number of close contacts who were readily available from the religious sources and the strength and comfort that was derived from the religious activities was determined”(Piper, 2008, p. 35).
The results indicated that majority of the elderly, who were deeply religious and most of who had lost most of the acquaintances used religion as compensation for lack of social support. Many reports confirm that social support reduces stressful conditions and provides health benefits to individuals (Fukunishi, 2004). It has been identified that social support is instrumental in preventing the adverse effects that are associated with stress. Effects such as immune responses and cardiovascular conditions can be greatly reduced through adequate social support provision (Amirkhan, 2002). A recent study revealed that middle aged men who go through stressful conditions associated with the daily hassles are likely to die in the next seven years (Piper, 2008). “Lack of social support has been found to increase death rates following heart attack and the delay recovery following cardiac surgery” (Chang & Strunk, 1999, p. 102). A certain study was also conducted to determine how the variety of social ties related to the possibility of an individual developing stress related illnesses. The results revealed that an individual with more diverse social ties was list likely to suffer from stress related conditions. A possible explanation for this is that a person may not be susceptible to the harmful effects of stress when he/she believes that the social network will help them cope (Amirkhan, 2002).
Amirkhan, H. (2002). Attributions as predictors of copin and distress. Personality and social psychology Bulletin , 24 (9): 10006-1018.
Chang, E., & Strunk, D. (1999). Dsyphoria: Relations to appraisals, coping, and adjustment. Journal of Counseling Psychology , 46(1):99-108.
Fukunishi, S. (2004). Stress, coping, and social support in glucose tolerance abnormality. Journal of Psychosomatic Research , 45(4):361-369.
Piper, L. (2008). Stressors, Social Support, and Stress Reactions: A Meta-Analysis. Texas: University of North Texas.