Stress Is - The Underlying Mechanisms...
There are two types of instinctive stress
response that are important to how we understand
stress and stress management: the short-term
response and the long-term “General
Adaptation Syndrome”. The first
is a basic survival instinct, while the
second is a long-term effect of exposure
A third mechanism comes from the
way that we think and interpret the
situations in which we find ourselves.
Actually, these three mechanisms can be
part of the same stress response –
we will initially look at them separately,
and then show how they can fit together.
Some of the early work on stress (conducted
by Walter Cannon in
1932) established the existence of the well-known
fight-or-flight response. His work showed
that when an animal experiences a shock
or perceives a threat, it quickly releases
hormones that help it to survive.
These hormones help us to run faster and
fight harder. They increase heart rate and
blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and
blood sugar to power important muscles.
They increase sweating in an effort to cool
these muscles, and help them stay efficient.
They divert blood away from the skin to
the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss
if we are damaged. And as well as this,
these hormones focus our attention on the
threat, to the exclusion of everything else.
All of this significantly improves our ability
to survive life-threatening events.
Power, but little control...
mobilization of the body for survival also
has negative consequences. In this state,
we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable.
This reduces our ability to work effectively
with other people.
With trembling and a pounding heart, we
can find it difficult to execute precise,
controlled skills. And the intensity of
our focus on survival interferes with our
ability to make fine judgments based on
drawing information from many sources. We
find ourselves more accident-prone and less
able to make good decisions.
It is easy to think that this fight-or-flight,
or adrenaline, response is only triggered
by obviously life-threatening danger. On
the contrary, recent research shows that
we experience the fight-or-flight response
when simply encountering something unexpected.
The situation does not have to be dramatic:
People experience this response when frustrated
or interrupted, or when they experience
a situation that is new or in some way challenging.
This hormonal, fight-or-flight response
is a normal part of everyday life and a
part of everyday stress, although often
with an intensity that is so low that we
do not notice it.
There are very few situations in modern
working life where this response is useful.
Most situations benefit from a calm, rational,
controlled and socially sensitive approach.
Techniques section explains a range
of good techniques for keeping this fight-or-flight
response under control.
General Adaptation Syndrome and Burnout
Hans Selye took a different approach from
Starting with the observation that different
diseases and injuries to the body seemed
to cause the same symptoms in patients,
he identified a general response (the “General
Adaptation Syndrome”) with which the
body reacts to a major stimulus. While the
Fight-or-Flight response works in the very
short term, the General Adaptation Syndrome
operates in response to longer-term exposure
to causes of stress.
Selye identified that when pushed to extremes,
animals reacted in three stages:
- First, in the Alarm Phase, they reacted
to the stressor.
- Next, in the Resistance Phase, the
resistance to the stressor increased as
the animal adapted to, and coped with,
it. This phase lasted for as long as the
animal could support this heightened resistance.
- Finally, once resistance was exhausted,
the animal entered the Exhaustion Phase,
and resistance declined substantially.
Selye established this with many hundreds
of experiments performed on laboratory rats.
However, he also quoted research during
World War II with bomber pilots. Once they
had completed a few missions over enemy
territory, these pilots usually settled
down and performed well. After many missions,
however, pilot fatigue would set in as they
began to show “neurotic manifestations”.
In the business environment, this exhaustion
is seen in “burnout”.
The classic example comes from the Wall
Street trading floor: by most people’s
standards, life on a trading floor is stressful.
Traders learn to adapt to the daily stressors
of making big financial decisions, and of
winning and losing large sums of money.
In many cases, however, these stresses increase
and fatigue starts to set in.
At the same time, as traders become successful
and earn more and more money, their financial
motivation to succeed can diminish. Ultimately,
many traders experience burnout. We look
at this in more detail in our section on
and the way we think
Particularly in normal working life, much
of our stress is subtle and occurs without
obvious threat to survival. Most comes from
things like work overload, conflicting priorities,
inconsistent values, over-challenging deadlines,
conflict with co-workers, unpleasant environments
and so on. Not only do these reduce our
performance as we divert mental effort into
handling them, they can also cause a great
deal of unhappiness.
We have already
mentioned that the most common currently
accepted definition of stress is something
that is experienced when a person perceives
that “demands exceed the personal
and social resources the individual is able
Stress, a matter of judgment
In becoming stressed, people must therefore
make two main judgments: firstly they must
feel threatened by the situation, and secondly
they must doubt that their capabilities
and resources are sufficient to meet the
How stressed someone feels depends on how
much damage they think the situation can
do them, and how closely their resources
meet the demands of the situation. This
sense of threat is rarely physical. It may,
for example, involve perceived threats to
our social standing, to other people’s
opinions of us, to our career prospects
or to our own deeply held values.
Just as with real threats to our survival,
these perceived threats trigger the hormonal
fight-or-flight response, with all of its
Building on this, this site offers a variety
of approaches to managing stress. The navigation
bar in the left hand column offers a range
of practical methods for managing these
stresses by tackling them at source. It
also offers some powerful tools for changing
your interpretation of stressful situations,
thereby reducing the perception of threat.
Pulling these mechanisms
together – the integrated stress response…
So far, we have presented the Fight-or-Flight
response, the General
Adaptation Syndrome, and our mental
responses to stress as separate mechanisms.
In fact, they can fit together into one
The key to this is that Hans Selye’s
‘Alarm Phase’ is the same thing
as Walter Cannon’s Fight-or-Flight
We can therefore see that mental stress
triggers the fight-or-flight response, and
that if this stress is sustained for a long
time, the end result might be exhaustion
article explains how stress affects