WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Stressing the point

Martin asks what other ways are there to measure stress in a lab setting. Kathy wants more information about Selye’s theory.


Okay, then. Selye first. He does provide the starting point to understanding the physiology of stress.


Selye’s general adaptation syndrome proposes that stress proceeds according to a timeline divided into three consecutive stages. Alarm reaction occurs upon recognition of the existence of a threat. It is just a split second when the body gathers its reserves in preparation for the flood of hormones that would allow it to meet the potential threat. What follows immediately is the stage of resistance when physiological changes stabilize at a higher than normal level as coping efforts get underway. Upon appraisal that the threat has been withdrawn, parasympathetic backlash brings the body to the stage of exhaustion and, depending on how much time the body had maintained resistance, the body’s resources may be depleted, leading to decreased arousal and sometimes collapse.


Remember that time you got the questionnaire to a tough exam that you needed to pass? Remember how your heart almost stopped when you saw you did not know the answers? Then your heart started to hammer away. You tried to answer but suddenly your fingers had turned cold and clumsy. The harder you tried to recall, the more you couldn’t remember. You were frustrated, your thoughts went round and round in circles. You hunched your shoulders. You hyperventilated.


And remember what you did after that exam? You crashed, right?


The body could not indefinitely stay at a higher than normal level of functioning. Extended periods of physical arousal could lead to diseases. Congruent to this, the weak organ theory suggests that there is an organ in the body that is likely to be more reactive to stressful conditions. For some, it is the heart. For others, it is the stomach. Whatever it is, frequent stress reaction could cause this organ to weaken, thereby increasing the risk of and vulnerability to heart attack or ulcers for those whose autonomic response patterns demonstrate a reactivity in this manner.


Gee, Kathy, what that means is that if you have test anxiety, you are endangering your health every time you have to take an exam.


On to Martin’s question. I promise not to enlighten my readers on how this information could be of use to kidnappers.


In the psych labs, we usually use the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) to measure the amount of change-related stress that people experience. However, many of the events listed on the SRRS and similar scales are highly ambiguous, leading people to be inconsistent as to which events they report experiencing. As a result, the correlation between SRRS scores and health outcomes may be inflated because neuroeroticism, the tendency to make one’s self look good, may influence the individual’s responses both to stress scales and to his self-report of health problems.


The Life Experiences Survey (LES) was introduced to refine the SRRS. The LES recognizes that stress is only one of the many variables that affect one’s susceptibility to various maladies. However, while the LES seeks to distinguish distress and eustress, scores on the LES or on any measure of stress, for that matter, is best to be interpreted with caution, as the respondent’s subjectivity could not be completely ruled out.


Generally, stress is measured in terms of vital signs, the most common being heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, pupillary dilation, body temperature, muscular rigidity, and galvanic skin response, among others. The Federal Law Enforcement Center research data suggest systolic blood pressure to be a much better indicator of stress than Siddle’s hormone induced heart rate increases.


Cooper, a pioneer in the field of warrior science, evolved a color code system that classifies a warrior’s psychological state. Condition White is the lowest level of readiness, characterized by lack of focus. This zombie-like state is not an ideal psychological state with which to meet the world.


Moving up to Condition Yellow brings one to a level of basic alertness. This is where you would want to be. There is just enough tension and all your senses are working just right. Some call this psychological place Mellow Yellow. A US Air Force trainer sticks yellow dots on his trainees’ cockpits to remind them to stay alert but not over aroused. Pilots could not risk the loss of fine motor skills that go with higher levels of arousal.


Conditions Red, Gray, and Black are succeeding stages where arousal increasingly affects cognitive and physiological functioning. Higher arousal in Condition Red could cause the individual to feel jumpy and excitable and he may overreact to stimuli or fail at accurately calibrating his movements.


The optimal level of arousal has been demonstrated to depend in part on the complexity of the task. For most, it is indicated to be Condition Yellow. However, for some, they could push it up to Condition Red or Gray. In follow up studies, it was observed that indeed some individuals could actually up their performance even when they were in Condition Red or Gray, but these individuals were likely to be experts who have trained muscle memory into performing on autopilot.


Race car drivers, for example, perform very well on a limited repertoire of well-rehearsed set of skills – turn, accelerate, brake. With reaction time slowing down, however, surprises and choices could prove to be their undoing. When operating in Red or Gray, it is therefore important to keep it short and simple.


A unique phenomenon that characterizes Condition Gray is bilateral symmetry. This means that what you do with your right hand, you do with your left. Four things happen when one is startled: the eyes blink, the head and upper torso move forward, the arms bend at the elbow, and the hands begin to tighten into fists. Bilateral symmetry on the convulsive clutch response has significant implications on actions under stress. For example, if one is holding a gun in one hand, it could accidentally go off while the other hand is reaching to convulsively clutch a suspect’s shirt.


In Condition Black, Grossman proposes that cognitive processing deteriorates to an alarming degree. He writes, “…you can run and you can fight like a big, hairless, clawless bear, but that is about all you are capable of doing. Your forebrain shuts down and the midbrain, the ‘puppy’ inside, the part that is the same as your dog’s brain, reaches up and hijacks the forebrain.” What he means is that thinking stops.


When terror or rage runs away with you, reality testing, memory, and ethical judgment are likely to be impaired. We don’t argue with anybody who is in Condition Black. A person in panic or on a rampage is not even likely to know what he is doing even as his body reacts. Violently.


(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)