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Old 02-08-2006, 03:28 AM
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Default Re: Research Question of the Week: What is Stress?

Ok, here are my thoughts on what stress is.

My bottom definition is rough, and I still need to make modifactions to it. But I am trying to tie all these concepts together in one definition. That may not be possible, though... It may be a good idea to break the elements down more.

Anyway, here it is. I hope it is Insightful, and I look forward to any feedback!

When you hear the term “stress” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For many of us, words such as disease, worry, and apprehension always seem to pop up.

While stress can have deleterious effects, evidence suggests that stress plays an essential role in developing a healthy body, that is able to cope with the various demands thrown our way on a daily bases.

The topic of stress has been studied for almost a century now. Yet, there is no general consensus on the definition of stress. Therefore, the purpose of this post was to define stress, and explain the bodily response(s) to this phenomenon.

Simmons (2006) suggests that definitions of stress typically contain one or more of the following four elements: stressors, adaptations (responses), perceptions (cognitive/emotional), and effects (acute and chronic).

Selye (1930) suggested that a stressor was anything that causes the stress response. Stressors may consist of various stimuli in the environment, such as the climate, environment, or social conditions. The organism then responds, or adapts to the stressor. Wilson (2006) suggests than an adaptation can be defined as an acute or chronic modification of an organism or parts of an organism that make it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.

Perceptions can be defined as stimuli that an organism decides to take into its mind, based on importance (Simmons, 2006). Perceptions can determine what stimuli in the environment act as stressors, based on the organism’s appraisal of the stimuli. And finally, the results of the stress response can manifest themselves acutely or chronically, and be beneficial or deleterious

To tie these altogether with an example, suppose a male athlete is squatting 400 pounds (the stressor), the heaviest he has ever lifted. As the athlete prepares to perform the lift, he begins to feel apprehension, because he has never lifted this much before, and as an athlete, improving his lifts are clearly important to him (this would be the perception; notice how it is based on task importance). In response to his apprehension, his heart rate and respiration begins to rise (acute adaptations, in response to a perceived threat). The athlete then performs the lift successfully, for 4 reps. During the subsequent training session, he finds that he can perform 8 reps with the same weight (a chronic beneficial adaptation). This example typifies the stress response.

Keeping these 4 elements of stress in mind, this paper will begin its discussion on the definitions of stress with the father of stress, Hans Selye.

During his days as a Hungarian scientist, Selye observed that his patients with diseases had many similar symptoms, regardless of the infection. These include a loss of appetite, inflamed tonsils, and pain. In this context, Selye suggested that sickness could be studied in general, rather than specific to the disease itself (McEwen, 2002).

To test his hypothesis, he examined the effects of various stressors such as toxins and sudden changes in temperature on rats. He observed that every stressor caused a similar response, suggesting that the body had a general mechanism to cope with stressors. This lead him to define stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it to adapt, whether that demand produces pleasure or pain. Based on the general nature of stress, he developed the infamous General Adaptation Theory. This theory suggests that stress is composed of three phases: alarm reaction, stage of resistance, and stage of exhaustion. During alarm reaction, the introduction of a stressor leads to a decrease in performance. Following this is the stage of resistance, in which the organism’s defense mechanisms fight to gain resistance. This is known as adaptation and is characterized by elevated levels of homeostasis. Lastly, if the stimulus is continuous then the individual would plateau or experience maladaptation. The maladaptation according to Seyle reflected similar symptoms to the Alarm reaction stage, and was the result of a depletion of the organisms defense mechanisms caused by chronic stress (Wilson, 2006).

Seyle suggested that stress could be further broken down into two elements—distress and eustress. Distress was the damaging effects caused by stress, and could result in a decline in performance for athletes, or promote pathogenesis (diseases). Eustress was the advantageous effects of stress, and promoted growth and development.

Another pioneer in the study of stress was Walter Cannon (1930’s). Cannon discussed the body’s tendency to keep itself within narrow tolerance limits necessary to sustain life (homeostasis). In the presence of a stressor that would cause an imbalance in homeostasis, Cannon suggested that the body responds in a stereotypical pattern of psycho physiological reactions to prepare to meet a survival threat (the stress response). He further posited that this response involved the famous fight or flight response, which initiated various adaptations such as shutting down digestion, tensing muscles, and piloerrection (hair stands up), all of which would activate the system so that it could handle the perceived or experienced stressor.

McGrath (1970) suggested that stress is the perceived imbalance between demands and response capabilities when failure to meet the demands is deemed important. This definition focused on the psychological state which triggered the stress response.

Building on the work of McGrath, Martin (as reported by Simmons, 2006) suggested that stress could be defined as uncertainty * importance.

More recently, Inouye (2005) suggested that stress is anything that causes the body to adapt.

All of these definitions of stress are helpful in understanding the stress response; yet, the current author does not believe any of them by themselves adequately defines stress. Therefore, the current author suggests that an integration of these definitions is needed to properly define stress.

In this context, Gabriel Wilson (2006) suggests that stress can be defined as the perceived or experienced imbalance between demands and response capabilities when failure to meet the demands is deemed important, or results in a disturbance in homeostasis. Typically, it must be inferred from acute or chronic adaptations or maladaptations.

This definition clarifies on several points. It discusses the impact of a stressor (or demand); both physiological (homeostasis and experience) and psychological (perception) responses to stress; acute and chronic adaptations of the stress response; and the positive or negative effects of stress. It also suggests that stress is a hypothetical construct that cannot be directly observed, but rather must be inferred based on acute or chronic adaptations or maladaptations.
Gabriel "Venom" Wilson, Ph.D. Nutritional Sciences
B.S. (Hons) & M.S. in Kinesiology, CSCS
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