Kumari Sushma Nagarkar
In 1926, a 19 year old medical student, Hans Selye, was prompted to ask himself a seemingly simple question after an instructor had described the different symptoms of five diseases in five patients. Selye wanted to know what it meant first to be sick – not what distinguished one disease from another but what united them together, the symptoms that applied to all diseases and were the general nonspecific effects of illness. In exploring the meaning of ‘being sick’ Selye established stress as the principal influence on all human behavior, whether in illness or in health. He wrote the first book devoted to stress in 1950. Most of his experimental work was done on rats. From his studies, he worked out a detailed sequence of behavior that he proposed as the general applicable aftermath of stress and called it the General adaptation syndrome.
To a scientist stress is any action or situation that places special physical or psychological demand on a person – anything that can unbalance his individual equilibrium. Attempts to define stress invariably fail. A search of medical literature shows that there are over 300 different definitions of anxiety and none of these can be considered wholly satisfactory. While physiological response to demands of stress are surprisingly uniform, the forms of stress are innumerable. A divorce is stressful, but so is a marriage. Losing a job is stressful, so is a promotion.
Perhaps the one incontestable statement that can be about stress is that it affects everyone, from businessmen to professors to mothers and their children, factory workers, sweepers and writers. A keyed up feeling is a part of the fabric of life.
Man’s highly developed brain, his accumulated knowledge and his ability to communicate and perceive by symbols led him to find pleasant and unpleasant connections in an incredible number of situation and events. Always the objective nature of an event or a situation is not nearly as important as its meaning to a particular individual at a particular moment. Even the stress of pain can have meaning that depends more on the significance of the pain than its severity. The human brain has such an influence on the nature of stress partly because it endows men with two broad capacities that are almost, if not entirely lacking in other animals. One is the ability to control events in the environment i.e. man will not suffer severe stress if he feels cold or hungry. The second is the ability to look ahead. Man is always trying to prepare for new situations.
Anticipation has a profound influence on stress and the kind of influence depends not only on the kind of stress but also on the amount and kind of Psychologists classify anticipation may amplify stress even more. Many drivers experience this feeling. Child runs on to the road. Driver jams the brake and swerves apparently in full control. Only later when the danger is gone, the signs of stress appear. They may take the form of trembling, faintness, perspiration or even nausea. There can be shakiness, fantasies, nightmares of what might have happened.
Most people adjust this behavior to the everyday strains of life, dealing as best as they can with rising prices, school admissions, crowded trains and buses, inefficient bureaucracy and so on. In psychologist’s terms, they say within their adaptive range. Blood pressure may rise when the quarterly bank statement arrives, but the result is little more than momentary. Yet stresses can often pile up and push the behavior beyond adaptive range. Oddly there is also a bottom limit to this range and too little stress can also have profound effects. At the high end of the scale, the first reaction is usually anxiety, a varying mixture of alertness, anticipation, curiosity and fear that sets off for new information and solutions. Often the result is productive. But as the anxiety mounts the needle approaches the danger zone and less welcome symptoms appear. A cautious person becomes more cautious, a fleer flees actually or symbolically. Psychologists classify such reactions as avoidance as avoidance, denial or dissonance-reduction. All are essentially ostrich-like, often dangerous attempts to pretend that a problem does not exist. There are also a host of stress induced physical illnesses such as headaches, backaches, ulcers and heart diseases, even as early as the fourth century B. C. the Greek philosopher Plato recognized this act …. ‘All diseases of the body proceed from the mind or soul’. Even Selye found from his work with rats that when the dead rat was dissected, it invariably had enlarged adrenal gland, shrunken lymphatic node and thymus(organ that play a vital role in immunity and disease), and a stomach covered with bleeding ulcers. All these reactions were caused by the rat’s inability to cope and adapt to increasing stress.
In the course of daily living, the mind constantly regulates and edits the amount of stimulation it receives in order to maintain a steady, satisfying level of stress. There is very persuasive evidence, in fact, that many of those who reach the top do so largely because they have learned to manage stress and use it to advantage to themselves and others.
In modern day urban life, noise and crowding are but the most easily categorized stresses. Modern life offers many burdens ancient men did not dream of; the anonymity of small flats, the callousness of big cities, the
overwhelming scale of institutions, economies and nations that hover at the limits of human control, the restlessness, rootless quality of societies, constantly changing their ideas, jobs or homes, the strain of understanding and getting along with strangers. To some philosophers and scientists, modern man seems to be living in a peripheral state of intense anxiety, with overload approaching the danger zone and charge accelerating towards an ultimate destructive spasm. In 1970, Alvin Tofler coined the term future shock to describe the shattering stress and disorientation that is induced in individuals by subjecting them to too much in change in too short a time. There are those who feel that in reality in many ways life has become less stressful than it was before. There is no need for us to breakdown under its weight and suffer insomnia, headaches, hypertension, ulcers, fatigue and depression. What seems to have happened is this: Our psychological coping techniques which have taken generations to evolve seem to be too inadequate to deal with the state of constant flux that we are subjected to today. Life has changed more rapidly than our present power of adaptation. Professor Lawrence Peter pointed out in ‘the Peter Principle’ that the widespread occurrence of psychosomatic ailments such as peptic ulcers, colitis, blood pressure, alcoholism, migraine, heart diseases etc. amongst managers is merely sad indications that many of them have been promoted to a level at which they are incapable of coping with the stresses placed on them. In positions of responsibility, our health and efficiency depend upon how well we cope with our environment.
(Courtesy Indian Express).
Published in the April 2010 edition of Yoga & Total Health Magazine.
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