Adult Learning and Development
How shifting your perspective on stress can promote growth, resilience, and wellness
Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Dynamic interactive adaptability in a killer disease
In fewer than 50 years, stress went from Selye’s “salt of life” (1956) to global killer disease (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009), and it still lacks a definition. The different perspectives on stress fall into four basic categories: response-based, stimulus-based, cognitive-transactional, and dynamical systems. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Viewing stress through only one of the perspectives provides an incomplete picture that limits adaptability; but the dynamical systems perspective seems to provide a more complete assessment that integrates elements of the other perspectives.
Contemporary stress dialogs tend to focus on the stimulus-response framework, emphasizing the symptoms and damage that can result from extended interaction with distress. Contemporary dialogs tend to ignore the positive aspects of stress, emphasizing the illness that can result when distress is improperly managed. Typical coping strategies recommended by the contemporary framework are to reduce or eliminate stressors before they cause harm, and to consume products, programs, or medications that can treat symptoms of distress.
An important coping strategy from the contemporary framework that contributes to the wellbeing of organisms is to balance the stimulus-response mechanism with the rest-and-relax mechanism. However, humans are more complex than most organisms, and are capable of interacting with and influencing their environment to actively foster growth and wellbeing, even when dealing with traumatic events. Eliminate-or-die treatments proposed by contemporary stress dialogs may address symptoms, but they can exacerbate symptoms by depicting an unrealistic assessment of reality and offering coping strategies that fail to foster individual adaptability and growth in a dynamic environment. The contemporary framework tends to offer dysfunctional strategies that might enrich those who promote them, but do not provide people with the proper perspective and resilience to have a functional relationship with stress.
The cognitive-transactional and systems frameworks do not get the same media play as stimulus-response; but, they seem to provide a more realistic assessment of reality, which coincides with the wisdom of ancient philosophy and religion. Under the cognitive-transactional framework, stress becomes an adaptive response to demands on the system that is mediated by individual characteristics and psychological processes. Cognitive-transactional definitions see stress as a dynamic process initiated and maintained by how the individual interprets the environment and the demands on available resources. Stress is not the situation, it is the result of how people interpret and react to the situation. Although the biological mechanisms of stress are universal among humans, each individual interprets experience and responds to perceived stressors. Mediating characteristics include genetics, culture, personality, cognitive capacity, experience, values, and religion. Environmental demands also tend to influence how one’s individual characteristics mediate individual responses.
The systems framework recognizes stress as not only a basic mechanism for survival, but also as a vital catalyst for development, growth, and evolution of the system. Through the systems framework, stress is life; the absence of stress is death. Within the systems framework, chaos theory provides understanding of the unpredictability of events in a dynamic environment, emphasizing the importance of developing functional strategies that not only foster coping but that can also help people to more effectively adapt to and influence the interacting factors in a dynamic environment.
Functional stress strategy for humans in a dynamic environment is neither a simple matter of reducing stressors in the environment, nor is it just about finding balance between fight-and-flight and rest-and-relax modes. It is about integrating perspectives and behaviors that foster adaptability and growth in dynamic social, economic, and environmental systems. Recognizing the dynamic interaction of environment, events, and context can help people to implement adaptability strategies that use stress as a functional force to foster development and wellness.
Reviewing coping and adaptability philosophies and strategies from ancient to contemporary times has illuminated numerous perspectives, strategies, and programs; which begs the question: which is right? To which the answer is “it depends.” Just as each individual develops his or her own coping strategies by interpreting and reacting to experience in different ways, adaptability strategies may be different for each individual. Nevertheless, considering the various perspectives covered in this paper, a general framework for understanding the relationship between human and stress begins to emerge. The resulting dynamic interactive adaptability model of stress neither attempts to define nor measure stress, but attempts to provide a philosophy or perspective for understanding dynamically interacting factors in environment and organism influence change in both individual and environment.
In short, the consequences of stress are the result of
- the dynamic interaction of environmental factors,
- length and association of events, and
- the individual perception and reaction to those events as moderated by the characteristics and experience of the individual [IMAGE].
The environment includes dynamically interacting factors like
- context, and
Severity of events
Events can be isolated; however, individuals typically are surrounded by multiple dynamically interacting events that can be perceived as threats or opportunities.
The severity of events can be
- strong, or
Association of events
Association of events can be primary, secondary, or tertiary.
- Primary events are those that the individual personally experiences;
- secondary events are those that the individual vicariously experiences through relations, which can be immediate, related, or distant;
- tertiary events are those that the individual experiences vicariously through media.
The duration of events can be
- long, or
Perception of events
The perception of events is influenced by the individual's physiological, psychological, and spiritual state
Perceptions are moderated by individual factors such as
- beliefs, and
Perception determines if the individual considers events as
- an annoyance,
- a challenge,
- an opportunity,
- or a threat.
Perception also determines if the individual applies copint strategies that are
- functional, or
Reaction to events
The reaction or pre-action influences the result: if the individual state remains neutral, adapts, or declines.
- Decline decreases the individual's ability to cope and adapt, and threatens damage to the individual's psychological, physiological, and spiritual wellbeing.
- Neutrality means the individual maintains a level of homeostasis; however, a prolonged state of homeostasis in a dynamic environment can ultimately wear down the system as it fails to adapt to a changing environment, atrophies, or successfully attains a stress-free state, i.e., dies.
- Adapting means that the individual learns, grows, or transforms through the experience and fosters wellness.
In conclusion, although a definition for stress is still forthcoming, adequate information exists to help people to develop functional strategies for tapping daily stress as a productive force, building resilience against severe stressors, growing through traumatic stress, adapting continuously to and with a dynamic environment, and enhancing wellness.