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Psychological Responses

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Psychological Responses
396
FIGURE
Chapter 10 Health, Stress, and Coping
10.3
Stressors
Organ Systems Involved
in the GAS
Hypothalamus
Stressors produce a variety of physiological responses that begin in the brain and
spread to organs throughout the body. For
example, the pituitary gland triggers the
release of painkilling endorphins. It also
stimulates the release of corticosteroids,
which help resist stress but, as described
later, also tend to suppress the immune
system. Some of these substances may
interact with sex hormones to create
different physical stress responses and
coping methods in men and women
(Taylor et al., 2000, 2006).
Pituitary
Thymus
Autonomic
nervous system
Thyroid
Beta-endorphin
(relieves pain)
Adrenocorticotropic
hormone (ACTH)
Parathyroid
Heart
and lungs
Adrenals
Cortex Medulla
Catecholamines
Kidneys
Liver
Stomach
Corticosteroids,
including cortisol
(reduce responses
of immune system)
Pancreas
Bone marrow
Together, these stress systems generate emergency energy. The more stressors there
are and the longer they last, the more resources the body must spend in responding to
them. If the stressors persist, the resistance stage of the GAS begins. Here, obvious signs
of the initial alarm reaction fade as the body settles in to resist the stressor on a longterm basis. The drain on adaptive energy is less during the resistance stage compared
with the alarm stage, but the body is still working hard to cope with stress.
This continued campaign of biochemical resistance is costly. It slowly but surely uses
up the body’s reserves of adaptive energy. The body then enters the third GAS stage, known
as exhaustion. In extreme cases, such as prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, the
result is death. More commonly, the exhaustion stage brings signs of physical wear and
tear. Especially hard-hit are the organ systems that were weak to begin with or that were
heavily involved in the resistance process. For example, if adrenaline and cortisol (which
help fight stressors during the resistance stage) remain elevated for an extended time, the
result can be damage to the heart and blood vessels; suppression of the body’s diseasefighting immune system; and vulnerability to illnesses such as heart disease, high blood
pressure, arthritis, colds, and flu (e.g., Robles, Glaser, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005). Selye referred
to illnesses caused or worsened by stressors as diseases of adaptation.
Psychological Responses
diseases of adaptation Illnesses
caused or worsened by stressors.
Selye’s research focused mainly on the physiological aspects of stress responses, but
stressors also create a variety of psychological responses, including changes in emotion
and cognition (thinking), and accompanying changes in behavior.
Stress Responses
397
Emotional Changes The physical stress responses we have described are usually
accompanied by emotional stress responses. If someone pulls a gun and demands your
money, you will most likely experience physiological changes, such as a spike in heart
rate, but you will also feel some strong emotion—probably fear, maybe anger. In
describing stress, people tend to say, “I was angry and frustrated!” rather than “My heart
rate increased, and my blood pressure went up.” In other words, they tend to mention
changes in the emotions they are experiencing.
In most cases, emotional stress reactions fade soon after the stressors are gone. Even
severe emotional stress responses ease eventually. However, if stressors continue for a
long time or if lots of them occur in a short time, emotional stress reactions may persist. When people don’t have a chance to recover their emotional equilibrium, they feel
tense, irritable, short-tempered, or anxious, and they may experience increasingly intense
feelings of fatigue, depression, and hopelessness. These reactions can become severe
enough to be diagnosed as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or
other stress-related problems discussed in the chapter on psychological disorders.
Cognitive Changes In 1995, in the busy, noisy intensive care unit of a London hospital, a doctor misplaced a decimal point while calculating the amount of morphine a
one-day-old premature baby should receive. The child died of a massive overdose
(Davies, 1999). Reductions in the ability to concentrate, to think clearly, or to remember
accurately are typical cognitive stress reactions (Beilock & Carr, 2005; Hygge, Evans, &
Bullinger, 2002). These problems appear partly because of ruminative thinking, the
repeated intrusion of thoughts about stressful events (Lyubomirsky & NolenHoeksema, 1995). Ruminative thoughts about relationship problems, for example, can
seriously interfere with studying for a test. A related phenomenon is catastrophizing,
which means dwelling on and overemphasizing the possible negative consequences of
events. During exams, test-anxious college students are likely to say to themselves, “I’m
falling behind” or “Everyone is doing better than I am.” As catastrophizing or ruminative thinking impairs cognitive functioning, resulting feelings of anxiety and other emotional arousal add to the total stress response, further hampering performance (Beilock
et al., 2004; Mendl, 1999).
Overarousal created by stressors also tends to narrow the scope of attention, making it harder to scan the full range of possible solutions to complex problems (Craske,
1999; Keinan, Friedland, & Ben-Porath, 1987). In addition, stress-narrowed attention
may increase the problem-solving errors described in the chapter on thought, language,
and intelligence. People under stress are more likely to cling to mental sets, which are
well-learned, but not always efficient, approaches to problems. Stress may also intensify functional fixedness, the tendency to use objects for only one purpose. Victims of
hotel fires, for example, sometimes die trapped in their rooms because, in the stress of
the moment, it did not occur to them to use the telephone or a piece of furniture to
break a window.
Stressors may also impair decision making. Under stress, people who normally consider all aspects of a situation before making a decision may act impulsively and sometimes foolishly. High-pressure salespeople often take advantage of this stress response
by creating time-limited offers or by telling indecisive customers that others are waiting to buy the item they are considering (Cialdini, 2001).
STRESS FOR $500, ALEX The negative effects of stress on memory, thinking,
decision making, and other cognitive
functions are often displayed by players
on TV game shows such as Jeopardy! and
Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Under the
intense pressure of time, competition,
and the scrutiny of millions of viewers,
contestants may miss questions that
seem ridiculously easy to those calmly
recalling the correct answers at home.
Behavioral Responses Clues about people’s physical and emotional stress reactions come from changes in how they look, act, or talk. Strained facial expressions, a
shaky voice, tremors, and jumpiness are common behavioral stress responses. Posture
can also convey information about stress, a fact well known to skilled interviewers.
Even more obvious behavioral stress responses appear as people try to escape or
avoid stressors. Some people quit their jobs, drop out of school, turn to alcohol, or even
attempt suicide. In the month after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. gulf coast in 2005,
for example, more than double the normal number of calls were placed from the
affected area to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (Breed, 2006). Unfortunately,
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