Stress as a Coping Device


Section: Theme-Stress
Stress seems to have been on folk's minds for as long as I can recall, and that's quite a while. Also, the term has so many meanings, that I want to refine our focus only slightly.

Hans Selye, the most famous of the pioneers in the study of psychological stress, might be seen as an accidental discoverer of notions about stress that are still being further explored. As an endocrinologist he was seeking to isolate a previously unknown hormone in 1928. Instead, he found that stress was dangerous to rats and other animals. The causal relationship between noxious agents, be they external biochemical agents or experiences and physical illnesses, was postulated by him in 1936.

He developed the idea of a "General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.)," a stress syndrome. There is the first stage, the alarm, fight or flight stage. He hypothesized that no organism can long withstand that stage.

A second phase follows - resistance to the stress is built. Finally, if the duration of the felt stressful conditions lastslong enough, exhaustion occurs.

His ideas forever changed the approach of medicine to the notion of externally induced stress being directly (often obtusely) related to physical illnesses. His work continues now, decades after his death, and we in the so-called healing professions are all indebted to him.

Based on his hypothesis, the horror writer's idea of scaring someone to death is quite believable.

The stress you face may be of many types. It is not necessarily bad, and Selye proposed that even good stress can lead to bad effects. As an example, a cousin of mine was highly successful. He was forty-eight years old, had topped off his BS in engineering from The Illinois Institute of Technology with an MBA from the University of Chicago. He was promoted to second in command of a large utility company in Chicago, had a festive evening at his promotion ceremony at a luxury hotel, and then started to drive home. He suffered a massive heart attack and died on the freeway. Good or so called eustress? Three weeks previously he had undergone an executive physical and was found to be overweight but healthy.

What of posttraumatic stress? As one experiences the stress of being at risk in a hostile environment, one builds resistance to the alarming first stage. When the external stressors no longer are present the fears and terror (at what others are trying to do to you or you are doing to them) emerges, seemingly out of context but actually a logical result of the avoidance of the high adrenalin state of stress. Even lesser stressors may result in reactions. Working on a flight deck during the Korean War required that I walk through the corridor between the tail of one aircraft and the spinning scythe-like propeller of another. On occasion someone would be blown into that prop and yet we walked the path without allowing fear to overcome us. A routine activity, that walk. But at night, in my bunk I would twitch and gasp at times when that gauntlet came clearly to mind in that state between being awake and asleep. It was posttraumatic shock. If you think of your own life you may very well bring to mind small events, which inspired their own "after-the-fact" reactions. Most who drive automobiles will be able to bring such events to mind.

What of folks who are the so-called adrenaline junkies? They jump from airplanes, race vehicles, do things which cause the rush of adrenaline to heighten the life experience. Is it killing them? No one really knows, so far as I can determine, but it would be interesting to have someone try to understand the effects of pursuing stress for the sake of the reaction.

In closing, stress is necessary. The stress reaction occurs as a coping device. We see a car heading for us. We take avoidance action and then let ourselves feel the rapidly beating heart. But if distressful stress (to make a play on words) occurs without a clear cause it may be time to learn why, as well as to manage it in a fashion that is not potentially lethal.



By Charles Larsen

Charles is a Licensed Clinical Social worker with undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago. He has an office on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg and can be reached at his cell (727) 460-6251, or by e-mail,

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