Stress: Characteristics and Caveats
By Hymie Anisman and Zul Merali
NIAAA Alcohol Research
Alcohol and Stress
Volume 23, Number 4, 1999
Personal Notes of Terence T. Gorski
Written While Studying The Article
February 9, 2002
Everyone Experiences Stress: Everyone has to deal with
stressful situations in their lives. People in stressful situations
often experience a biopsychosocial stress response that causes physical,
psychological, and social symptoms that are capable of interfering with
normal ways of thinking, managing feelings, behaving, and relating to
The Causes of Stress: Stress is caused by internal
experiences or external situations that activate a conditioned
biopsychosocial stress response. The biopsychosocial stress
response, in turn, creates a state of physical or mental tension that
starts draining physiological and psychological resources.
Stressful Situations Cause Biopsychosocial Stress Responses:
When people experience stressful situations, a series of biopsychosocial
changes occur that are designed to protect them from the adverse effects
of stress and motivate them to use behaviors that will return stress
levels to "normal levels."
Develop Individualized Stress Responses: Different people
respond to the same type and intensity of stressful situations in
remarkably different ways. Some people are at low risk of
experiencing stress-related problems. These low risk people seem
nearly immune from exhibiting stress-related biopsychosocial
symptoms. Other people are at high risk of developing stress related
problems. These high risk people seem to exhibit serious
stress-related symptoms after experiencing relatively mild stressful
events. This is because the stress response is determined by a wide
variety of biological, psychological, and social factors. It is also
influenced by significant life and learning experiences
during the course of life. These factors can be
conceptualized as a complex interaction between the stressful situation
and the person experiencing the stressful situation.
of Stress Responses: There are two types of biopsychosocial
-- it reduces the damaging effects of the stress and restores
-- it increases the damaging effects of the stress and create progressive
Related to the Type of Stress Response: Whether the
biopsychosocial response to a stressor is adaptive or maladaptive depends
upon a complex interaction between two factors:
characteristics of the stressor and
characteristics of the person experiencing the stress.
of the stressor (Stressful Situation):
characteristics of situations that are related to the potential severity
of the stress response include:
Intensity -- ranging from routine daily annoyances
to unexpected disasters and traumatic experiences.
Duration -- ranging from very short isolated
events to very long term events that invade and disrupt normal patterns of
Frequency -- ranging from single isolated
stressful events to a series of closely related or ongoing stressful
Predictability -- ranging from routine, expected and highly predictable
stressful events to sudden, unexpected, and unpredictable events.
-- ranging from easily controlled by personal decisions
and actions to totally out of the control of personal decisions and
Context -- ranging from social recognition of the difficulty involved
in managing the situation to social denial or minimization of the
difficulty. People who experience high stress in situations that are
presented in the social context as typical low stress occurrences that
should be easily managed tend to suffer low self-esteem and harsh social
judgment when they reveal the stressful symptoms that they are
High Risk Stressful Situations: The stressful situations that
are most likely to create serious stress reactions tend to be high
intensity, long duration, frequent, unpredictable, and uncontrollable
Low Risk Stressful Situations: The stressful situations that
are least likely to create serious stress reactions tend to be low
intensity, short duration, infrequent, highly predictable, and easily
characteristics of the person experiencing the stressful situation that
are related to the potential severity of the stress response include:
This includes the level of genetically influenced
biopsychosocial resiliency. Hot Responders have a
genetic tendency to over react to relatively minor stressors. Cold
Responders have a genetic tendency to under react or block out
even intense stressors. Balanced Responders have the
genetic tendency to respond in a proportional manner to the level of
stressor that they experience.
(2) Basic Belief
Systems which provides us with the unspoken assumptions about self,
others, and the world. these assumptions are acquired in early
childhood and the form "the truth as we know it" against which
we judge all other truths.
Mandates & Injunctions which program us with a set of black and
white instructions that tell us what we "must do" and
"can't do" in order to survive and thrive. These are
usually internalized in the form of deeply entrenched automatic responses
that take control whenever excessive stress levels activate the
Fight-Flight-Flee Response. These survival-based mandates and
injunctions are often driven by extreme, anger, fear, or hopelessness.
Coping Style: This includes the level
of learned and integrated biopsychosocial resiliency skills, the previous exposures
to specific stressors, and the previous success or
failure at coping with similar stressors that's sets a pattern of positive
or negative expectancy.
High Risk Individuals: The individuals
who are most likely to be adversely affected by a stressor are older
people, in poor states of health, with low levels of both genetically
inherited biopsychosocial resiliency and low levels of learned
biopsychosocial stress coping skills, who have had previous exposures to
similar stressors that they failed to cope with successfully.
Low Risk Individuals: The individuals
who are least likely to be adversely affected by a stressor are younger
people, in good states of health, with high levels of genetically
inherited biopsychosocial resiliency and high levels of learned
biopsychosocial stress coping skills, who have had previous exposures to
similar stressors that they were able to cope with successfully.
Stress Overload: "Under certain circumstances the
body's response to a stressor can actually make the adverse effects of
stress worse." If the stress is severe and
prolonged or if the person has a low level of biopsychosocial resiliency
in the face of stress, the biopsychosocial stress regulating mechanisms
can become over-loaded. This state of overload makes people more
vulnerable to physical, psychological, and behavioral problems caused by
Integrated Model of Stress: Stress is best conceptualized as a
complex interaction between a stressor, an automatic conditioned stress
reaction, and a consciously mediated stress response.
A stressor is a situation, event, or experience that is interpreted and
responded to in a way that activates a conditioned stress reaction.
Reaction: A stress reaction is an involuntary physical response
to the stressor. It is an automatic and unconscious biological
response to a perceived threat that activates primitive psychological and
social defense mechanisms.
Response: A conscious biopsychosocial response that is used to
manage the stress reaction. There are three types of stress
Cycling: A stress response that intensifies the initial stress
Stress Response: A stress response that temporarily reduces the
severity of the stress reaction by distraction or self-medication
resulting in a latter reactivation of the stress reaction.
Reduction Response: A stress response that permanently resolves
or reduces the intensity of the stress reaction by solving the problems
that caused the stressor or changing the interpretations of the events
causing the stress reaction.
Reactions & The Onset of Illness: Maladaptive Stress
Reactions can be a powerful factor in causing and complicating physical
illness, psychiatric disorders, and substance use disorders.
Reactions & Relapse: Maladaptive Stress Reactions can be a
contributing factor to relapse for people who have been in recovery from
addiction and mental disorders.
13. Need for
Further Research: A better understanding of the the
characteristics of both stressors and the person experience the stress
could support efforts to prevent the initiation of substance abuse and
relapse after recovery from substance abuse is initiated.