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Of Stress and the Mind

The way we perceive a situation, and decide whether it is positive or negative, is an active, continuing process of appraisal of the risks, costs, and likely gains of our possible responses. Three individuals may be stuck in traffic at the same time and each may perceive and appraise the situation quite differently. “OMG,” one may say, “late again, my boss will be furious!” The second may think, “I’m going to be late, but my boss will understand how unpredictable this traffic really is.” The third may settle in, turn on the radio and say, “It’s a good thing I left a little early, I can’t speed this up so I’ll just catch up on the news.”

Depending on this cognitive appraisal of a situation, the stress reaction will mobilize the body to action. The greater the anxiety generated by the situation, the higher the level of physical and psychological arousal. Sometimes, overt behavior will be produced directly by the mobilization of impulses, drives, or wishes. One specific and frequent set of behaviors is likely to occur most frequently, as a behavioral inclination to act in a certain way due to our background, beliefs and available resources. Depending on the content of our thoughts about the situation, the behavioral inclination may be a desire to withdraw (flight), attack (fight), approach, or avoid (freeze). The emotions corresponding to these inclinations are anxiety, anger, affection, and sadness, respectively.

The ultimate response to a stressor can be conceptualized as a structure of the mind, where a set of beliefs about one’s self, the world, and the outcome activates and controls the behavioral inclination and the emotional response. Life’s stressors, especially if significant to our physical, psychological and social well-being can disrupt the normal activity of the mind. In addition to almost immediate loss of the ability to concentrate, recall, reason and control impulses, a severe and unexpected stressor produces a relative increase in instinctive, more primitive, and less rational processes. Instinctive reactions are usually paired to specific stimuli. These almost mandatory reactions are characteristic to the specific sensitivity of each individual. They can give way to inappropriate or excessive behavioral reactions. For example, the need for a stiff drink, reaching for a cigarette, crying, or being unable to breathe or move can be automatic, with little insight and thus virtually unstoppable.

The wide differences between people in their specific sensitivities explains why an event that is an almost unbearable stressor for one person may be an annoying or even benign situation for another. The seasoned public speaker may still get butterflies in the stomach, but is able to carry on and deliver an excellent presentation, whereas another may be terrified at the very idea of speaking before an audience. Core differences in one’s personality also account for the wide variations in individual sensitivities to stressors. The independent and somewhat misanthropic personality will not be sensitive to the same stressor as the individual who craves human connection and feels dependent on it for validation. Excessive or ineffective reactions to stressors, such as hostility, anxiety, and depression, also result from specific behavioral inclinations, personality structure, and specific sensitivities.

Finally, reactions to stressors may be dictated primarily by one’s internal motivations, with no apparent connection to the events or circumstances of the outside world. For example, the belief that the only road to happiness is through total success is characteristic of achievement-oriented individuals who are therefore extremely vulnerable to excessive and ineffective reactions at the slightest doubt of failure—regardless of evidence to the contrary. Stressful interactions with other people who may be equally as stressed, albeit for different reasons, produce a mutually reinforcing cycle of excessive and ineffective reactions. Specific psychological mechanisms, such as an egocentric approach, negative framing, and polarization, increase the level of arousal experienced by each individual and, consequently, to higher and higher levels of collectively shared stress.

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