Discuss physiological

Discuss physiological, psychological and social aspects of stress

Physiological aspects of stress

Cannon (1914) The fight or flight theory

The fight or flight response is a physiological stress response evolved to help organisms (i.e. animals and humans) to survive immediate danger.

The theory proposes that when an organism faces an imminent danger (acute stressor), the body is rapidly aroused and motivated to act via two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system. These two physiological systems interact to mobilize the organism to fight against or flee the danger.

A Sympathetic Nervous System Response…what does that entail?

·         The fight or flight theory is only addressing the physiological aspects of stress. This could be because Cannon only studied animals. The exclusive focus on physiological aspects of stress is a limitation in relation to humans. It is now known that cognitive factors can mediate the stress response.

·         On the one hand, the fight or flight response is adaptive because it enables the organism to respond quickly to an acute stressor. On the other hand, the response may be harmful if stress persists (chronic stress) because long-term stress may result in physiological as well as psychological health problems.


Selye (1956) GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome)

·         The theory is based on animal research (rats) and it extends Cannon’s theory. Selye did experiments where he exposed rats to various stressors (e.g. cold, surgical injury, excessive exercise).

·         The animals all showed the same general physiological responses such as enlarged adrenal glands, diminished thymus (important organ in the immune system) and ulcers when they were exposed to stressors. Some of them died.


·         Selye concluded that rats (and humans) would respond with the same physiological pattern of physiological changes no matter the stressor. With prolonged exposure to stress (chronic stress), the physiological system will be damaged and the organism may eventually die. It may be problematic to generalize such results to humans but research in health psychology has confirmed a link between stress and low immune functioning.


The three stages of stress

1.                  Alarm: Physiological mobilization to respond to the danger. It is the same as the fight or flight response.

2.                  Resistance: Attempts to cope with the stress response.

3.                  Exhaustion: Occurs when the organism fails to overcome the danger and is incapable of further coping.


Psychological aspects of stress

Stress and Memory……Newcomer et al. (1999)


Social aspects of stress

Social factors such as lack of education, a low standard of housing, noise and crowding, homelessness, lack of social support, domestic violence, and economic hardship put individuals under greater stress, contributing to poor health and family problems.

Evans and Kim (2007) Effects of long-term exposure to poverty in childhood


·         The aim of the study was to investigate the long-term relationship between poverty or low socioeconomic status, cumulative risk factors and physiological stress.

·         Participants were 200 seven-year-olds. The researchers measured blood pressure and cortisol levels. Stress regulation was assessed by measurement of the heart’s reactivity to a standard acute stressor, and recovery after exposure to the stressor. Exposure to risk factors such as substandard housing, and family violence were included to have a measure of cumulative stress factors.

·         The results showed that there was a positive correlation between long-term exposure to a social risk factors on physiological measures of stress. A greater number of years spent living in poverty correlated with more elevated cortisol levels and more problems for the heart to recover after exposure to the stressor.

·         The conclusion was that there is a negative effect on the stress regulation system in children from poor backgrounds and that this effect can be explained by the cumulative risk factors associated with chronic poverty in childhood. Socioeconomically deprived children are exposed to a number of social stressors that disadvantage their development and health. For example, they experience more family violence, separation from their families, and chaotic households.

·         The accumulation of risk factors and the lack of protective factors associated with poverty seem to have long-term effects on both physical and mental health.