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Summary: Stress

Hans Selye brought stress to the attention of psychologists in the 1950s. He proposed a General Adaptation Syndrome in which the body rallied resources to meet a challenge. If stress continued too long, the body wore out and showed negative health effects.

Selye pointed out that not all challenges were bad. He coined the term eustress to indicate the optimal level of stress for an individual.

However, Selye's concept of good stress did not catch on. People interpreted the word stress as involving situations that cause distress, not enjoyable challenges.

Research showed that potentially stress­ful situations did not produce negative health effects unless accompanied by negative emotions. For example, dunking an arm in ice water during research, which causes pain, does not cause the release of stress chemicals or endor­phins in human subjects. People realize the pain is temporary, and for a good purpose, so they are not distressed by it.

Selye's original research showed that untamed rats were distressed by han­dling and injections. They suffered nega­tive health effects. However, tame ani­mals enjoy handling, and they experience health benefits instead of harm.

A variety of evidence points to the con­clusion that appraisal (interpretation) of events in the world is responsible for stress, not events themselves. The same event can be stressful or not, depending on how it is interpreted. This depends on learning and experience.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) uses re-appraisal or cognitive re-structuring to reduce negative emotions and stress. Ideally a situation can be re-interpreted so a person can have hope and take adaptive action, rather than persisting with appraisals that cause harmful distress.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


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