We react to stress in one of three ways. In this Sharepost I’m outlining the characteristics of these reactions and their implications for us.
The most flexible and healthiest method of dealing with stress is through task-oriented behavior. Successful people in this regard are those who feel secure and confident. Almost invariably this level of confidence can be traced back to early life experiences where the person is encouraged to be resourceful, adjusting to the demands of the stressor, yet protecting him or herself from the mental distress. How do they manage this?
The task-oriented person seems to have the ability to weigh up a situation objectively, choose a response, and then self-monitor the reaction of their decision against the effect it is having on them. If the decision they make isn’t working, they may try an alternative approach or they may make personal changes by, for example, lowering expectations, becoming less demanding and reducing their emotional investment. If none of these actions work they are less likely to press ahead and more likely to walk away from the situation entirely.
A mixture of short-term benefits, but longer-term implications, characterizes this next reaction, often referred to as defense-oriented behavior. The tension that builds from stress can be released in a number of ways. Crying, talking, hugging and seeking reassurances, are just a few examples. These forms of behavior help to relieve tension and gain sympathy from others, but if no attempt is made to address the problem(s) the implication is that the person uses defense mechanisms as a means of coping. They may, for example, deny a problem exists, embark on a series of distractive activities, or possibly regress to less mature forms of behavior where responsibilities are passed to others and they become highly dependent.
My third and final example is a process called decompensation and it represents the most seriously disruptive reaction to stress. This occurs in the face of highly stressful situations that are prolonged or demanding. Decompensation affects the person biologically, psychologically and behaviorally.
The biological effects of stress involve three phases. First, there is a call to arms when the body gets prepared for fight-or-flight. Secondly, a prolonged period of resistance takes over where biological resources work at full tilt in order to try to reduce stress. Finally, when these resources are depleted, the result is disintegration and death.
Psychological effects follow a broadly similar pattern. Initial stress leads to alertness, emotional arousal and a sharpening of senses. Task-related or defensive behavior follows and here some people will cope for much longer periods than others. Mental collapse, for want of a better term, occurs as the final step in the process.
Our behavioral reaction to stress often reflects our psychological state. When stress first occurs we may reveal any number of avoidance, escape, confrontational or other behaviors in order to adapt to the situation and reduce stress. When we reach a point that nothing we try has any effect on stress reduction we reach a point of learned helplessness and therefore inactivity.