The Roads We Travel (Part 1)

Stress. One of the most frequently used words these days, but when did it begin to be used as a psychological concept? Can more recent stress research help us in our daily lives? In this blog series, I hope to share ideas and information that you may find useful.

While Hans Selye, the father of stress research, is credited with coining the term in 1936, it is more accurately attributed to an earlier researcher, Walter Cannon, who developed the term stress in his work relating to the fight-or-flight response in 1915. Selye later defined it as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand”. In response to some external stressor, Selye described the ‘alarm’ stage, mobilizing our physical resources to deal with or escape the stressor. Then, in the second stage, we attempt to adapt to, or cope with, the external stressor, or ‘resistance’. Finally, the state of ‘exhaustion’ occurs with repeated exposure to the stressor and inability to cope or escape. (Kennard, J. HealthCentral)

The adverse effects of chronic stressors are particularly common in humans. Our high capacity for symbolic thought may elicit persistent stress responses to a broad range of adverse living and working conditions. People attempt to cope, but too often learn maladaptive patterns of coping to stressors, such as worrying, anger, micro-managing, defensiveness, over eating, poor sleep habits, and substance over use. It can become a vicious cycle of stressors and stress-triggered responses impacting vitality, relationships, health and feelings of living the life we value.

We read about the staggering levels of distress and symptoms of burnout in health workers. Healthcare delivery is inherently complex, unpredictable and challenging, more so in times of pandemics. On a daily basis, clinician teams and administrators are faced with multifaceted responsibilities and demands for time, attention and compassion that can lead to stress, fatigue and burnout. (Leiter & Maslach, 2009). Contact with ailing patients and their relatives creates further complexities, potentially impacting psychological and physical health, quality of life and performance.

While many clinicians are higher than average in resilience, it is a misconception that resilience is a static condition. It can be degraded. The complex brain phenomenon called ‘resilience’ is protective, but not iron-clad protection, against persistent stressors. Indeed, in a recent survey, it was found that resilience is on the decline in all roles in healthcare (Press Ganey 2021).

What I find to be very exciting is that stress research has shed significant light on therapeutic modalities that can be readily learned to change how our brains respond to stress triggers and to more effectively navigate stressful situation aligned with what we value. This is referred to in research as ‘psychological flexibility’. Building psychological flexibility, in turn, is protective of our resilience.

Psychological flexibility. Now that is a concept to start bringing into one’s vocabulary! In the next part in this blog series, I will explore more about the stress response and what we can do to change it.

Author: Pennie Sempell, JD, CEO StressPal