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Although the presence of stressors does not mean that stress responses will necessarily follow, when they do, stress responses are the way in which people react to stressors. They are the experience of being stressed. Stress responses can be divided into three categories: psychological responses, physiological responses, and behavioral responses.
When people react to stressors, a wide variety of cognitive and emotional responses can occur. Examples of cognitive responses are as follows:
- Concentration problems
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Self-critical thoughts
- Rigid attitudes
Examples of emotional responses are as follows:
- Jealousy (23; 99; 129)
Physiological responses follow what is called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) (150; 151). The GAS has three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
The first stage, alarm, is basically the fight-or-flight response, the various physiological changes that prepare the body to attack or to flee a threatening situation. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that induces the physiological changes that accompany arousal) is activated and prompts the release of two catecholamines (one of several types of neurotransmitters, molecules released from active nerve cells that influence the activity of other nerve cells), epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline), from the adrenal medulla (the inner part of the adrenal glands sitting atop the kidneys). Additionally, glucocorticoids (stress hormones) like cortisol are released from the adrenal cortex (the outer part of the adrenal glands) (31; 126).
The following examples of physiological changes characterizes the alarm stage:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid or irregular breathing
- Muscle tension
- Dilated pupils
- Dry mouth
- Increased blood sugar levels (23)
In the second stage, resistance, the body tries to calm itself and restrain the fight-or-flight response from the alarm stage. These changes allow people to deal with stressors more effectively over a longer period of time (23).
When the body eventually runs out of energy from trying to resist stressors, the exhaustion stage takes over. In this stage, the body admits defeat and suffers the negative consequences of the stressors, such as a decreased capacity to function correctly, less sleep, or even death (23).
People act differently when they are reacting to stressors. Sometimes, the behaviors are somewhat subtle, such as the following responses:
- Strained facial expressions
- A shaky voice
- Tremors or spasms
- Accident proneness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Overeating or loss of appetite (23; 116; 129)
Behavioral responses are more obvious when people take advantage of the preparatory physiological responses of the fight-or-flight response. One side of the fight-or-flight response is that it prepares people to "fight", and people sometimes take advantage of that feature and behave aggressively toward other people. Unfortunately, this aggression is often direct toward family members. After Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992, for example, reports of domestic violence doubled. The other side of the fight-or-flight response is that it prepares people for "flight" (23; 116; 129).
The following behavioral responses are examples of how people try to escape threatening situations:
- Quiting jobs
- Dropping out of school
- Abusing alcohol or other drugs
- Attempting suicide
- Commiting crimes (23; 116; 129)
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