An American psychologist’s proposed model for coping with stress raises questions about the low-arousal approaches that most therapists recommend, such as relaxation, meditation and hypnosis: Are patients who never learn to face and deal with stressful situation doomed to repeat them?
OK so you’ve tried stress-busting technique in the books. You believe, along with many psychologists, that equanimity of mind and body somehow amounts to good health. You’ve learned to relax. You’ve had yourself hypnotized and biofeedbacked.
Yet you still find yourself undone by life’s slings and arrows. Well, buddy, forget that mushy mellow scene. If you want to stay mentally fit, it’s time to get tough.
As defined by health psychologist Richard Dienstbier of the University of Nebraska, toughness means a distinct reaction pattern to stress – mental, emotional and physiological – that characterizes animals and humans who cope effectively. To understand the toughness response, it’s necessary to look at the main physiological systems that mediate it.
THE TOUGHNESS SYSTEMS
The first involves a pathway from a brain structure called the hypothalamus to the sympathetic branch to the autonomic nervous system, and from there to the adrenal medulla. The sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, is responsible for the heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed “fight or flight” response that mobilizes body and mind to deal with challenging situations. As part of this response, the adrenal gland releases its main hormone, adrenaline.
The second system involved in the toughness response also begins with the hypothalamus but acts through the pituitary gland, which in turn stimulates the adrenal cortex to release cortisol – the chief “stress hormone” involved in Hans Selye’s now-famous stress model.
Together the pattern of SNS-adrenal medulla and pituitary-adrenal cortex responses to stressful challenges defines the nature of the toughness trait.
Dienstbier muscles up an impressive array of research to show that the bodily response of his tough individuals differs dramatically from that of their less mentally-fit colleagues. In toughies, the normal, everyday level of activity in the two systems is nice and low; tough people are at relative ease under most ordinary circumstances.
But when faced with a stressful challenge or threat, the SNS-adrenal-medulla system springs into action quickly and efficiently, while the pituitary-adrenal-cortex system remains relatively stable. As soon as the emergency is over, the adrenaline response returns quickly to normal, while the cortisol response stays low.
The smoothness and efficiency of the physiological arousal pattern is what characterizes the toughness response – a response that has important after-effects in the brain. Such a restrained reaction, Dienstbier finds, prevents depletion of cathecholamines, important brain neurotransmitters that affect mood and motivation.
Not so for the non-tough. Their physiological reactions tend to be far more overblown and longer lasting, even in the face of everyday hassles. The result is a greater, more disorganizing arousal, less effective coping and faster depletion of brain cathecholamines, which can lead to helplessness and depression.
USING THE TOUGHNESS RESPONSE
Dienstbier points out that the physiological toughness response – or its absence – interacts with a person’s psychological appraisal of his or her own ability to cope with challenge. This in turn contributes to the person’s self-image as an effective master of adversity or a helpless schlemiel – a self-assessment that influences later physiological reactions to stress.
The most effective place to intervene is at the psychological level. Learning effective coping skills, says Dienstbier, can make the physiological reaction of the two systems to threat or challenge less intense and more automatic.
Instead of being immobilized by gut-wrenching panic, for example, your nervous system’s appraisal of threat becomes a goad to seek out alternative solutions. It’s as if your stress system is learning the skill of coping, much as you once learned, and wired into your brain, how to ride a bike.
TYPE As? THEY’RE NOT SO TOUGH
Is toughness, then, the equivalent of the now-legendary Type A personality, the hard-driving, competitively hostile, workaholic behaviour pattern that’s been linked with early death from heart disease? Aren’t As, who aggressively seek out new worlds to conquer, automatically tough?
No way. The recent literature on Type A suggests that it isn’t the challenge-seeking aspect of Type A behaviour that causes problems, but rather its frequent hostility, frustration and depression. These result from a behaviour pattern that relies on trying indiscriminately to butt one’s way through social interactions.
Research shows that Type As recover more slowly than Type Bs and that, when Type As are challenged, both their adrenaline and cortisol systems react more strongly.
Dienstbier’s model of toughness raises questions for psychotherapists who use low-arousal approaches such as relaxation, hypnosis and meditation for stress management: Are patients who never learn to face and deal with stressful situations doomed to repeat them?
If they don’t stand eyeball to eyeball with adversity and periodically flex the coping, skills needed to make it in the world, they may never fully develop a sense of mastery.
I believe “The opposite of great truth is also true.”
Day and Night, Work and Rest, Art and Science… they all looks opposite but my viewpoint is they compliment each other.
The more you relax, the more you active. Life is a balance between what we can and what we cannot. Learn to live between effort and surrender.