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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Braun, MSc

Stress: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

The notion of stress can hardly be neglected. The opinion is dominating that allostatic level of stress has strongly increased during the last half of the century (Abraham, Conner, Jones, & O’Connor, 2016). Globalisation and digitalisation lead to the dramatically increased amount of information flow to be processed and its speed. Social systems’ support is decreasing in the times of digital superficial connectedness and personal loneliness (Braun, 2016). Individuals are suffering from what military once has called and consultants adopted VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) (Kinsinger, P., & Walch, K., 2012), struggling with constant change and thus stress. Existential loneliness and constant pressure to succeed add further stressors to the already overloaded individuals.

The notion stress, which is a complex brain activity, is difficult to define (Kalat, 2013). As cited by Kalat (2013, p. 370), Selye (1979), one of those who laid the foundation of the term stress, described it as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it” and understood stress as “any change in one’s life”. Kalat (2013, p. 370) further cites McEwen (2000), who defined stress as “events that are interpreted as threatening to an individual and which elicit physiological and behavioural responses”. Another theorist Cannon (1932), as cited by Abraham, Conner, Jones, and O’Connor (2016), specified ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction to threats, which he equated with stress. Multiple biological and cognitive factors are involved in stress. It occurs as a reaction of an organism to a triggering stressor. The pattern of these reactions was called by Selye (1956), as cited by Abraham et al. (2016, p. 46), “the general adaptation syndrome (GAS)”. It consists of three phases: alarm (when the body releases stress hormones to a stressor), resistance (continuous high level of hormones as stress level stays equal and adaptation of an organism’s to it starts), and exhaustion (defensive reaction of an organism to the long-term high stress) (Abraham et al., 2016). Continuous exposure to stress can lead to major disturbances of the organism’s basic systems. Stress activates sympathetic nervous system as well as hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal cortext (HPA) axis, which slower reaction follows the primary bodily reaction of the sympathetic nervous system and produces a “stress hormone” cortisol (Kalat, 2013). The organism adapts to the stress (allostasis takes place) but if allostatic load is too high, the organism can start to show dysfunctional reactions and suffer from diseases (Abraham et al., 2016). The allostatic level each individual can cope with strongly differs.

Major research methods to look at various factors involved in stress contain studying effects of brain stimulation, brain activity, physiological stress reactions, behaviour through brain anatomy, and individual differences (Kalat, 2013; Abraham et al., 2016; Maltby, Day, & Macaskill, 2013).

The weakness of the majority of counter-stress attempts is that they focus solely on understanding stress and coping with it rather than changing the environment. The majority of research and theories are “intra-individual” focusing on individual’s strategies of coping with stress. This subliminally leads to “blaming” those who are “victims” for not managing to survive in the environment, where it is impossible to survive (Wilde, 2016, p. 96). This environment is built by toxic organisations, hubristic leaders, insufficient governments, and lack of efficient social and economic systems, increasing individual’s existential fears. As Wilde states (2016, p. 99), “knowledge about the stress problem has not stopped the stress problem”. The sciences, organisations and society have to aim for the only change, which reduces stress: equality (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Without that, all the knowledge about stress will merely treat symptoms sweeping the causes under the rug.


Abraham, C., Conner, M., Jones, F., & O’Connor, D. (2016). Health Psychology. London and New York: Routledge.

Braun, N. (2016). VUCA world: challenges and thriving opportunities. Retrieved from

Eysenck, M., & Keane, M. (2015). Cognitive Psychology. East Sussex and New York: Psychology Press.

Kalat, J. (2013). Biological Psychology. Dehli: Wadsworth.

Kundu, C., & Tutoo, D. (1998). Educational Psychology. New Dehli: Sterling Publishers.

Maltby, J., Day, L., & Macaskill, A. (2013). Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence. Harlow: Pearson.

Wilde, J. (2016). The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing toxicity and intervening in the workplace. London and New York: Routledge.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level. Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Allen Lane: London.

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