The Impact of Elevated Stress
In the previous Newsletters we have discussed how stress is generated when we feel vulnerable because the conditions in our external environment pose a threat to our safety. Further, we examined how this elevated stress impacts on our choices of behaviour in order to protect ourselves. We also discussed how stress is needed not only to initiate behaviour but that stress allows us to learn new methods to deal with hostile external conditions in the future. As can be seen from the illustration below, as an individual becomes more aroused their brain is said to ‘gate-down’. Although the graph moves up from a state of calmness the neurological attention is moving down from the cerebral cortex, through the limbic system on to the midbrain/brain stem hence the phrase ‘gating down’.
You can notice that we have moved from being able to consider a range of alternate behaviours when using our total brain into a condition of concrete thinking where we will only access behaviours that have worked before. These issues have been covered in detail in two recent Newsletters, 228. Stress = Life - 1st March 2023 and 233. Gender Differences in Dealing with Early Childhood Trauma – 3rd April 2023.
In this essay we want to describe how people deal with this problem, first in a dysfunctional manner and then how to act in a way that will allow us to deal with future situations that echo the characteristics of the threatening environment. In their early careers Margaret Paul and Erika Chopich presented a model of the different responses to threatening levels of stress; the following outline is founded in their work.
All addiction is an attempt to deal with painful stress which of course drives the need to return to homeostatic equilibrium. Unfortunately, the use of any dysfunctional, protective behaviour in which you redirect your cognitive process or manipulates the cause of the threat or if you change the chemical composition of your brain without making a change to your behaviour condemns you to always being at the mercy of such situations.
These dysfunctional behaviours are shown in the illustration above, the people and activity addictions are the attempt to redirect the cognitive process of the perpetrator and, of course substances addiction is a well-known method of protection.
When you talk to substance addicts they almost invariably will tell you the first time they were ‘high’ on whatever substance they felt a sense of peace and personal power. For kids with a history of abuse and that resulting sense of toxic shame it is no wonder the slide into addiction is easy. Of course, the issue is that the more they use the drug of choice the more they will need of it. Eventually, and this applies to all addictions the behaviour to protect themselves from stress becomes the source of future stress.
Activity addiction is not easily recognised as an addiction. To understand the process that makes an activity an addiction is that whenever they feel stressed they will busy themselves with a distraction. This is more easily illustrated in adults with the workaholic being the poster child of activities addiction. Years ago when I was forming this model I was explaining it to a colleague. When I mentioned activities addiction he exclaimed ‘that’s me’! I had suspected that was the case and I continued on with ‘you don’t have to be that way’ to which he quickly replied, ‘that’s alright, I’m going to do my PhD’! I had suspected this because of his frenetic approach to his work and the times he talked about the deteriorating quality of his marriage. Needless to say, him achieved his PhD and lost his marriage.
This same addiction is seen right across society, from children being addicted to activities such as skateboard riding to becoming a fanatical football fan to some underserving team. A word of caution, not everyone who has a consuming hobby, loves a particular team or spends most of their free time involved in a sport is an addict. It is when they retreat from difficult situations they achieve that status, for that colleague, every time his wife wanted to address their problems he was ‘too busy’!
Finally we come to the people addiction and understanding the use of this type of protection will help you recognise what drives some of the behaviours of students. When being stressed by other people those choosing to protect themselves have a choice, they can try to control the other person or resist any attempts for the other to affect them
The types of people addiction are shown in illustration below.
The attempts to control the ‘other’ using overt behaviours can be summed up as ‘if you stress me, I will stress you back to a level you will leave me alone’! They are, as the graphic indicates bullies; they threaten, use their friends to tease them or mock them to make them the centre of ridicule. Eventually, the perpetrator will withdraw removing the source of the stress from the overt control addict. This may work in the short term, the stressing behaviour of the adversary my cease but unfortunately when a similar situation arises the student will have to again be aggressive.
An alternate way to ‘control’ the stressful situation caused by another is to be so nice to them they will never attack you. This is the covert method of people control. Like the overt model the use of being a ‘best friend’ or ally is that you have to submerge your own need to avoid being exposed.
The final type of people addiction is that of resistance. This is when a potential victim of ‘intimidation’ from others chooses to isolate themselves, refusing to accept any responsibility to whatever stressful situation exists. They refuse to take part in organised activities, are absent a lot and isolate themselves. However, there will be times when the resistors join forces and justify their behaviour with each other.
These acts of addictive behaviour are not just for the students, adults will also use these forms of control. The selection of whether or not to be covert or overt depends on their perceived personal power in regard to the other. It is more likely that a ‘boss’ that is feeling overly stressed will take on the overt role. It is easier to bully those with less power. Alternatively, those who work for an overt style boss might find it more comfortable using the covert techniques, ‘sucking up’ to make sure they are not their target. The use of either control method disempowers the individual, the boss will lose the respect if their staff and those using the covert style will not be respected by fellow workers or skilled managers.
In the last illustration I have presented the student diagram as it applies to staff.
I’m sure we can all recognise these behaviours in our school staff. Overt control teachers are those who put their students down, ‘why would I waste my time with this lot’. Covert control teachers seek to be popular by letting their students ignore school norms, forgiving them for not handing assignments in on time. What they don’t understand is that they are denying their student their right to learn about responsibility and in the long run they are never really respected. Finally, we have those who sit up the back at staff meetings, reading the paper or talking amongst their allies.
I hope this information will help you identify those students and colleague’s dysfunctional behaviours not to condemn it but to let you approach them with compassion and understanding that these behaviours come from a faulty and toxic self-belief. I have put a copy of Chapter 8 of my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ called Acting to Protect Yourself.
In the next Newsletter I will talk about how to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way.