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How geared up is a person supposed to get when he or she perceives a challenge, threat or opportunity? This is an important question, because the body has two important tasks to accomplish when it decides how large a response to set in motion.

The first consideration, of course, is to keep the body safe from whatever dangers the threat or challenge brings. The second consideration, though, is to help the body work efficiently to handle the challenge, or make use of the opportunity. Since the body does not have unlimited supplies of energy and resilience, the body would like to expend only as much energy as needed to handle the event. This means trying to gear the response as close as possible to what is required to handle things.

Because it is more important to keep the body safe from an immediate danger than it is to worry about saving energy for the long haul, the body will usually tend to err on the side of gearing up more than is needed. This has implications for managing stress. The body tends to work harder than it needs to, just to be on the safe side - even when that degree of safety isn't always required.

In trying to gear the body up to handle the challenge or opportunity, there is a complex set of evaluations to be made. The first decision, as we have seen, concerns how big a threat or danger there is. If the threat or the challenge is perceived to be significant, the body will gear up accordingly to handle the challenge. If the threat or challenge is small, the body will gear up more modestly.

But the external event is not the only thing that determines how big a challenge or threat is facing us. There is another factor in this: our own ability to handle things. We are therefore also evaluating what tools, or resources, we perceive that we have available to take the challenge on.

This is important. If we perceive that we have really good tools or resources, we are much more comfortable that we can handle the challenge. We will, therefore, require a less active response. On the other hand, if we perceive that we have poor tools or resources, we will need to gear up our responses much more to handle the challenge.

This aspect of appraisal of the stressors in our immediate environment has been given the name availability: an automatic, rapid unconscious determination of the resources that are available to us to manage the challenge or opportunity. (Frijda, 2004) Based upon this determination of availability, specific affective states will be generated, leading to specific behavioral responses and corresponding emotional states.

This understanding can be shown in the following set of formulations. Further explanation will following on subsequent pages.

Where   R = Perceived Resources     and   C = Perceived Challenge

                        HIGH CHALLENGE |



                                                           |  LOW RESOURCES


High C and Low R equals DISTRESS

If we perceive the level of challenge to be high, but our level of available resources to be low, then we experience the event as being high in terms of stress. This leads to a sensation of distress.

                 HIGH CHALLENGE - - - - - - - - HIGH RESOURCES




                 LOW CHALLENGE - - - - - - - - LOW RESOURCES


High R and High C OR Low R and Low C equals MODERATE STRESS

If we perceive the level of challenge in the event to be low, but also perceive our level of available resources to be low, or if we perceive the level of challenge to be high, but our level of available resources to be equally high, then the level of stress is seen as being moderate and manageable.


                                                       HIGH RESOURCES



                     LOW CHALLENGE |


High R and Low C equals LOW STRESS

If we perceive the level of challenge to be low, and we perceive our level of available resources to be high, we experience the event as being low in terms of stress.

When our perceived resources include things that keep us safe, the level of danger or threat we feel is diminished - provided we perceive the resources correctly. When our perceived resources appear to be poor, the level of danger or threat is seen as being greater - and the level of stress response increases.

Your body and mind are continuously appraising this meeting of challenge and resources. This occurs much more quickly at an unconscious level than your cognitive resources can keep up with. In fact, your body can kick into a response mode before the awareness of a danger, threat or opportunity has even begun to register at a conscious level. Your body responds in ways that surprise your conscious mind, and the physiological response is one of the first indicators that something is occurring that should be attended to. This runs concurrent to changes in affective states within a dynamic system of feedback between body and feeling, called the “body loop.” (Damasio, 1994)

This appraisal is occurring in the many different systems with which your body evaluates and responds to stressors. This means the appraisal is being made consciously - and unconsciously - with the information evaluated at many levels.

In a perfect world, this works extremely well. The body evaluates the challenges, examines the resources available to handle the challenges, then gears the body up at the ideal level of response to meet the challenge.

What could possibly go wrong with this precise and accurate system of using the body's energies? Clinicians, of course, know the answer to this question. Much can go wrong.

People can have significant misperceptions about the level of challenge facing them. They can also have significant misperceptions about the resources they have to bring to bear upon the challenges. This capacity to misperceive can happen at many levels of the information processing systems. As events occur in a person's life, they are remembered at several levels.

To help the person remember the significance of events, a memory of the body's responses to those experiences is also stored in the person's recollection - linked to the event memories in powerful ways. These combined memories - of the event and the response - form the core of a person's perceptions about how the world works - and about how successfully that person is going to be able to operate in that world.

This information is constantly being updated and revised as new events occur. The mechanisms for this revision process, however, are very different for the different information processing systems. The conscious or cognitive information processing system, for a number of reasons, has a relatively high degree of flexibility in revising stored understandings about how the self works in the world.

The closer the stored sets of understandings get to the most primitive parts of the brain, however, the lower the degree of flexibility in revising things. This is important in terms of stress because your body is supposed to respond to an event - in the present - based upon your evaluation of how big a challenge there is, and how capable you are of meeting that challenge.

If all your combined experiences - and the perceptual abilities derived from those experiences - give you the capacity to evaluate very precisely how high a level of response will be needed to handle a challenge or a threat, then you will maximize your stress management abilities. If you have errors in perception, however, then there are two exactly opposite kinds of problems that can occur, both of which tend to be harmful.

The first possibility is that you may over-estimate your own ability to handle a threat or a challenge, or underestimate how great a challenge is before you. In such instances, you are likely to have an ineffectual response to the challenge at hand. This can lead to very specific difficulties in being able to meet that challenge.

People who over-estimate their own level of skills at handling challenges, or under-estimate the level of challenge they are facing, tend to show less outward signs of stress than other people. . . right up until the point at which their perceptual problems cause them to take on challenges they are poorly prepared to handle. Then, when they get in over their heads, they experience great stress.

The second possible perceptual problem - and the far more common one - is to over-estimate the challenges that are facing you, or to under-estimate your tools and resources for handling the challenge. This is more common for a very simple reason: everyone is born into this world, a world that, in fact, holds considerable dangers and challenges.

Furthermore, we are born into this world with a very limited set of personal resources and tools available to handle the considerable challenges we face. As a consequence, early in life, we have many experiences of being overwhelmed, where the challenges exceed our sense of our own resources.

These memories are processed, and stored, at very deep levels. Unless they are revised at equally deep levels, there is a tendency to store a perception that the challenges of life are too much for our skills and resources. These problems can become embedded very deeply if the overwhelming experiences are too numerous, or too intense, and the corrective perceptual revisions are too few or too weak.

Even when the sets of skills developed by the person in time become adequate to handle most challenges, the perception can persist - at a very deep level - that the challenges will be too great. The problem is one of inflexibility in the deep information processing and response systems.

The problems have to do with the kind of "wiring" that occurs with memory storage in the deeper information processing systems. The reflexive stress responses are laid down with "hard wiring". This is to say that they are immediately and permanently wired into the brain from birth. There is very limited flexibility to change your natural inclination to jump when a loud noise goes off.

The instinctive information processing system has just slightly more flexibility in terms of being able to revise memory storage and perceptual abilities. Information storage at this level tends to occur in the right side of the brain in a close connection to the amygdale, stored in what is described as implicit or procedural memory. (Schacter, 1987) Because of the right brain, deep brain storage, the memories are recorded without connection to verbal or symbolic representation. They are much closer to automatic physiological and behavioral responses that are triggered without much capacity to stop them or even slow them down.

Memory alteration for implicit or procedural memory will not typically occur just using cognitive modes of restructuring such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Memory restructuring may require more experiential modes of therapy, such as exposure therapy or systematic desensitization. The memories need to be activated in the presence of sufficient external supportive resources to allow the person to experience the memory without being overwhelmed by it. The association between the supportive resources that are provided - and events stored in implicit memory - changes the appraisal of what that equipment sees as the interaction between the challenge and the level of resources available to meet the challenge.

The emotional information processing system, which tends to be routed through a part of the brain called the cingulate, is concerned with memories of positive and negative reinforcers that become associated with various experiences. (Kovloskiy et al., 2012) Because this level of memory formation has better connections to the parts of the brain that create verbal and symbolic representations of a person’s experience, there is more flexibility in terms of revisions to memory and perception. However, because a great deal of this kind of memory formation can be somewhat below the surface of consciousness, it still can be difficult to rewire in certain situations.

The issue of rewiring each of these information processing systems is vital to an understanding of stress management at an internal level. If a person approaches all the challenges of the world with built-in misperceptions about how well he/she is going to be able to handle the challenge, he/she will constantly be reacting with the wrong physiological responses.

This can mean that the person will exist in a state of relatively chronic stress. This is a paradigm for many people who seek help through counseling. In fact, the many different approaches to therapy are designed to help alleviate this stress by attempting - in different ways - to rewire these misperceptions in the different information processing systems.

Cognitive-behavioral or cognitive-emotional approaches are designed to rewire what is happening at the cognitive and emotional level. The cognitive abilities help reshape the meaning of the emotional memories and change the perceptual awareness of whether present and future events will be threatening. This occurs through a process described in neuroscience terms as vertical integration. (Siegel and Bryson, 2011) Vertical integration occurs when neurons in the areas of the brain responsible for higher consciousness, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, connect with neurons in more primitive areas of the brain, allowing for some degree of control and modulation over the more automatic emotional and somatic responses to challenges.

More directly experiential approaches - such as "body work", biofeedback, or systematic desensitization, are designed to rewire at deeper emotional or instinctive levels, even those that approach the juncture where the instinctive and the reflexive information processing systems meet.

These approaches are all valid attempts to change the way a person perceives - and responds to - challenges in the present. As we will see later, they all will also involve some of the same areas of the brain to help make the corrective changes.

The best stress management work will be done by addressing the rewiring problems where they exist in the person - at whatever level of the information processing and response system the misperceptions are housed. This, obviously, has implications for "one size fits all" approaches to psychotherapy for stress and stress related problems. Approaches that work well with other kinds of problems may not be as successful for stress problems - such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorders - where the perceptual/evaluatory disturbance is housed at an instinctive or reflexive level.

More experiential therapies may be much more effective when used to correct misperceptions that are housed at a very deep level, because they are more accurately targeting the wiring problems at the level at which they actually exist. This topic will be raised again when we look at practical stress management approaches later in the training.

Now that we understand a little better the way in which a person perceives and evaluates the level of challenge, threat or opportunity he/she is facing, it is time to turn to the next part of the stress process. This is concerned with the physiology of response. In the next section, we will look at the many systems that get involved in this response as the person experiences stress over time. Before we do, let's take time to do stress exercise number two.

Stress exercise #2

Take 5-10 minutes to have another look at your list from exercise #1. Look carefully at the actual challenge, threat, or opportunity posed by those events, and see if there were any events that caused a greater response than you think they should have. Next, evaluate which of those events you had good resources to handle, and which you had poor resources to handle. See if there is a match between the events that were stressful and the events you felt you had poor resources to handle.

Review Questions for Section III

At this point in the training, the trainee should be able to answer the following questions:

What two things will our stress information processing systems evaluate in order to know how geared up the body should become to handle a challenge?

Why are experiential modes of treatment more useful for certain kinds of stress problems?