My Account



When a person is perceiving an event, and evaluating it to see if it is a challenge or a threat, the process of perceiving and evaluating is actually taking place in many different areas of the brain. While all of this information is eventually processed and coordinated to work together, the different areas of the brain also work independently to some degree.

This means a person doesn't actually have a single stress response to an event. A person has several different stress responses, each based on different perceptual input received in different areas of the brain, each evaluated differently, each with a slightly different response.

Let's look at a diagram that shows these different systems.

                The Stress Information Processing Systems

                               Conscious and Cognitive




Reflexive: This part of the brain includes the brainstem, the reticular formation, and the most primitive parts of the limbic system deep in the center of the brain.

The first part of the brain we will look at is the fastest part of the brain to respond to an event. It is deepest in the brain, with the most direct and most primitive connections to the parts of the body that respond to stress.

These areas of the brain control the system that we will call the Reflexive Information Processing System. As the name suggest, this is response based upon reflex. This response system is already in place when a person is born.

It is designed to respond very quickly to threats or challenges that are understood as a potential danger to a person's safety or well-being. This stress response system can be triggered by physical pain, by the sensation of falling, or by sudden loud noises or fast movements.

This system of evaluation and response has direct connections to information input systems like sight, sound and touch. It is so fast that there is no time for any conscious evaluation or appraisal of the event. The Reflexive Response System is designed to react quickly to prepare the body to get away from danger on an immediate basis. The response is not only very fast, but also very strong.

The response is also very short lived. It will last only a few seconds, giving time for the other stress information processing systems to see what is going on and add to the response. This system is responsible for gearing up our body's response resources - our most primitive stress response - as well as for our most primitive sexual and appetitive responses.

Let's look at a summary of this system, as we begin to reconstruct our diagram.

                   The Stress Information Processing Systems

Reflexive System

Hardwired from birth, not under conscious control
Immediate transition from input to evaluation to response
Very strong, but very short-lived stress response
Responds to pain, loud noises, noxious smells, heights and falling
Responds to direct sexual stimulation at the spinal cord level.

The second part of the processing system also works at a level that is relatively out of conscious control. The parts of the brain that are involved include important areas of the limbic system that have connections to certain parts of the neo-cortex.

We will call this part of the processing system the Instinctive Information Processing System.

This system is activated by events that are perceived as being threats to safety, territory, dominance, control, the safety of offspring, and other events that trigger deep and primitive emotions that can elicit a stress response without full conscious awareness of why the response is occurring.

What is set in motion are the more primitive emotional responses: fear, anger, territoriality.

Instinctive System

Some parts largely hardwired, some parts developed early in life
Some aspects of response occur within conscious thought, others occur out of conscious thought
Responds to threats to safety, threats to safety of offspring, loss, learned helplessness, threats and opportunities related to territory and dominance

The next system is elicited by more complex and slightly less primitive responses that are organized into higher emotions. We will call this system the Emotional Information Processing System.

This system is set in motion by perceptions that trigger such things as anxiety, or concerns about the gain or loss of self-esteem or identity. These threats or opportunities are based upon complex emotions.

This information processing system is directed by the combined and interactive efforts of the limbic system, where the emotional responses are formed, the pre-frontal cortex that coordinates between the limbic system and neo-cortex, and the neo-cortex, where information is stored about such complicated concepts as self-esteem, identity, and all sorts of vague threats to one's being that form the foundation of much of anxiety.

The difference between the instinctive information processing system and the more complex emotional system has to do with how much the substance of the response comes from the neo-cortex. Lower animals with little or no neo-cortex respond to incursions into their territory, or threats to their offspring, but the response is organized around only the more primitive emotions.

There are elements of the emotional system that operate in the realm of conscious thought. Awareness of some incoming information can be a relatively conscious process. Other elements can remain in sub-conscious or unconscious awareness, perceived and processed below the level of conscious awareness.

Emotional System

Develops in complex interactions between neo-cortex and limbic system, where emotions reside, coordinated by the pre-frontal cortex that serves as a communication way station between these two other areas of the brain
Alert to threats and opportunities related to self-esteem, identity, ideals, morality, conscience and other higher emotional/cognitive concepts.

The last of our stress information processing systems is the Conscious or Cognitive Information Processing System. This part of our equipment for processing information resides almost exclusively in the neo-cortex. While this part of our system has connections to the emotional parts of our brain, it is largely under conscious control.

It evaluates the information about the threat in a relatively dispassionate way, with limited emotion attached. This relatively autonomous functioning apart from emotions can allow this system to evaluate the nature of the threat or opportunity and generate responses that fall largely under conscious control.

Conscious or Cognitive System

Almost exclusively based in the neo-cortex, with the pre-frontal cortex in directorship position
Through connections to the other stress information processing systems, can help control and modulate other stress responses

Our original diagram has been set up to show the organizational principles behind the different systems of processing information. Let's take a look at it again.

                    The Stress Information Processing Systems

                               Conscious and Cognitive




As in the diagram, the reflexive information processing system is in the center - at a deeper and more primitive level at the core of the brain.

At the highest level of organization, the conscious or cognitive system is surrounding and encompassing everything else. The two other systems are found in between the highest and lowest levels of organization. This is actually surprisingly close to how these systems are organized in the brain.

The reflexive system is more centrally located, and therefore able to send messages more quickly through the communication channels to set in motion a response. This is why this system is the fastest to get the response system operating.

The conscious or cognitive system, on the other hand, is further from the seat of direct communication. The conscious system is also spread out over a much larger area. When it evaluates information about a challenge or danger, it does not confine itself to a very narrow interpretation of the facts. It looks at much more information, and comes more slowly to a conclusion. For this reason, the conscious system is also designed to be capable of more precision in its evaluation of the facts.

The reflexive system, on the other hand, will be very strong and fast in its response, but will also be very imprecise in its evaluation. A sudden loud noise will always be responded to with the same strong response, whether it poses a real danger or not.

In fact, the closer the system is to the core of the brain, the less precise it will be in determining whether the challenge is worth a high level of response. Emotions are more powerful, and less precise in their understanding of the facts than conscious decision making. Instinctive responses less precise and more powerful than emotional responses, and so on.

Everyone has had an experience in which they experience all these level of response, sometimes in a single event. Let's take an example. You are driving down the road and a truck comes out of nowhere, blaring its horn. Your heart instantly starts racing, and you instinctively pull over, then start to get mad at the truck for invading your space- until you realize that the problem was your fault - you had mistakenly cut off the truck when you didn't have right of way.

At the moment you realize you were at fault, you stop being angry at the truck, and get angry at yourself. Your pride is hurt. You pull over to calm yourself down, then talk yourself through the crisis. You realize that no one has been hurt, you will probably never see the truck driver again, and acknowledge your right to be imperfect and make mistakes. You gradually return to a calm state.

In this one situation, your different response systems come into play at different times and different rates of speed - just as they are designed to do. Each of the systems performs a different function - turning on when appropriate, then turning off - in order to give your body wonderful flexibility in responding to challenges.

It is, of course, more complicated than this in real life. While these systems are discrete from one another in some ways, they are also simultaneously part of a continuous whole. This affects the information gathering process in interesting ways.

The different parts of the information processing system can all be operating at the same time, but interpreting the same event in wildly different ways. The body at a reflexive level can be set in motion in high gear by some event, even while the conscious awareness level of the brain is seeing the event as not being dangerous or threatening.

This can leave the conscious person wondering why his or her body is over-reacting to something that poses no threat or danger. This means that the whole process of perceiving the information can be a confusing thing. While all this is occurring, there are different parts of the brain that are working to process and coordinate all this information, to come up with as coherent a picture of all the information as possible.

These coordinating areas of the brain are at the cross-roads of all the information coming in, and, as we will see later, all of the information going out, concerning what the body is supposed to do to handle the challenge, threat, or opportunity.

The body will try to figure out all the different opinions, then generate the right response based upon what these systems combine to say about the need for a response. Generating the right response is important. Anyone who has ever been stressed out understands that you don't want to over-respond. It wears you down.

So all these systems try to work together to get it right. The coordinating efforts of these systems, however, have additional considerations that must be brought in. This is what we will look at in the next section. First, however, we will take some time to do our first stress management exercise.

Stress Exercise #1

Take 5 to 10 minutes to write down some events over the past few days that have caused you to react with a stress response. Identify which stress information processing system(s) were involved in perceiving that there was a threat, challenge or opportunity, and note any differences between how quickly your body responded depending upon the information processing system(s) involved. See if you can find an instance in which different stress information response systems were at odds with one another concerning the same event, causing there to be a confusing response.

Review Questions for Section II

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

What are the four different stress information processing systems?

Which is the fastest system to respond and which is the slowest?

Which is the most accurate system to respond and which is the least accurate?