Description: Have you heard of something called the General Adaptation system (GAS)? Hans Selye (1907-1982) working at McGill University in Montreal was trying to find a model with which he could use rats to study the impact of longer-term exposure to moderate to high levels of stress. What he came up with as a rat analogue to human ongoing moderate to high stress did not involve high pressure jobs, bad habits, financial pressure or relationship distress (hard to do that with rats) but instead involved moving rats into a permanently cold environment. He put them in large fridges. What he observed over time in the rats is what he called the GAS. The rats displayed and alarm reaction when first placed in the cold environment. They dashed about trying to find a way out of the cold, showed high levels of stress hormones and were clearly acutely stressed. After a few days they settled down a bit into what Selye called a resistance phase in which they continued to show elevated levels of a number of stress indicators that were not as high as those seen in the alarm phase but were, still, higher than their baseline pre-cold levels. Eventually many of the rats entered what Selye called an exhaustion phase in which their immune systems faltered, and they become ill and some even died. We would now say the rats in this last phase of the GAS were burning out. Why does this bit of stress research history have to say that is relevant? Well, what do you think might happen if one were to take a global population of humans and hit them with a pandemic, the response to which would involve a prolonged period of hypervigilance, social isolation and massive disruptions to “usually” patterns of work, recreation, and life in general? Think about what sorts of symptoms we might be seeing if you were to think of us all as participating in a human version of Selye’s rats in a fridge experience and think about what that might give rise to and about what we might suggest that people do in order to preserver and to get to the post-covid era (whatever that will look like and whenever that will be) intact and with some stress buffers remaining viable. They have a rad through the linked article to see how your thought match those of the author.
Source: It’s Not Just You. A Lot of Us Are Hitting a Pandemic Wall Right Now. Julia Ries, Huffington Post.
Date: February 5, 2021
One of the biggest challenges to coping these days does not involve the many threats and stressors that we can point to including health concerns for ourselves and relatives and friends, work stress, food instability, loneliness etc. It involves the massive amounts of uncertainty associated with the limitations and losses we incur personally as we isolate and socially distance. Stressors are easier to cop with if we can point to them and name them. Uncertainties are insidious in that we cannot see them, may not even be consciously aware of them and yet we are thrown and kept off balance by them in ways that contribute to the onset of burnout.
So, what to do? Notice the uncertainties in your life right now. Name them, to the extent that you can and cut yourself some slack as you are experiencing a consistently higher than usual level of stress/anxiety related arousal. Try some of the advice offered in the article and at least remember that our fight-flight stress response system is deeply wired in and some recreational physical activity – exercise will really help.
Questions for Discussion:
- What are some of the ways that the current pandemic is like rats in Hans Selye’s fridges?
- Make a list of your current stresses and anxieties and then try to make a list of your uncertainties. What can you do to either reduce the things of all three lists or to at least make them more manageable?
- What are some things we could do at the community or more broadly at the national or international levels to reduce the stresses, anxieties and uncertainties associated with the pandemic??
References (Read Further):
Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., & Georganta, K. (2019). The relationship between burnout, depression, and anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 284. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coping with Stress Link
Lindsay Holmes (2020) Got Major Anxiety Right Now? Here Are 6 Cheap Mental Health Resources Link
Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. Link
Selye, H. (1950). Stress. Montreal: Acta, 1955 Link
Neylan, T. C. (1998). Hans Selye and the field of stress research. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 10(2), 230-230. Link
Peters, A., McEwen, B. S., & Friston, K. (2017). Uncertainty and stress: Why it causes diseases and how it is mastered by the brain. Progress in neurobiology, 156, 164-188. Link