Reaction To Stressful Events Innate or Learnt?

To be blunt the answer is both, but to different degree’s. Everybody has a pre-ordained response to stress on a purely physical level. When we are put into a stressful situation are body goes through a whole host of changes that aid in dealing with stress, or rather physical stress. The so called flight or fight response is useful when you suddenly need a lot of energy but if you are at work and this response activates you have no need of sudden energy. This then becomes a problem when the stress becomes chronic.

The pioneer of stress research was Selye. In 1936 he conducted experiments on rat’s attempting to discover a new sex hormone. During the procedures he noticed a physiological reaction but he knew that no known hormone produced such effects. Therefore he assumed he had discovered a new hormone but when he injected another substance the same reaction was observed. Selye did not give up there though, he changed his direction.

“It suddenly stuck me that one could look (at the experiments) from an entirely different angle. (Perhaps) there was such a thing as a non-specific reaction of the body to damage of any kind” (Selye, 1976, Psychology: A New Introduction, pg 68). Selye later confirmed that when rats are exposed to adverse conditions such an electric shocks, cold and surgical procedures the same reactions took place. Selye also noticed that the response to the various stressors was identical and not specific to the type of stressor. Selye labelled this the General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S).

G.A.S has three stages which are Alarm, Resistance and Exhaustion. The first stage or the Alarm stage is triggered by the senses and the confirmation that the stimulus is a stressor. Once the body has confirmed that a stressor is present then the first of two smaller phases occur. The shock phase shows a drop in blood pressure and muscle tension and then is quickly followed by the second of the two phases which is the counter-shock phase which recognises that the body may be harmed. The body then releases corticosteroids which have two effects. The first of these is to increase muscle development and the second is to stimulate the liver to release stored sugar which is used to mobilise energy quickly.

These effects dwindle rapidly if the stressor proves to be none harmful if not then the body proceeds to the second stage of G.A.S, the Resistance stage. In this stage the aforementioned responses drop slightly they maintain a higher than normal level. The corticosteroids begin to affect the normal running of other systems such as the immune system and the turnover of cells, particularly in the stomach. This process is known as immunosuppresion.

The body is running faster than it should be and so is using up its resources faster than it is replacing them. If the stressor is removed then the body returns to normal with little or no damage, however if it is not removed then the body moves on to the third and final stage the exhaustion stage. In this stage the bodies natural shut of system is overridden and the body continues the above processes. This eventually leads to tissue and muscle damage, blood sugar levels drop and the endocrine systems are damaged.

Looking at this very earlier research we can see that even basic mammals such as rats have a response to stressful events. We can also see, from his later research into his theory G.A.S, that the response to stress is the same whether it is an external or internal threat suggesting that the response is not learnt as if it was learnt it would be specific to the threat. For example, according to Selye, when at work and your boss suddenly gives you a huge responsibility you were not prepared for your body would react in the same way to being attacked by a wolf.

However some researches do not agree with this none-specific responses theory. “Some stressors produce patterns of physiological activity different from those of other stressors” (Taylor, 1990, Psychology: A New Introduction, pg 73). The most common angle used by researches is to look at stress from an evolutionary perspective. The flight or fight response must have be really important to early man when they came up against serious physical threats a lot more often than contemporary man.

Another failing of Selye’s G.A.S theory is that it ignores cognitive processes in the stress response. These are really important when you consider that if a person does not consider a certain stimulus a stressor it will have no effect on their body. Stress as a physiological set of occurrences is probably the oldest innate process in the human body but how it works today is very different to how it worked for early man. For example early man had a far less developed brain than modern man and therefore had a simpler outlook on life. The stress response is such a basic core process and our cognitive process has out grown it.

Modern man’s responses to stress are governed by how we perceive life. So in essence stress is learnt. Today’s society is seen and is generally believed to be a stressful one. The so called 24 hour world is far more demanding and stressful but only if a person lets it. A hard job is not a direct stressor, the job will not savage you. The “stress society” of American businessmen shows that people are expected to be stressed and to that degree stress is learnt. We see successful people on TV and in the newspaper and try to achieve these goals however unrealistic they may be. For example stress is more common in capitalist cultures such as the United States and the United Kingdom than in Africa and certain areas of South America. Even on a smaller scale, people who live in cities generally suffer from more stress related illness than those living in rural areas.

So in a traditional hunter gatherer sense man is still reacting to stressors appropriately. For example if a businessman bundles a big sale he may lose his job and then he will need to get another before he runs out money to feed himself or any dependants he may have. This is not far removed from a cave man failing to get dinner. The situation may be very similar but the stress response happens at different points. The businessman becomes stressful at the point leading up to his being fired and then coming home and having to face unemployment. On the other hand the cave man becomes stressful while hunting and may have chose flight rather than fight.

Being under stress in the modern society can be useful however if for example you are in a situation when you need to push your self that little bit more that normal. Say for example you are working towards a impending deadline. The burst of energy caused by the mobilised sugar will enable you to stay awake for longer and finish the work. Situations like that are examples of positive stress because once the project has finished the stressors have been removed and the body will return to normal. Its when the project is not finished that the problems occur. Early man did not have this problem in fight or flight situation because if he ran the stress was removed (providing he escaped) and the stress response has carried out its job, similarly if he chose fight which either way the stress would have been removed as he would be dead or have just caught dinner.

Gender also seems to play a part in stress, in as much that male’s suffer more from stress than women for some reason. It has been speculated that this is the reason why men tend to die younger than women and also suffer more from stress related illnesses such as coronary heart disease and stomach ulcer’s. Frankenhauser (1983) “found that compared with male students, female students failed to show significant increase in adrenaline output when faced with a stressful situation” Frankenhauser then continues “females relative unresponsiveness might contribute to there higher life expectancy, because they may experience less stress-related damage during their lifetimes” (1991, Psychology: A New Introduction, pg 83).

Personality may also play a part in stress. It would explain why people of similar age, fitness level and gender in the same job can suffer from different levels of stress. A person’s view of stress in general may also change the way in which they respond to being in a stressful situation. As I have said if a person does not perceive a stressor the body will not respond. So to conclude “Is our reaction to stressful events innate or learnt?” Well I believe the answer to be both and I hope that’s what my essay put across.

On a purely physiological side the answer would be “innate” as all our stress responses seem to stem from early man and has evolved as a way of dealing with danger. On the other hand from a purely psychological side the answer would point to “learnt” as stress seems to be a relatively new creation that once only occurred to severe trauma and now relates to deadlines and overworking.


Baade, E, Levine, S, Ursin, H., Psychobiology of Stress, (London, Academic Press, 1978)

Clamp, A, Coolican, H, Gross, R, McIlveen, R, Russell, J,. Psychology: A New Introduction, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2000)

Coddington, R, Noshpitz, J,.Stressors and the Adjustment Disorders, (Chichester, John Wiley & Sons, 1990)

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