Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Understanding Stress: Characteristics and Caveats

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Understanding Stress: Characteristics and Caveats

Article excerpt

Exposure to stressful situations is among the most common human experiences. These types of situations can range from unexpected calamities to routine daily annoyances. In response to stressors, a series of behavioral, neurochemical, and immunological changes occur that ought to serve in an adaptive capacity. However, if those systems become overly taxed, the organism may become vulnerable to pathology. Likewise, the biological changes, if sufficiently sustained, may themselves adversely affect the organism's well-being. Several factors may dictate an individual's response to environmental stressors, including characteristics of the stressor (i.e., type of stressor and its controllability, predictability, and chronicity); biological factors (i.e., age, gender, and genetics); and the subject's previous stressor history and early life experiences. Research on the physiological and psychological responses to different types of stressful stimuli is presented, focusing particularly on processes that may be releva nt to the development of alcohol use disorders. Stressful events may profoundly influence the use of alcohol or other drugs (AODs). For example, the resumption of AOD use after a lengthy period of abstinence may reflect a person's attempt to self-medicate to attenuate the adverse psychological consequences of stressors (e.g., anxiety). Alternatively, stress may increase the reinforcing effects of AODs. KEY WORDS: psychological stress; physiological stress; sensory stimuli; conditioned response; unconditioned response; coping skills; neurotransmitters; brain; neurochemistry; biological adaptation; animal model; genetics and heredity; gender differences; age differences; life event; AQDD (AOD use disorders); literature review

Exposure to stressful situations is among the most common human experiences. These types of situations can range from unexpected calamities (e.g., bereavement, natural disaster, or illness) to routine daily annoyances. Regardless of their degree of severity, however, stressors may promote physiological and behavioral disturbances, ranging from psychiatric disorders (Brown 1993) to immune system dysfunction (Herbert and Cohen 1993). Stressful events also may profoundly influence the use of alcohol or other drugs (AODs). For example, the resumption of AOD use after a lengthy period of abstinence may reflect a person's attempt to self-medicate to attenuate the adverse psychological consequences of stressors (e.g., anxiety). Alternatively, stress may increase the reinforcing effects of AODs.

This article provides a working definition of stress and describes research on the physiological and psychological responses to different types of stressful stimuli, focusing particularly on processes that may be relevant to the development of alcohol use disorders.

STRESS: A WORKING DEFINITION

As commonly used, the term "stressor" indicates a situation or event appraised as being aversive in that it elicits a stress response which taxes a person's physiological or psychological resources as well as possibly provokes a subjective state of physical or mental tension. As relevant scientific data have accumulated, however, a simple, universally accepted definition of stress has become increasingly elusive.

This article focuses on some of the factors that may influence the mechanisms by which a person responds to stressful situations (i.e., stressors). Much of the information presented here is based on animal research, which can provide essential information not obtainable from human studies. However, the human stress response is influenced by a host of personality characteristics and life experiences that cannot be duplicated in animal studies. Other articles in this issue provide more specific information on possible interactions between stress and human behavioral responses, such as alcohol consumption.

Many researchers view the stress response as an adaptive mechanism designed to maintain the relative stability of the body's overall physiological functioning (i. …

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