Chapter 1: Stress
One of the early pioneers in the study of stress was Walter Cannon, an eminent American physiologist at Harvard Medical School. In the early part of the 20th century, Cannon was the first to identify the body’s physiological reactions to stress.
Cannon and the Fight-or-Flight Response
Imagine that you are hiking in the beautiful mountains of Colorado on a warm and sunny spring day. At one point during your hike, a large, frightening-looking black bear appears from behind a stand of trees and sits about 50 yards from you. The bear notices you, sits up, and begins to lumber in your direction. In addition to thinking, “This is definitely not good,” a constellation of physiological reactions begins to take place inside you. Prompted by a deluge of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) from your adrenal glands, your pupils begin to dilate. Your heart starts to pound and speeds up, you begin to breathe heavily and perspire, you get butterflies in your stomach, and your muscles become tense, preparing you to take some kind of direct action. Cannon proposed that this reaction, which he called the fight-or-flight response, occurs when a person experiences very strong emotions—especially those associated with a perceived threat (Cannon, 1932). During the fight-or-flight response, the body is rapidly aroused by activation of both the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system. This arousal helps prepare the person to either fight or flee from a perceived threat.
According to Cannon, the fight-or-flight response is a built-in mechanism that assists in maintaining homeostasis—an internal environment in which physiological variables such as blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and temperature are stabilized at levels optimal for survival. Thus, Cannon viewed the fight-or-flight response as adaptive because it enables us to adjust internally and externally to changes in our surroundings, which is helpful in species survival.
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