There’s stress in all of our lives, and then there is stress. We experience stress—the internal or external influences that disrupt an individual’s normal state of well-being (p. 3) (Middlebrooks & Audage, 2008)—throughout our lives even before we are born. Without it, we would not be able to grow and develop normally. The science of stress provides the integrating conceptual bridge between physical, emotional, social, and moral health. The physiological effects of stress are profound because every major organ system in our body becomes mobilized under conditions of stress to enable us to adapt to change and to overcome whatever threat to survival the stressor is posing. Because our bodies and minds evolved within an intensely social context, much of our adaptation and ability to survive is dependent on others of our kind. As a result, the physiological effects of stress are contagious. The effects of social contagion can be profoundly important and a door that “swings both ways.” A certain amount of stress is vital for growth and development of the individual and social systems. But too much stress or the wrong kind of stress and people get sick and so do social systems.
The study of stress, adversity and trauma has taught us about normal and abnormal functioning. Unfortunately, our ability to think clearly, logically, and in an integrated way is vulnerable to a multitude of stresses. These stresses can be biological, psychological, social, or moral, or any combination of these. Regardless of the kind of stress, our capacity for clear thinking is constantly jeopardized by physiologically-based bodily and emotional reactions over which we have little control and about which we often have little awareness.
Any kind of overwhelming stress produces fragmentation, and, like Humpty-Dumpty, the pieces often elude reunion. It is this fragmentation, or loss of normal integrated functions, that is at the heart of understanding the impact of overwhelming stress. Once we understand that the brain – not just the mind – is overwhelmed at the time of an event and does not perform its normal integrative processes, then all else begins to fall into place.
It is when we are severely stressed, when the expected routine of daily life is disturbed by traumatic events, that our bodies respond in primitive ways and we find ourselves in the midst of a storm of emotional and physical reactions that we cannot understand or control. In many ways, we are not the same people when we are terrified as when we are calm. Our bodies change in remarkable ways, as do our perceptual abilities, our emotional states, our thought processes, our attention, and our memory. When under this kind of stress it is as if we become another person, no longer able to respond to others as we would under less threatening circumstances.