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close this bookMental Health Services in Disasters: Manual for Humanitarian Workers (PAHO; 2000; 92 pages) [ES]
View the documentPreface
View the documentObjectives
View the documentIntroduction
open this folder and view contentsChapter 1: Historical Overview and Mental Health Role
close this folderChapter 2: Basic Mental Health Content
View the documentStress/Stressor Response
View the documentCoping and Adaptation
View the documentLoss and Mourning
View the documentSocial Support Systems
View the documentCrisis Response and Resolution
View the documentThe Bio-psycho-socio-cultural system*
open this folder and view contentsChapter 3: Developmental Stages of Survivor Behavior
open this folder and view contentsChapter 4: Post-disaster Intervention Programs
open this folder and view contentsChapter 5: Populations with Special Needs
View the documentMental Health Services in Disasters: Manual for Humanitarian Workers

Stress/Stressor Response

This chapter is designed to convey knowledge about stressor/stress response, coping and adaptation, loss and mourning, social support systems, and crisis response and resolution. This body of knowledge is presented in a concise and summarized manner, bearing in mind that crisis teams work in emergency situations and face time constraints, both for training and post-disaster operations.

Stressors Events or situations that elicit physical or psychosocial reactions in a particular individual under specific conditions (trauma).

Reactions Biological or psychosocial responses of an individual to a stressor, which vary in intensity, effectiveness, and appropriateness of responses.

Effects of Stress Physical or psychosocial results and cumulative consequences of the reaction; some are positive or favorable.

Reactions to stressful events depend on the characteristics of the events, individuals' resources, the task required, and the characteristics of the social environment. The outcome may result in growth, temporary difficulty, and/or psychopathology, depending on the pervasiveness and persistence of the stressor. In general, the stress system may be viewed as fluctuating, open-ended, dynamic, and changing constantly.

Further, the outcome of a stressful event may be exacerbated by many life events, including:


• life timing,
• reactive resources,
• support systems,
• opportunity or ability to act on the environment,
• meaning or symbolism attached to the experience, and
• interpretation of the situation.

Stress can relate to a person's psychophysical condition at a specific point in time. A variety of environmental stimuli can produce stress, and different individuals respond differently to the same stimuli.

Some people appear immune to stressors, while others are particularly vulnerable to the conditions that produce personal disequilibrium. Stress states produce psychobiological responses of varying lengths that are determined by the number, frequency, intensity, duration, and priority of the demands placed on the coping system of an individual reacting to a traumatic event.

Specifically, an individual's reactions to stress vary, depending on the:


• context (level of trauma),
• force of the stressor (trauma),
• individual's health status,
• types of support systems in the community,
• family network, and
• habitual patterns of human interaction.

Stress responses are manifested by specific symptoms consisting of changes in the biological system that have been induced by a group of stimuli or stressors. Using the notion of life preservation as a regulatory system within the body, stress can be viewed as an outcome of the drive for self-preservation when one is impacted by external events.

The theory of equilibrium views stress as related to cognitive processes. When an individual faces a threat, he/she appraises what has happened. When an individual anticipates psychological or physical harm, the stress response increases and may immobilize the individual or cause feelings of hopelessness expressed as helplessness.

Researchers have described stress as the outcome of disrupting customary activities. The source of that disruption may be antecedent, mediating, or intervening factors. These factors, which act to increase or decrease stress, consist of prior events (stressors) that have not been fully resolved, internal and external constraints, affective cognitive processes, and the individual's social expectations and supports.

Social and psychological characteristics are modifiers that define the context in which the stressor-reaction-consequence sequence occurs and produces individual variation in the reactions sequence. Social support systems facilitate the development of coping strategies that help people keep distress within tolerable limits, maintain self-esteem, preserve interpersonal relationships, and meet the requirements of new situations by rehearsal.

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