Psychology Magazine

Feeling Unsafe in a Safe World - the Unsafety Theory of Stress

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
Brosschot et al. make the point that our body's stress response is chronically turned on, unless it is actively inhibited by our upstairs prefrontal perception of safety. Thus the chronic stress many of us are feeling in our immediate current political environment is as much due to a generalized sense of unsafety rather than specific stressors. Here is a clip from their introduction, followed by their summary points and abstract:
Current neurobiological evidence and evolutionary reasoning imply that the stress response is a default response of the organism, and that it is the response the organism automatically falls back upon when no other information is available. So, the problem should not be formulated as: “what causes chronic stress responses?” but as “what mechanism allows the default stress response to be turned off?—and when does this ‘switch off’ mode fail to work?” To answer this last question is the chief goal of this article. We hypothesize that the mechanism that explains most chronic stress responses in daily life is the generalized perception of unsafety (GU), that is largely automatic (and as a result mainly unconscious). The argument in a nutshell: GU causes the default stress response to remain activated, whenever our phylogenetically ancient mind-body organism fails to perceive safety in a wide range of situations in modern society that are not intrinsically dangerous. This new explanation forms a radical shift from current stress theory – including our own PC hypothesis – that focuses on stressors and PC. It comprises a completely new theory called, as mentioned, the “Generalized Unsafety Theory of Stress” (GUTS). A key principle of GUTS is that not being able to switch off, or inhibit the default stress response is not dependent on actual stressors or PC: perceived GU is sufficient, GU is the crucial element here. Due to GU, chronic stress responses occur in an objectively safe world, with no threatening information. The GUTS has a far greater explanatory ability than other current stress theories.
Summary points and abstract:
Highlights
The stress response is a default response, it is ‘always there’; it is not generated but disinhibited.
This default response is under tonic prefrontal inhibition as long as safety is perceived; and the conditions of safety are learned during an individual organism's lifespan.
This tonic inhibition is reflected by high tonic vagally mediated heart rate variability, and is relatively energy-economic.
Chronic stress responses are due to generalized unsafety (GU) rather than stressors.
GU is present in many other conditions, including obesity, old age and loneliness.
Abstract
Based on neurobiological and evolutionary arguments, the generalized unsafety theory of stress (GUTS) hypothesizes that the stress response is a default response, and that chronic stress responses are caused by generalized unsafety (GU), independent of stressors or their cognitive representation. Three highly prevalent conditions are particularly vulnerable to becoming ‘compromised’ in terms of GU, and carry considerable health risks:
(1) ‘Compromised bodies’: in conditions with reduced bodily capacity, namely obesity, low aerobic fitness and older age, GU is preserved due to its evolutionary survival value;
(2) ‘Compromised social network’: in loneliness the primary source of safety is lacking, i.e. being part of a cohesive social network;
(3) ‘Compromised contexts’: in case of specific stressors (e.g. work stressors), daily contexts that are neutral by themselves (e.g. office building, email at home) may become unsafe by previously being paired with stressors, via context conditioning.
Thus, GUTS critically revises and expands stress theory, by focusing on safety instead of threat, and by including risk factors that have hitherto not been attributed to stress.

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