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Physiological toughness

Dr. Simon Moss

Overview

The theory of physiological toughness, introduced by Dienstbier (1989), explains some key observations about stress and resilience. This theory, for example, explains the finding that individuals who exercise regularly, such as swim in cold water, subsequently show rapid and intense spikes in adrenaline during stressful tasks. Such intense spikes tend to enhance performance on these stressful activities.

In short, stressful experiences both early and later in life, coinciding with a sense of control or followed by sufficient recovery, increase the likelihood of a specific pattern of physiological responses to subsequent challenging events. These physiological responses tend to optimize emotional stability and performance.

Catecholamines and cortisol

An appreciation of this theory demands some understanding of catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, and glucocorticoids, in particular cortisol.

Catecholamines represent a set of chemicals and include dopamine, noradrenaline-also called norepinephrine, and adrenaline-also called epinephrine. These three catecholamines are produced both in the brain and in the body. However, dopamine largely acts in the brain, adrenaline largely acts in the body, and noradrenaline acts in both the brain and body.

Many factors affect the production of these catecholamines. For example, when individuals experience a sense of arousal or challenge, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system in the body, which both releases noradrenaline as well as stimulates the production of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla-the central segment of the adrenal gland, just above the kidneys. This set of systems is sometimes called the sympathetic-adrenergic-medullary axis.

Cortisol is a hormone that mobilizes stores of energy, acts on neurons in the central nervous system, and inhibits the immune system. Several factors also determine the production of cortisol. For example, when individuals experience a sense of arousal or threat, neurons of the hypothalamus initiates the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone from the anterior pituitary. This hormone activates the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex-the peripheral section of the adrenal gland. This set of systems is sometimes called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

Features of physiological toughness

The key premise is that experiences with stressful contexts, such as cold temperatures, especially if coupled with a sense of control or adequate recovery, shape the physiological responses of individuals to similar events. First, these individuals exhibit low levels of catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, as well as glucocorticoids, in particular cortisol, during baseline conditions. Second, during challenging or stressful events, these individuals exhibit a sharp, rapid rise in catecholamines, but a limited increase in cortisol. As a consequence, their heart rate rises and mental activity is augmented, but blood pressure remains relatively constant (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996).

These physiological responses correspond to adaptive reactions to challenging events. For example, the individuals show less fear or avoidance in stressful contexts-and instead perform optimally. They tend to conceptualize these events as challenges rather than threats. The elevated levels of adrenaline somehow prevent fearful or avoidant responses.

Antecedents to physiological toughness: Evidence

The theory of physiological toughness identifies four key determinants of physiological toughness: early experiences, passive toughening, active toughening, and aging

Early experiences in animals

According Dienstbier (1989), stressful experiences early in life, if coupled with opportunities to respond actively and to recover sufficiently, tend to promote physiological toughness. In particular, in a series of studies, young rats or mice were exposed to stressful conditions or electrical stimulations. They might, for example, have been handled extensively.

Later in life, these animals developed heavier adrenal glands. More importantly, they showed less fear in response to threats (see Denenberg, 1967& Levine, 1960).

Passive toughening in animals

Second, according to Dienstbier (1989), exposure to shock, cold, and other stressful events later in life, also if coupled with opportunities to respond actively and to recover sufficiently, might foster physiological toughness. This principle was first derived from experiments on the concept of learned helplessness. In this paradigm, animals experience a stressful event, such as electric stimulation. Only half the animals, however, are permitted to control the timing or intensity of these events. Over the next 30 minutes or so, the animals that are not granted any control show avoidance or helplessness in response to other stressful activities (e.g., Overmier & Seligman, 1967).

Weiss and colleagues have shown that such helpless responses tend to be mediated by depleted levels of central noradrenaline. For example, drugs that temporarily deplete central noradrenaline also foster helpless or avoidant responses. Inhibitors of such depletion, such as administration of monoamine oxydase inhibitor, preclude such helpless responses (see Glazer, Weiss, Pohorecky, & Miller, 1975& Weiss & Glazer, 1975& Weiss, Glazer, Pohorecky, Brick, & Miller, 1975& Weiss, Stone, & Harrell, 1970).

Interestingly, as Weiss and colleagues have shown, continued exposure to such stressful events-such as many experiences with cold water or shock-can, if followed by periods of recovery, foster tolerance to further depletion. That is, as a consequence of such regular incidents, subsequent stressful events do not deplete catecholamines. These animals, for example, are not only less likely to demonstrate helpless responses, but also exhibit elevated levels of tyrosine hydroxylase-an enzyme that converts tyrosine to dopa, which is a precursor to noradrenaline and adrenaline (see Weiss, Glazer, Pohorecky, Brick, & Miller, 1975).

Stressful events also increase the escalation of cortisol. Nevertheless, such escalations in cortisol are less likely or enduring if the individuals are granted a capacity to respond-and thus a sense of control-or when the setting is predictable (e.g., Levine, 1980, 1983).

In short, stressful events, with no opportunity for response or recovery, culminate in depletion of catecholamines, such as adrenaline, and elevated levels of cortisol. In contrast, stressful events, with some opportunity for response and recovery, preclude depletion of catecholamines, enabling elevated levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline, and reduce levels of cortisol.

Passive toughening in humans

Some evidence of passive toughening has also been derived from human studies. For example, exposure to cold has been shown to promote levels of catecholamine, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline in humans. Interestingly, individuals who perceive themselves as tolerant to cold and heat tend to experience more stable emotions as well as more activity and vigor (Dienstbier, LaGuardia, & Wilcox, 1987).

When humans undertake stressful tasks, but granted a sense of control-such as the choice to regulate their rate of stimuli-catecholamines, but not cortisol, rises, indicative of physiological toughness (Frankenhaeuser, Lundberg, & Forsman, 1980). Interestingly, if the task is dull, cortisol rises, especially in Type A participants (Lundberg & Forsman, 1979). Perhaps such contexts are perceived as stressful, because they experience a sense of impending punishment. Coping skills have also been shown to reduce cortisol levels in residents of a nursing home.

Active toughening in animals

Third, as Dienstbier (1989) highlights, deliberate attempts to engage in these stressful contexts, such as swimming in cold water and aerobic exercise, also promotes physiological toughness. After rats are encouraged to engage in exercise over several weeks, for example, brain noradrenaline rises (Brown, Payne, Kim, Moore, Krebs, & Martin, 1979& Brown & Van Huss, 1973).

Active toughening in humans

Exercise in humans has also been shown to promote physiological toughness (for a review, see Dienstbier, 1984). Exercise in both cardiac patients (Ehsani, Heath, Martin, Hagberg, & Holloszy, 1984) and healthy participants (Hull, Young, & Ziegler, 1984) has been shown to culminate in more acute rises in catecholamines immediately after activity levels reached a peak. Furthermore, after weeks or exercise, urinary measures show a more acute rise in catecholamines in response to events that are psychologically, not only physically, stressful (Dienstbier, LaGuardia, Barnes, Tharp, & Schmidt, 1987).

Aging

Finally, Dienstbier (1989) argued that aging might compromise physiological arousal. This pattern has been observed in both animals and humans. In older animals, for example, the sensitivity of beta receptors diminishes. As the sensitivity of these receptors diminishes, the effect of catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, subsides as well.

Consequences of physiological toughness

Evidence of performance improvements in humans

Several studies in Scandinavia have confirmed the association between physiological toughness and the capacity to prevail in stressful contexts. In one study, conducted in Sweden, the difference in levels of adrenaline before and during a mathematics exam was assessed. This difference, which partly represents physiological toughness, was correlated with performance on the mathematics exam and capacity to maintain concentration even after errors (see Johansson, Frankenhaeuser, & Magnusson, 1973).

A similar pattern of observations was observed in Finland, especially in boys (Rauste-von Wright, von Wright, & Frankenhaeuser, 1981). Furthermore, this pattern of findings has been uncovered in adults as well (Johansson & Frankenhaeuser, 1973). Indeed, spikes in both adrenaline and noradrenaline predict performance on various tasks.

In addition, this relationship seems to be linear. That is, inverted U shaped curves have not been uncovered& that is inordinately acute spikes in these catecholamines do not correspond to a decrement in performance (see Dienstbier, 1989).

Evidence of affective improvements in humans

Such indices of physiological toughness also correlate with emotional wellbeing. Children whose adrenaline levels rise markedly in response to a mathematics test showed more emotional stability than other participants. In adults, such ndices correspond to lower levels of neuroticism. In contrast, elevated levels of cortisol, which indicates inadequate physiological toughness, correspond to depression, anxiety, neuroticism, anorexia, and other problems (see Anisman & LaPierre, 1982& Barnes, 1986& Lader, 1983).

Mechanisms that underpin these benefits

Peripheral catecholamines, especially adrenaline and noradrenaline, stimulate activation in the central nervous system and in muscles. In particular, these catecholamines, particularly adrenaline, elevate blood flow to the brain and increase levels of glucose in the blood. Such glucose is needed to facilitate the increased activation of neurons that coincides with challenging mental activities (Dienstbier, 1989& Martin, 1985).

These catecholamines, particularly noradrenaline, also facilitate the conversion of fats to energy. Accordingly, noradrenaline increases muscular activity, which can utilize the fats as a form of fuel. Noradrenaline also increases the sensitivity of skeletal muscle membranes to acetylcholine (Jansky, Mejsnar, & Moravec, 1976). Accordingly, noradrenaline is primarily involved in arousal that corresponds to physical activity, whereas adrenaline is primarily involved in arousal that corresponds to mental activity.

Application to other theories

Challenge and threat

The theory of physiological toughness also underpins the biophysical model of challenge and threat (see Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, Salomon, 1999& Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996). Individuals experience a sense of challenge when individuals feel they can access the necessary resources-the skills, the knowledge, the effort, and the materials-to fulfill their demands. When this state prevails, the sympathetic nervous system accelerates cardiac activity, but the adrenaline dilates vessels, and hence blood pressure remains relatively constant. The physiological response resembles the pattern of reactions that are evoked by aerobic exercise. Motives to approach, rather than avoid, also prevail.

Individuals experience a sense of threat when individuals do not feel they can access the necessary resources to fulfill their demands. When this state emerges, the sympathetic nervous system again accelerates cardiac activity. Nevertheless, in this instance, the adrenal medullar is inhibited, the release of adrenaline diminishes, and hence vessels are not dilated. Blood pressure rises.

Job demands and job control

The theory of physiological toughness, coupled with the biophysical model of challenge and threat, can underpin many other findings and models. For example, many studies indicate that job demands do not culminate in problems, such as exhaustion, unless job control is diminished (e.g., Karasek, Russell & Theorell, 1982). From the perspective of physiological toughness, job demands, when coupled with a sense of control, should elevate levels of catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, but not cortisol. This physiological response tends to be associated with emotional stability.

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