What is a Stress Perspective?


What is a Stress Perspective?

A Stress Perspective looks at the interaction of the many factors that lead to outcomes.

It uses a framework of science (the word science means the “rules we use to discover truth”) that is much different than the typical framework we are accustomed to.

For example, when two people have a cancer, we look for what they have in common that led to that cancer. When we find that variable we find the cause. Within a stress framework, when two people have the same cancer, they could have very different causes. The cause created a stress that lead to the outcome.

These are two very different scientific frameworks. One is referred to as linear, the other is referred to as nonlinear.  The former is direct, the latter is indirect.

Stress is not just a bad thing that happens.  Stress, more importantly, is about information from the environment. Stress can create a shift in programmed responses. Programming can become problematic if the messages and responses do not represent the actual environment (Boersma).

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Ocalicon 2015 Poster: Thinking Types of Autism, Chaos Patterns and Outcome Diversity


Thanks to everyone that stopped by at Ocalicon 2015 November 17-19th. It was an incredibly informative couple of days! I met so many wonderful and passionate people supporting, talking about and helping to find solutions and acceptance for Autism. I had a great time talking about my work, excited to present a model, where we current lack working models, to understand Autism.  I hope it inspires more discussions about refining this model to devise applications and individualized approaches.

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Is Autism a Stress Adaptation?

Could Autism be seen as a Stress Adaptation?

Author: Lori Hogenkamp, B.A. Psychology

Edited: July 24, 2018

Note: I am on the autism spectrum. Much of my communication is scripted, so many times my sentence structure and communicated thought processes can be jumbled. I don’t have an editor. So please read with a huge grain of salt. Thank you.


Stress, like the word “snow” for the Inuit (Robson, 2013), is a single word with dozens of different meanings. The definition of stress (Rahal et al, 2013) can range from the commonly understood “fight or flight” to the complex regulation and adaptive capacities of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal. Or as defined by researchers Mohd. Razali Salleh “Stress is defined as a process in which environmental demands strain an organism’s adaptive capacity resulting in both psychological demands as well as biological changes that could place at risk for illness.” (Salleh, 2008)

On the cellular level, stress, or how the body-brain maintains homeostasis, is through complex physiological responses called allostasis (McEwen, 2017). These various stress coping strategies and trade-offs are quite individualistic, on both the social and cellular levels (Ebner and Singewald, 2016).

It would be a mistake to think of stress so simply as anxiousness. Because at its foundation, stress is the medium in which our genes communicate with our environment. The core communication of survival and evolution (Hammerlund et al., 2018 in ScienceDaily) .

A stress framework would be a working description of the patterns and compilation of hits and allostatic loads that impact adaptive programming. The combination possibilities are vast (Schaafsma et al., 2017) and act together in a synergistic fashion (Fatemi et al., 2012; Lombardo et al., 2017).

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Original Paper: Autism, Stress and The Creative Brain

April 2009

Note: This was my original hypothesis paper (thought process). I started this journey with my own realization of my own autism. I knew that my own brain wasn’t broken and seemed to be working in overdrive and I asked the question: What if these brains already had a unique way of processing information and that was amplified? What would the consequences be and how could it happen. Since that time epigenetics (stress mechanisms, or gene-environment interaction) became mainstream and some of the percentages of the population have shifted. I have a very busy brain, so grabbing quotes (or speaking in script) is often how I communicate, as writing (communication of my multilayered and multidirection thinking) has always been my biggest struggle. I know this isn’t how typical papers are written, nor the correct way… but it was a way that worked for me.

Autism, Stress and The Creative Brain

The evidence collected in this theory suggest that the minds of a subpopulation within the Autism Spectrum inherently process information differently than the norm, or those within the average or majority population. These subgroups of individuals may have evolved or adapted neurophysiologically atypical in order to receive more or uniquely process information from their sensory systems.

“This means creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment” says Peterson…”The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities.” (Peterson 2000)

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Epilepsy and Autism: From a Stress Perspective

In a previous post, “What is a Stress Perspective“, I hypothesize that we can use a Stress Model to see patterns in most disorders. Here is a quick exercise on epilepsy (consider this a starting model for a work in progress).

Epilepsy’s connection to autism is yet unknown. It is presumed that both being conditions of a dysfunctional nervous system accounts for the overlap. More individuals with autism have intractable epilepsy and there is a greater risk of death for those on the spectrum with epilepsy. About 20-30% of those one the spectrum are suggested to have epilepsy (AutismSpeaks, WebMD, Spence 2009)

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Microglia, Sex, Autism and Beyond: The Stress Perspective

At IMFAR this year it sounded as if there were some outstanding presentations about the involvement of microglia in autism. Microglia were once thought to be merely the “glue” that kept neurons together. We now know that they are rather complex communication network for neurons.  They are the first line defense of our immune reactions and one of our most primitive abilities to respond and adapt to stress.

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Suramin: A Stress Perspective of this Very Old Drug and Autism

This is a study to get really excited about.  Not only the potential (with funding) for drug possibilities, but its potential for uncovering aspects of underlying mechanism for autistic dysfunctioning.

The drug, Suramin, is over 100 years old and was used for African Sleeping Sickness. Sleeping Sickness is a parasitic infection from the Tetse fly that attacks the blood and neurological systems resulting in death.  It’s unclear exactly what Suramin does, but it is suggested in humans to reverse the messaging of what the researcher’s theoretically call the “Cell Danger Response“. The cell danger response (CDR) is the evolutionarily conserved metabolic response that protects cells and hosts from harm.

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Perfect Stress is not an Amount (Part 1)

In a PsychologyToday article entitled “The Perfect Amount of Stress” the author, Thea Singer, contemplates “when do we have too little stress and when do we have too much stress?” A good question, but likely an over-simplified one.

A better question might be: “When have we been overly programmed by stress and when do the costs of that adaptation outweigh the benefits?”

“Our goal isn’t a life without stress,” Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky says. “The idea is to have the right amount of stress.” That means stressors that are short-lived and manageable.

While it is often true that the goal is to have short-lived stresses that are manageable. It is also true that a short-lived stress or an acute stress can be just as, if not more, damaging. For example, a short stress can adapt a system inappropriately. Either making that system hyper-reactive or using resources like energy and nutrients ineffectively. A short term stress early in life can also make other stressors occurring later in life more stressful than we’d typically expect.

A stress is ultimately something that elicits activation of the body and brain to tell us that something in our environment needs our attention.  However, stress is not just immediate dangers like tigers, bears and sharks.  Stress is also the plain and mundane. Stress keeps us alert, awake, active, adapting and reacting properly to all sorts of rewards and threats.

Our Daily Stress

In linear science where one finds a single cause and a single cure, stress is represented by cortisol levels. A linear approach looks at cause and effect in a straight line. A single cause, stress, creates a single reaction, cortisol.  So the traditional way of seeing stress has always been an increase in cortisol.  Cortisol is “Enemy #1” says traditional approaches to mainstream medicine.  However, we are just beginning to realize that this relationship is much more complex.  Cortisol sort of pings into a major stress axis of the brain called the HPA axis which pings with another axis called the HPG axis and then goes off in many different directions affecting many different neural, chemical and genetic pathways. It does this attempting to maintain balance, or what is called in scientific terms, homeostasis. And this depends on many factors within each person. This is why stress is personal and we can say “stress is different for everyone”. However, stress also follows very distinct patterns, rules and trade-offs. So when we talk about stress we are talking about a type of science with complex rules to follow to understand how and why those differences occur.

Cortisol is a very simple way to see the first action that stress takes on our body. Cortisol is an extremely important part of our everyday experience. We need cortisol, or stress. Some of us wake up because of rising cortisol levels, some drink coffee to raise their cortisol levels. Cortisol alerts our brains to ‘wake up’ to the world.

Bruce McEwen, stress expert states in the article:

Yet there is no uniform right amount of stress. Each of us has a different stress threshold—that is, the degree of stress needed to benefit or harm us—depending on our history and even our genetic makeup. For sure, there are events that are universally rated high stress: you lose your job or a loved one, a tropical storm floods your basement. But what matters most regarding health and even longevity is not the event itself but how you respond to it. And how you respond—emotionally and physiologically—depends on how you perceive it.

There seems to be a desire to make how we respond to stress purely a conscious choice; attitude, perception, grit. While we certainly have a lot of power in how and when we perceive stress, stress perception can be just as much unconscious as it is conscious. How we perceive it may depend on our physiological internal state.

Choice and attitude is a single piece in the stress perception pie.  Just one slice deeply interactive with all the other slices and aspects of our stress physiology. As anyone on very little sleep can attest, their “attitude” becomes highly susceptible to sensory assaults or social triggers.  When in a more rested states those triggers and aggravations would not bother them at all.  When we are in a more heightened stress state and “fight or flight” hits you, you are going to want to fight or flight. Your options of choice have become limited. When your brain gets hit by adrenaline and cortisol, it gets flooded with these chemicals that can create adverse over-excitation. To calm that excitation, you need an outlet, a way to control and calm those feelings. Without some kind of reaction to depress this activity, the brain chemistry in these overwhelmed states could create actual damage to the brain.

Knowledge of social support such as having friends, family community, cognitive reframing or a change in self-talk, meditation, relaxation or being in an enriched environments of activity and purpose are all part countering social stress with social resources.

Our ability to counter and recover those stress emergencies depends on our social resources, but also such things as our mineral supplies, our fatty acid balances, our symbiotic bacteria and our hormone messengers.  It also depends on our ability to oscillate.   If a stressor impairs our ability to go into proper and timely “healing responses” then this can begin to degrade the system. Stress becomes more stressful.  Even if we have “constant stress”, if we have the proper resources to make that stress useful and are able to go into rhythms of recovery and healing phases, then constantly stressing or challenging our systems can be good for us.

A reaction stress is mandatory or the brain may become damaged (or overly adaptative).  One such example of something that “soothes” these chemical, besides social attitude or perception is high sugar-fat foods. High caloric energy after a dreadful event can calm the chemicals.   This protects the neurons from damage, it tells the brain its safe to calm down because it has extra energy to get the job done.

However, as we also know, high sugar/fat diets are bad for us.  They are bad for us because while they calm the brain, they stress the body even more. Too much sugar and fat together create the same impact as early life stress. sugar-fat diets can create major problems in development or stress reactivity programming later on in life.  This is because excessive energy in the form low quality and early life excessive and chronic sugar and/or fat exposures can have the same impact as early life stress, programming the brain/body for later life disorders and illnesses.

Our thought process or attitude toward challenges is part of that perception, however so is our biology, immune, neurobiological, nutritional status and our current load of other stresses.  As well as our current level of thresholds and our biological coping patterns of the past which is reflected in the science of adaptation and epigenetics.

So in much this way stress is not about how long or short it is, but what kind of genetic history, recovery, adaptations, trade-offs and resources we have.

To Be Continued…

PART 2: The Resilient and The Vulnerable: Do Personalities reflect Stress Sensititivity?