The Distress Response

I wish to tint the topic of stress in a more applicative sense, and on this occasion, I suggest to you an issue I have written about: EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE.

There are 2 diametrically opposed responses regarding stress, which can be evaluated by asking a question face to face.

Please tell me about a stressful situation in context X”.

If your interlocutor takes a deep breath, starts to sweat, becomes blocked, etc., it means that (s)he has an emotional stress response. As soon as a problematic situation occurs, (s)he will directly become affected by it, getting angry or panicking in extreme cases. This is the associated perspective.

If, on the contrary, your interlocutor talked about it very calmly and detached, presenting several aspects concisely without showing any emotion or wistfulness, then his/her stress response will be rational. That means that the person is ready to deal well with stressful situations. This response to stress shows a disassociated or dissociated perspective (disassociation = the observer’s perspective; dissociation = to discriminate among several stimuli acting simultaneously in a conceptual and reactional manner).

In the US, they have researched what happens when anxiety occurs and noted that the brain’s activity becomes blocked only on one single hemisphere that is used. So, to force the brain to use both hemispheres and escape the blockage, move an object from your right hand to your left-hand several times. It may seem corny, but it works.

There is, however, some middle ground in this respect, some sort of “royal ground”. This middle ground is called “choice” – the technical term that designates the ability to oscillate between a rational and emotional stress response. This implies the ability to control emotions in a manner that would consider the exterior environment. I underline this idea related to the environment, especially in the context of the neurological level pyramid designed by American researcher Robert Dilts.

I thought of a few examples I would give, so I chose 2 movies you could watch to better understand what I am writing about. These 2 movies present the 3 types of distress response in a few representative scenes.

Twister (1996, R Jan De Bont)

Official trailer. (keep reading ↓)


A disaster movie about a group of researchers following the tornadoes to better study them and place inside one of them a mechanism that would help them understand and prevent such phenomena. In the scene below, two researchers are “running” away from a tornado, trying to avoid falling prey to it. Their response varies between the emotional and the rational, proving a good balance – precisely what I said earlier: choice. Bill (Bill Paxton) has a 100% rational response to stress, and Jo (Helen Hunt) has a choice response. In contrast, Melissa (Jamie Gertz), the woman who appears in the last seconds of the scene below, has a 100% emotional response to stress – an excellent example of showing all 3 types. 

The first tornado scene

(keep reading ↓)

Why? The response of one’s body to distress is expressed, even in the absence of an “alarm” of the emotional response type. I have published an article with the research results regarding the effects of stress. Thus, one asks by analogy: when the red light is on, signaling that your car ran out of gas, will you stick the screwdriver into it or decide to put some gas in the tank?

The Peacemaker (1997, R Mimi Leder)

Official trailer. (keep reading ↓)


The Peacemaker is a suspense movie about the theft of mass-destruction weapons planned to be used by a group of extremists against the USA. The two main characters have two diametrically opposed responses to stress, which can be seen especially in the confrontation scene after the car chase on the streets of Vienna (which you can see below, it is 3 minutes long, and also in the final stage).

George Clooney plays the tough cowboy who takes control of each situation. In contrast, Nicole Kidman plays a woman born out of her comfortable office to make decisions of life and death in a matter of seconds, decisions that can affect the fate of millions of people. What I found interesting and intelligent in this movie was the way the evolution of the female character is psychologically outlined. Following the scenes, one can also get an idea of the importance of the rational filter to stress and the destructive potential of the emotional filter if improperly used. If we were to use the alarm metaphor, nobody really likes an alarm triggered too often or by unfit stimuli. The same goes for fears. Some are useful and protect us from real dangers, and others are imaginary, such as anxieties and phobias.

The Vienna plaza scene

(keep reading ↓)

This distress response may seem unimportant, but the truth is that the answer to the question “Where is the control to your emotions? With you or outside you?” may have a significant effect, especially regarding human relations. A context easy to exemplify in this respect is the couple. When 2 persons have an emotional response to stress, which is focused on different positions and “pushes each other’s buttons”, conflict occurs in all its “glory”.

Some middle ground (but not always appropriate – as there is no universal response to stress appropriate in any context) is emotion control: “What do I choose now? Do I choose to get angry or do I choose to deal with the situation rationally?”. However, from my own experience and what I have noticed with my clients and the people close to me, I believe that distress response by choice is one of the keys to behavioral flexibility and what entails success in fields such as negotiation, persuasion, or acting.

In the organizational field, you will definitely want to work with people who have a rational distress response!

And this implies a certain amount of emotional (self)control, which can only exist if learned. Therefore, now that we have established the importance of dynamic control, I invite you to meditate on the following: Do I get emotional control? If so, how do I get it? If not, how do I get it?”.

I recommend reading this article on the difference between eustress and distress.

Marcus Victor Grant

Copyright © Marcus Victor Grant 2007-present Translation by Cristiana Brezeanu of the article “Răspunsul la stress, “previously published in Romanian on the 10th of December 2012 on Discerne.This article has been considered the 4th best in quality of all the articles I wrote and published in 2019. Copyright © Marcus Victor Grant, all rights reserved. Copyright © Marcus Victor Grant, all rights reserved

The materials on this blog are subject to this disclaimer.

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