Training and technology: stress management

As already explained on other occasions, training refers to a learning process, an opportunity to change and improve oneself. In this respect, one way could be to optimize one’s ability to manage the difficulties that life poses. Very often these are the cause of what in psychophysiology is called stress, i.e. the normal response of the individual to pressure from the environment (external and internal, physical and psychic). Closely related to this, there is a way of acting that can be learned and optimized through training identified with the term resilience: the ability of the individual to cope with traumatic events and reorganize his or her life positively. Let’s take a closer look at where these concepts and methods originated and how we can optimize our management of the obstacles that life throws at us.

The first person to describe the somatic manifestations of stress was Darwin in 1872, referring to states of emotional and behavioral activation such as sweating, pupillary dilation, and tachycardia. Later, the most important stress scholars were Cannon and Selye. The former, through studies on the digestive system of animals, created hypotheses on the body’s reaction to situations of fear, danger, or pain. He introduced the concept of ‘fight or flight response’ to describe the behavior of the individual when faced with fear or danger as a fight or flight reaction (Cannon, 1915). The first to coin the word ‘stress’ was Selye, who identified the response of the organism of animals and humans to various stressors as the ‘general adaptation syndrome:

  • Alarm phase: the immediate reaction of the organism that triggers a series of neuro- vegetative activations with the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, activating the autonomic nervous system and consequently physiological changes aimed at self-preservation (attack or escape).
  • Resistance phase: in this phase, the organism proceeds to a progressive adaptation and recovery of balance.
  • Exhaustion phase: this phase occurs when exposure to the stressor is prolonged. In this case, the organism enters a phase of exhaustion, the physiological changes giving rise to pathological consequences.

It is important to emphasize that the body’s response depends on how these stressors are perceived (real danger), or on expectations of threat that create anxiety (perception of danger). A distinction should be made here: stress is not always negative; on the contrary, we talk about eustress and distress. In the first case, it is an adaptive response to environmental conditions or events, which can save the individual’s life in the face of real danger; in the second case, there is a condition of (real or perceived) imbalance between the stressor and the ability to cope with it. In the second case, there is a condition of (real or perceived) imbalance between the stressor and the individual’s ability to cope with it. In the latter situation, the threat is generally of such magnitude as to provoke an emotional shock and may lead to significant problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related uncomfortable situations for the individual (stress disorders).

An attitude closely linked to this type of difficult situation, which allows the individual to regain his balance, is the resilient attitude. The studies on resilience were born from the observation of several children who, despite being exposed to various risk factors and consequently the high probability of subsequent psychosocial problems, in adulthood nevertheless managed to form stable relationships, engage in the world of work and towards others, and therefore lead a fulfilling life despite their tortuous past. Scholars at this point wondered how this was possible, opening up a strand of studies on the knowledge of prevention and protection factors that can influence appropriate development. The term resilience is used in physics to refer to a body that resists impact and then returns to its original shape. In biology, it refers to the ability to repair oneself after damage. In psychology, resilience refers to ‘the ability of an individual to withstand the shocks of life without breaking or cracking, while maintaining and enhancing their personal and social resources’ (Oliverio Ferraris, 2003). It has also been defined as “the ability to cope with stressful events, overcome them and continue to develop by increasing one’s resources with a consequent positive reorganization of life” (Malaguti, 2005). Thus, it could be said that resilience puts the individual in a position to grow and develop his or her potential effectively even in the presence of risk factors, the stressors mentioned earlier. Beware of believing, however, that resilience is an infallible and ubiquitous ‘weapon’ because even resilient people can have difficulty overcoming trauma and other risk factors in life. Stress and resilience are two closely related concepts. What can be done to work on all of the above? Training can be created to support the individual to manage stress more effectively, perhaps at the same time working on learning to be resilient. Let’s look at some examples together. The first thing I would like to draw your attention to is how to create interventions that promote resilience and stress management: I mean it is good not to focus only on the specific problem, but always consider the needs, the resources of the person or group you are going to act on, the context in which you are operating. In fact, for this very reason, the most effective approaches are those that place the individual at the center of the process, starting precisely from his or her resources to strengthen them and acquire new ones. Experience is the driving force behind training in this area, as people are allowed to get involved, to experience their emotions in contact with others through specific activities. The next step is to compare what happened and the resources used. A reflection that contributes to becoming aware of what happens and what one can do, to increase self-confidence is closely linked to resilience. Another method of promoting resilience, although there are still few studies in the literature, is storytelling. Writing about one’s traumas is a useful action for the person: “The act of constructing a personal story helps people understand their experiences and themselves, as well as enables them to organize and remember events coherently by integrating thoughts and feelings. This gives people a sense of control over their lives because once they have managed to structure and give meaning to their story, the emotional effects of the narrated experience become more manageable” (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999).

Nowadays, these courses have changed and we have had to design more and more online training. The greatest difficulty, in this case, is that it is not possible to guarantee the active participation of the person: technology, in particular virtual reality, has helped us with this problem. It allows us to create paths to strengthen individual resources (self-esteem, management of emotions), rehabilitation paths, guaranteeing a high degree of interactivity, of active experimentation, thanks to the use of visors and advanced software. Virtual reality has been used, for instance, for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in the military context. The guiding principle of this treatment seems to be the gradual re-introduction to the experiences that triggered the trauma (Paulson and Krippner, 2007). In practice, the patient is gradually induced to relive the traumatic situation, but in a controlled context and without forcing the subject to face what he is not yet ready for. In this regard, the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) launched a project to create a system of virtual environments in which Iraq war veterans diagnosed with PTSD could be gradually immersed (Rizzo, 2006). More recently, this technology has also taken hold in cognitive rehabilitation (Gaggioli, Keshner, and Riva, 2009; Morganti and Riva, 2006). Virtual rehabilitation” strongly increases the enjoyment, involvement, and motivation of the patient (Morganti, 2004), possessing the characteristics of intensity and repetitiveness typical of traditional protocols, with the characteristic of being “task-oriented”. A very recent example is the Cerebrum app, which allows the user to be immersed in experiential situations that simulate everyday reality, useful to work on resources and difficulties of the users. The latter through the visor display 360° videos, with the possibility of exploring the scene and answering questions from the rehabilitation clinician, also allowing constant monitoring by the professional.

Vrainers has developed training guided by a human-like avatar, in which the individual is immersed in a virtual pathway through which he or she can optimize his or her skills. A training that encourages dynamic and engaging learning, under the supervision of psychologists and experts in Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence. The main objective, therefore, is to facilitate training even in emergencies such as the one we are still experiencing. The center of the paths created together with the avatar is always the person, who is always flanked by a psychologist, like two figures working together towards a common goal.

We can therefore conclude by saying that virtual reality is an important means of prevention and learning, which makes it possible to live an experience directly, to ‘immerse’ oneself in the concrete situation, simulated virtually. The content of this multisensory interface (involving sight, hearing but also movement) allows participants to live individualized and emotionally involving experiences, in a controlled context, learning from them and bringing them back to the real environment (transferability of learning).

Bibliography and Sitography

Anolli, L. (2002). Psicologia della comunicazione.Bologna: Il Mulino.

Bertetti, B. (2008). Oltre il maltrattamento: La resilienza come capacità di superare il trauma.Milano: Franco Angeli.

Cyrulnik, B., & Malaguti, E. (2005). Costruire la resilienza: La riorganizzazione positiva della vita e la creazione di legami significativi.Trento: Erikson.

Dohrenwend, B. S. (1978). Social stress and community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 6, 1-14.

Flach, F. F. (1988). Resilience: Discovering a new strength at times of stress.New York: Ballantine.

Klein, K. (2002). Stress, expresive writing and worrking memory. In S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smyth (Eds.), The writing cure. How expressive wriring promotes health and emotional well-being (pp. 135-155). Washington: American Psychological Association.

Riva, G. (2005). Virtual reality in psychotherapy. Cyberpsychology & behavior, 8 (3), 220-230.

Schultheis MT, Rizzo AA. The application of virtual reality technology in rehabilitation. Rehabil Psychol (2001) 46(3):296–311.

Goncalves R, Pedrozo AL, Coutinho ES, Figueira I, Ventura P. Efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy in the treatment of PTSD: a systematic review. PLoS One (2012) 7(12):e48469.

Author:

Francesco Palazzo

Degree in psychological sciences and techniques from the University of L’Aquila. Master’s degree in Psychology of Well-being: empowerment, rehabilitation, and positive technologies, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. Master’s degree in Sport Psychology. Specialized in the use of Positive Technologies applied to different psychological fields, conducting an experimental study on cognitive enhancement and technical-motor gestures on young competitive tennis players through an integrated training of mental training and virtual reality.

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