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The Stress Reservoir

Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life, pages 376 – 378:

We shall understand the negative effect of environment on human freedom more deeply by considering the phenomenon of stress.

Broadly speaking, the reaction to each unsolved problem, or annoyance, or conflict that is encountered creates in the individual some level of stress (1). Stress is initially functional and productive. It’s purpose is to mobilize the body in such a way that problems get solved. Adrenaline and other agents are mobilized throughout the system, creating special alertness and energy. All these help to address conflicts, unwind them, and to remove sources of annoyance. Each conflict or difficulty that the organism encounters, so long as it remains unsolved, adds to the stress that is mobilized. But there is a limited capacity of stress in every human individual. Varying from person to person, it is nevertheless quite finite in all of us.

Image: Stuartpilbrow at Flickr

There is, in effect, a stress reservoir in the body. The amount of stress being coped with fills this reservoir, to different levels at different times. But as the stress reaches the top of the reservoir, the organism’s ability to deal effectively with the stress decreases. This then gives rise to the ”stress,” as used in its popular meaning. The organism is overloaded. There are more problems occurring than can be solved. The total stress mobilized is beyond what the organism can cope with effectively. Slowly the situation deteriorates. When the stress is too great, creative functioning is impaired. Sometimes it finally breaks down altogether.

Perhaps the most important finding of modern research on stress is that stress is cumulative, because it is all in one currency. Stress from many worries, stress from physical pain, stress from an unresolved argument, stress from light shining in one’s eyes – it is all stress, and it is all one kind of stress. So each of these apparently disparate stress effects fills the same stress reservoir.

Almost any unresolved problem, even when small, adds to the reservoir of stress, and can reduce a person’s ability to function well. So long as challenges faced are within the limits of the stress reservoir, a person is actively solving problems, and becomes more alive, more capable, more rewarded in the process of meeting the challenges. When the stress reservoir fills to impossible levels, the effect is opposite, and the accumulated stress prevents productivity, prevents loving relationships, prevents artistic and intellectual creativity, prevents people from being effective.

The wall outside the University Art Museum in Berkeley

To see more exactly how the accumulation of stress, and disruption of the healthy relation between living structures in the environment and human freedom works, look at the case of a wall outside the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. This wall has sloping sides, unlike a normal wall which has straight sides. Both ground surface and wall are made of concrete, and the concrete slopes and curves continuously from the flat ground to the vertical surface of the wall to form the wall. I suppose the architect supposed this would be fun, or exiting – or perhaps just “different.” But what it actually does is to create very tiny amounts of stress. A person walking along cannot quite tell where the sloping part starts, so there is a chance of tripping. One has to walk away from the wall, minding one’s feet, and has to give up what one is thinking in order to concentrate on not bumping into the wall. And if you were inclined to sit on the wall, you could not. The top of it is too far back from the flat part on the ground; your legs don’t quite reach. So this wall, apparently fun and interesting, is actually a little expensive in needless stress, and in discomfort. This could have been avoided with an ordinary wall 16 inches high, thick enough to sit on, with a wide top, where you can see what it is when you walk by, and where you can sit down if you are tired, wait for a friend, or have a sandwich.

"This could have been avoided with an ordinary wall 16 inches high, thick enough to sit on, with a wide top, where you can see what it is when you walk by, and where you can sit down if you are tired, wait for a friend, or have a sandwich." See also pattern 243, Sitting Wall.

Of course, this example is small scale. Human life would be easy if we only had a few problems of this kind to contend with. It seems almost petty to mention it; perhaps too critical of the architect who was, conceivably, just having fun.

Let us now consider a rather more troublesome example from architecture. This concerns the life of small families with small children on the fifth or sixth floor, or higher, in apartment buildings. The problem has been well documented: the mother with small children; the apartment usually small. Naturally the children – when they are home – want to go out to play with their friends, on the ground, six stories below. The mother wants them to be able to play there. But she cannot easily keep an eye on them, and she can’t get to them quickly if something happens. But she can’t keep them in the apartment, which is too small anyway. So the children go down. She worries constantly, thinking perhaps about kidnapping, or a car accident. But there is no alternative. If she finds it too stressful, she keeps them in the apartment, but after an hour the children romping about breaking things in the apartment, which is too small to contain many friends, she gives up and goes back to the inevitable. She lives with this stress day in, day out. If she tries to go down to watch the children, from the ground, then the cooking doesn’t get done, and all kinds of other negative consequences come from it. There is no way to win. One way or another, this condition remains in her for the few years when her children are young enough to need supervision, but young enough to keep at home. This stress cycle contains a series of factors linked in a “can’t win” pattern. It is just one example of a negatively charged system of conflicting forces which occurs in certain kind of apartments: one of the many other things that might be said about not very good apartment buildings.

The main point is that we here have a second example, in structure like that of the museum wall, of a system which absorbs energy and makes living more difficult, and thus interferes with a positive development of people’s lives. This example is somewhat larger in scope and in its effects than the art museum wall. The nature of the stress that is induced is the same.

Each example adds to the total reservoir of stress people must contend with. It makes everything else more difficult, and a meaningful life just that little bit harder to attain. By themselves, the stress from these two cases could not fill up a person’s stress reservoir. But when these small items increase, and multiply, they begin to have a cumulative effect which is not positive, but negative.

It is in the subtle interplay of factors of this kind that the environment has its effect – positive or negative – on human life.

(1) Stress, and the stress reservoir model I summarize here, has been studied extensively, by Hans Selye and others. Hans Selye, THE STRESS OF LIFE (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).

Published at P2P-Foundation on March 8, 2014.


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