The Psychology of America’s Decline 2: Cultural Decompensation
The concept of psychological decompensation has been used in the field of clinical psychology to describe a condition in which an individual loses their ability to respond to stressors in an integrated and adaptive way.
Hans Selye identified the General Adaption Syndrome which describes three phases that organisms go through in coping with stressors. A stressor is defined as any demand upon an organism adapt or adjust to some environmental change. These phases are: 1) the alarm reaction, during which time a threat or a stressor (or more) is perceived and defensive or coping efforts are mobilized (concentration, organization, effort, energy, money, etc., are to defend against the stressor(s); 2) the stage of resistance, in which aggressive, defensive and resistive energy is utilized at maximum levels for as long as possible in order to manage the stressor cope successfully; and 3) collapse, the point where energy resources are exhausted and continued stress leads to the disintegration of coping abilities and perhaps even death. Of course, if the organism is able to adapt effectively, the collapse phase can be avoided.
Perhaps you can identify a situation in your life in which you have been challenged to change your behavior to cope with some big stressor, or perhaps many smaller ones impinging upon you all-at-once, or in rapid succession. One individual suffered the loss of his business, a divorce, and bankruptcy, all within a short-time of each other. His struggle to cope with these events visited each of Selye’s three stages. The man survived the ordeal, but he was left anxious and depressed and his ability to cope with future stressors was significantly impaired.
The last stage of Selye’s general adaption syndrome is collapse. In clinical psychology this stage is known as psychological decompensation. Again, decompensation refers to a process in which severe or multiple stressors finally overwhelm a person’s ability to function in an organized, integrated, and effective way. This process is thought to occur with all forms of life, across all environmental conditions. For example, when a cell is invaded by a microorganism it is stressed, and presumably goes through these three stages as it fights to destroy the invader. Other Individual organisms can be similarly taxed by countless stressors (starvation, crowding, natural disasters, and temperature extremes, etc.
Finally, the collections of people the comprise sociocultures can also be stressed by war, famine, climate change and a host of other changes that require them to adapt effectively. But more to the focus of this book, another class of stressors can be the outcomes they suffer as a result of a populations own self-defeating adaptations and the resulting maladaptive behavior patterns that represent more positively accelerating stressful feedback avenues within that population. These self-perpetuating and potentially increasing stress auto-cycles, without effective change and intervention, can lead to cultural decompensation and eventually the severe decline or the utter collapse of cultures.
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V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D. 1/19/12