The Dual Nature of Stress: Navigating Adaptation and Maladaptation


Stress is an inherent part of life, a force that can either propel us to greater heights or drag us down into the depths of despair. In this blog post, we explore the intricate dance between adaptive and maladaptive stress, drawing on Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) definition of psychological stress as life stressors that surpass an individual’s coping abilities.

The Maladaptive Side: Allostatic Load

The Allostatic Load (AL) theory, proposed by McEwen and Stellar in 1993, sheds light on the dark side of stress. This theory suggests that chronic stress experienced during childhood, without adequate social support, can heighten susceptibility to the physical and psychological toll of stressful events in adulthood. McEwen and Morrison’s (2013) research delves into the intricate interplay between brain regions such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, illustrating how stress can become deeply embedded and lead to maladaptation.

A meta-analysis by Finlay et al. (2022) reinforces these findings, linking adverse childhood experiences, ranging from abuse to poverty, with elevated AL and poorer mental and physical health outcomes in adulthood. However, glimmers of hope emerge in studies by Horan and Widom (2015) and Carroll et al. (2013), which highlight that supportive relationships can partially mediate the impact of adverse childhood experiences on AL. Guidi et al.’s (2020) systematic literature review further emphasizes the role of relationships, revealing that only one study explicitly linked childhood socioeconomic status and stress exposure to AL, while adverse childhood experiences did not always lead to maladaptation.

The Adaptive Side: Optimal Arousal Theory

On the flip side, the Yerkes-Dodson law, also known as Optimal Arousal Theory, introduces the concept of adaptive stress. This theory suggests that individuals have an ideal stress level that corresponds to peak performance. Yerkes and Dodson (1908) outlined an inverted-U relationship between task difficulty and performance, showcasing that optimal stress levels enhance performance, up to a point. Studies by Degroote et al. (2020), Shields et al. (2019), and Jamieson et al. (2022) provide empirical support, demonstrating how acute stress can improve concentration, response speed, and overall performance in various tasks.

In the realm of sports, Doron et al. (2021) underline how maintaining an optimal arousal state is crucial for athletes to excel mentally and physically. This underscores the adaptive nature of acute, task-focused stress.


In conclusion, stress is a complex phenomenon with dual facets—adaptive and maladaptive. The duration of stress, the presence of supportive relationships, and the nature of stressors all contribute to whether stress becomes a catalyst for growth or a harbinger of decline. By understanding the delicate balance between these factors, individuals can navigate the challenges of stress and harness its adaptive potential while mitigating its maladaptive effects.


Carroll, J.E., Gruenewald, T.L., Taylor, S.E., Janicki-Deverts, D., Matthews, K.A., Seeman, T.E. (2013). Childhood abuse, parental warmth, and adult multisystem biological risk in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 110(42):17149–53.

Horan, J.M. & Widom, C.S. (2015). From childhood maltreatment to allostatic load in                adulthood: the role of social support. Child Maltreat. 20(4):229–39.

McEwen, B. S., & Stellar, E. (1993). Stress and the individual. Mechanisms leading to                  disease. Archives of internal medicine153(18), 2093–2101. 

McEwen, B. S., & Morrison, J. H. (2013). The brain on stress: vulnerability and plasticity of         the prefrontal cortex over the life course. Neuron79(1), 16–29.                                                            

Jamieson, J. P., Black, A. E., Pelaia, L. E., Gravelding, H., Gordils, J., & Reis, H. T. (2022). Reappraising stress arousal improves affective, neuroendocrine, and academic                    performance outcomes in community college classrooms. Journal of Experimental        Psychology: General, 151(1), 197–212.

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