Stresses, strains and human behavior

I had to undergo some training sessions last week in relation to a software application I am trying to develop. The sessions were more about Mechanical Engineering concepts which were to help me in my development task, I mean, they were more or less technical. There was one topic, though, which grabbed my attention because I thought it could be linked to life in general.

Stress vs Strain….. in Mechanics and Human Behavior

I’ll try and give a brief explanation of the graph above, using as less technical jargon as possible. Consider any mechanical component, for e.g. a long iron plate. When load is applied to it, i.e. it is subjected to ‘stress’ in some form or the other, it will experience some amount of ‘strain’ and certain amount of displacement or curvature or elongation. Until the stress applied is in the ‘elastic range’, everything is fine. When the load is removed, the plate comes back to it’s normal position and shape. Things get a little serious when the stress keeps on increasing beyond the elastic limit and we cross into the ‘plastic range’ of the component. This is when the iron plate starts experiencing some permanent change in it’s appearance. At this stage if the load is gradually removed and brought back to zero, the shape of the plate will not be exactly the way it was before we started the experiment. In other words, it will be ‘deformed’, as is clearly illustrated in the graph. If we continue increasing the stress on the plate in the plastic range there will come a point where the plate will have reached its upper limit of cohesive structural existence i.e. ‘yield point’, beyond which any change in the stress level will have catastrophic results. Here we enter the ‘fracture zone’ and as you can observe in the graph, even reducing the stress now will lead to ‘failure’, which will mean cracking or breaking of the iron plate.

So how can this phenomenon be linked to our lives?

If you look at it closely, you will observe that we too exist in a similar scenario. Man is a social animal and so we all have different roles to play and new responsibilities to handle every single day. There are also expectations and commitments to go with those responsibilities. As a result we are laden with varying amounts of stress. I’m not saying that this stress only has a negative connotation; some stress is good and keeps us going.

It is our reaction to this stress in the form of human behavior which I feel is similar to the phenomenon illustrated in the graph above. As long as the load applied on us by our peers and friends is in the elastic range, everything is fine. Every evening we can come back home and look forward to the next day and in doing so we succeed in forgetting our pressures and stresses. Our family and social lives do not get impacted much here. Now, as soon as the stress applied crosses into the ‘plastic range’, we start experiencing some problems in forgetting it. The stress lingers constantly on our minds, even when we are miles away from the place of its origin (e.g. office, college, exams halls, share markets etc.) and eventually starts affecting our personal lives, social interaction and psyche. It is here that people remark that the person is “not the same person anymore.. he’s changed a little.”

Certainly this is not the end of the world. Different people handle such situations differently, which means that even though the course of life has changed forever (plastic deformation) we still are capable of handling even more stress. Till the ‘yield point’. Just like the iron plate in the above example, it is here that we humans tend to crack, or loose our nerve, or simply go nuts! However you put it, this situation is not desirable. A situation where even a counselor is of no use. This is where permanent damage is done. This is where people think of taking the ultimate step – a cowardly term called ‘suicide’. Its unfortunate though that the same people don’t realize that they are hurtling towards the point-of-no-return through the ‘plastic range’ at the speed of knots.

What’s more eerie with the above comparison is that any structural engineer will tell you that estimating / calculating the ‘yield point’ is simpler than doing the same for the transition between the elastic zone and the plastic zone. Similarly in our lives it is easy to point fingers at a person when he has lost it completely, but extremely difficult to identify the transition between doing just right amount of work or keeping just the right level of expectations from our abilities and over-working or over-bleeding ourselves. In other words, it is tough identifying the point where ‘fun’ exits and ‘greed’ takes over.

Maybe the answer is to stick to the ‘elastic range’. Perhaps that’s what everyone is striving for – the perfect ‘work-leisure balance’, and yet it is so elusive. Even mechanical components are designed to be in this range as far as possible so that their longevity is ensured. Its time you and me start thinking on those lines too!

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13 thoughts on “Stresses, strains and human behavior

  1. Hi, Nikhil, This is such an interesting approach to human stress. I especially appreciate your observation that calculating the yield point is simpler than calculating the transition between the elastic and plastic zones. It’s true that many of us slowly move from the green zone to the red zone with little notice or recognition until it’s too late. As you said, a safe amount of stress can motivate us but chronic and intense stress doesn’t just make us *crazy* it shuts down our thinking and we revert to habit. That’s a dangerous place to be. I really love your blog. You are so bright and thoughtful. Take care. Kelly

    • Thanks Kelly.. for those words and the praise! 🙂 You make a good point about the tendency to take refuge in ‘habit’ when things go deep into the plastic zone. At this point of time one tends to live in a stage of ‘denial’ and its always too late when the reality hits home!

  2. Good analogy nikhil and nice logic. There is an Initial yield point, and then the final. The graph is slightly different, but does not change the analogy.

    • Thanks 🙂 Is there an initial yield point too? Okay. Perhaps that will be similar to the ‘yellow card’ in Football and the ultimate yield point similar to the ‘red card’. Things can be controlled and probably steered to safety at the ‘yellow card’ point.

  3. Initial Yield Point is when you reach the end of elastic state and the straight line relationship between stres and strain. (Yellow card is right description). Then the strain actually reduces a little, evenif you increase stress. (meaning we become careless). Then we go into plastic state and habit(s) until final yield point.

    If you want to ” create ” something permanent/ irreversible, plastic state is mandatory – Clay to statue. 🙂

    Is it applicable to living beings?

    • Yes.. ‘careless’ could be another word for the part just after the first yield point.

      Ideally, the plastic zone SHOULDN’T be applicable to living beings, but who says we live in an ideal world! Someone, something, or some condition often forces us to change, slowly but irreversibly as you mentioned.

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  5. Ha! I’ve seen this chart a few times now, and never thought about it in relation to ‘work-life balance’. Interesting observations.

    • Thank you 🙂

      I’ve always thought that many of the concepts and ideas we employ in the technology domain today stem from our observation of ‘nature’ itself. Human behavior too is part of the same spectrum, and its great when a connection comes forth in such a manner. Quite frankly, when I came across this graphical illustration, it was sort of a revelation for me!

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