It’s such a tiny word, with such a big impact.
It’s what keeps us safe, and it’s also what can hold us hostage. Finding a balance in there, where you respond appropriately and also manage to leave the response state and come back to a resting state, is the big goal.
The first thing to really understand is that stress is just the process. Back in season 1 I talked about injury and healing, that was in episode 8, and I said the same thing about the inflammation process. Both stress and inflammation are just processes that your body has, to do important stuff. It’s when the shutoff signals don’t happen, or when the stressors themselves don’t stop, that we have issues.
How We Understand Stress
- Major life changes. These changes can be positive, such as a new marriage, a planned pregnancy, a promotion or a new house. Or they can be negative, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce.
- Environment. The input from the world around us can be a source of stress. Consider how you react to sudden noises, such as a barking dog, or how you react to a bright sunlit room or a dark room.
- Unpredictable events. Out of the blue, uninvited houseguests arrive. Or you discover your rent has gone up or that your pay has been cut.
- Workplace. Common stressors at work include an impossible workload, endless emails, urgent deadlines and a demanding boss.
- Social. Meeting new people can be stressful. Just think about going on a blind date, and you probably start to sweat. Relationships with family often spawn stress as well. Just think back to your last fight with your partner or child.
And Internal stressors:
- Fears. Common ones include fear of failure, fear of public speaking and fear of flying.
- Uncertainty and lack of control. Few people enjoy not knowing or not being able to control what might happen. Think about how you might react when waiting for the results of a medical test.
- Beliefs. These might be attitudes, opinions or expectations. You may not even think about how your beliefs shape your experience, but these preset thoughts often set us up for stress. Consider the expectations you put on yourself to create a perfect holiday celebration or advance up the career ladder
Taken together, these are the sources of stress that we can try to influence and support so our responses to them are healthy and appropriate.
Arrgh! The stress of it all!
Acute stress is a slap in the face- literally and figuratively. It’s the sharp shock, it’s the “flight” reaction to the perceived threat like a saber toothed squirrel or the zombie in a haunted house at Halloween that gets you out of there faster than a speeding greyhound. It’s also the freeze response to hearing an unexpected noise in your house at night, or when you get caught doing something you shouldn’t, or the fight response you might feel when a stranger touches you in public (or maybe that’s just me!) or that gives you the surge to wrench a stuck door open when you suddenly feel claustrophobic or trapped.
And you know what? All things being equal, this acute response is pretty awesome. It allows you to react not only faster than thought, but stronger than usual. However, this uses huge amounts of resources, and your body needs time to recover from these experiences.
Herein lies Project Number One- I’m not going to call them problems because I don't want to add to your problems! But these will be projects to take on if you want to make significant improvements or changes, so…
Project #1:: R&R
That’s not normal! Having an event that causes a big, acute stress response just used up all your backup energy stores by engaging every one of your 200+ muscles- including your heart, which is now ready to outrun a hungry bear. It slapped your focus into superhero sharpness, and every excess body process you have just experienced a power outage so your energy could be diverted to saving your life. Turning your body back on just isn’t an instantaneous process, and you deserve to take some time to rest while you re-organize yourself back to homeostasis.
Oh, and bonus- even when you don’t have a big event causing a sharp response, our daily lives are absolutely flooded with micro-stressors anyway so we tend to stay in this fight or flight place all the time.
Don’t believe me? This is from a 2015 study from Florida State University:
"Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task."
And check out just the title of this 2014 study from Universität Mainz in Germany:
Using TV, videos or a computer game as a stress reducer after a tough day at work can lead to feelings of guilt and failure. Ugh.
And in 2020, Penn State announced that “[L]ife may be more stressful now than it was in the 1990s, especially for people between the ages of 45 and 64.” Ugh! Here’s what they said:
"On average, people reported about 2 percent more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past," said David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. "That's around an additional week of stress a year. But what really surprised us is that people at mid-life [45-64] reported a lot more stressors, about 19 percent more stress in 2010 than in 1990. And that translates to 64 more days of stress a year."
And this study was done with data from 2012. I can’t even imagine what the numbers are today. In fact, this is a really interesting article and I do suggest you read it!
This brings us to...
Project #2: Acute vs Chronic Stress
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I try to avoid black and white judgements. I’m very much an ‘all things in moderation, including moderation’ type of coach. BUT I draw the line at chronic stress. It’s like lead or cyanide or asbestos, in my opinion- any amount is too much!
I could go on about why it’s bad. But if you’ve gotten this far with me you probably don’t need any extra convincing. So what am I going to teach you to do about it?
Tackling Chronic vs Acute Stress
So- chronic stress and stressors are our focus. Remember that “project number one” calls for recuperation and a return to homeostasis, or balance, and that “project number two” is halting the chronic micro-stressors that influence us so much. These two projects are what we’re going to talk about more this month.
Why am I setting us up this way? Well, the way I look at it is like this: you have a lot of authority over your life to make both big and small changes, even to things that have become familiar habits, that can improve the quality of your life. This is my general, default stance- one of my core values is the expectation that we all can exercise our own authority over ourselves.
So when it comes to stress, understanding how we can influence how it works in our bodies is a big deal to me. There are a LOT of things you can do for yourself- internally, to change or improve how stressors affect you; and externally, both in terms of your environment and with supports like herbs that support how you work internally. These internal and external factors are what we’ll dive into in the next couple of episodes.