The Science Behind Stress
by Jay Tift
What is Stress?
Simply put, stress is the way that we respond to the stuff that happens in our world. The things that are happening are called stressors. I think it’s important to mention right here at the start that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Really, it is how we think about it and respond to it that can get tricky. Stress can actually be a great thing. When we’re engaged, motivated, excited, energized, etc., we are appropriately stressed. Of course, when we generally think about stress, when we say “I’m stressed,” we mean we’re overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, and burned out. Think about it on a spectrum, when there is not enough stress then we’re bored, disengaged, unmotivated and uninterested. When there is too much stress, we’re overwhelmed and “stressed out.” We want to figure out how to get into that sweet spot where we have the right amount of stress and are feeling energized
Fight or Flight vs. Rest and Digest
So let’s talk about what’s happening physically when we’re on the overstressed end of that spectrum. Most people have heard the term “Fight or Flight.” The fight or flight response is governed by the activating half of the part of our nervous system, called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), that handles many of our automatic processes. The other half of the ANS handles the recovery response or “Rest and Digest.” Really these two halves of the ANS can be thought of as the gas and brake. When we’re on the overstressed end of our stress spectrum, we’ve got the gas pedal stuck on the floor. Blood pressure and muscle tension go up, digestion, immune system, and ability to think go down, and we start to wear out. Think of it this way: your body is responding to danger. As far as it’s concerned, you’re being attacked by a lion. If you’re actually in danger, this is a great response. So, you’re almost run over by a car, a building is on fire, somebody jumps you in a dark alley…that’s what it’s there for. However, we tend to turn on the same response for relationship problems, excess work, financial problems, etc. What’s worse, we keep it on for long periods of time, and it’s really not meant for that.
The problems with stress come when the excess/negative stress becomes chronic. At this point, a number of pretty unpleasant things start to happen. Chronic stress can have a negative impact on our sleep, appetite, mood, immune system, digestion, relationships, memory and ability to learn. Over a long period of time it can lead to high blood pressure, reduced heart health, increased risk of heart attack, and functional digestive problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Essentially, our bodies start to fall apart from the wear, and our ability to reach out to others for support falls apart. What’s worse is that it becomes a cycle. We get overstressed, so we are less able to deal with excess stressors, which makes us more stressed, etc.
How to Deal
So what the heck do we do about it? Life is stressful, are you saying to get rid of stress in your life? No. That’s not reasonable or even useful. The goal is to learn how to manage it effectively to keep yourself in an energizing state of positive stress, which can actually counter many of the negative effects I mentioned above. The good news is that stress management does work…if you actually use it. What is important is to learn what works for you that you can effectively incorporate into your regular daily life.
In future posts, I will talk about the many ways one can approach stress management in order not only to reduce chronic stress, but to fully engage positive stress in an energizing way.