In our world, we face dangers on a daily basis. Some are external and life-threatening such as fire, floods, financial loss, physical assault, loss of loved ones, etc. These are obvious stressors that require all of our attention and focus. Life literally stops when this kind of stress shows up.
But there is another layer of stress that’s not so obvious. This is the internal stress we feel as we meet the demands of jobs, relationships, and all of the expectations and disappointments that are part of being human.
We all face stress of some kind, on a daily basis.
As you will see, stress is subjective.
Both kinds of stress have the potential to be experienced by the brain and the body as dangerous because it puts our survival coping systems on alert. Because our brains cannot always tell the difference between life threatening danger and everyday stress, we end up living lives filled with too much survival coping.
The Self Protection Pillar focuses on understanding stress, learning how to cope well with stress and understanding how setting healthy and appropriate boundaries in all areas of our life actually decreases the amount of stress we experience.
What is Stress?
Stress is one of those common words we throw around all the time. We use the word so often, it seems as if everyone should know exactly what it means and be able to recognize it when we are experiencing it. But I’ve found that most of us are quite unaware of the nuances and effects of stress in our lives.
So, what is stress? How does it impact our lives? And what can we do about it?
We use the word stress to describe two things:
- Something that places a demand upon our body and brain. (we call this a stressor)
- How our brain and body respond to the demands. (the actual stress we feel)
Every kind of demand can be considered a stressor, from simple daily tasks like waking to your alarm to traumatic events such as a car accident or the death of a loved one. This is one of the reasons why stress management can be difficult.
How we experience stress is unique to each individual. For instance, giving a public speech maybe stressful to one person while exhilarating to another. Hosting a party, or taking a test or presenting a project at work might go either way in terms of how much stress it causes because people have different ways of experiencing those events.
Everyone experiences stress and it’s not all bad.
No one is immune from experiencing stress. It is part of life. In some ways, it actually plays a part in strengthening us. A great example of this is exercising. When we walk, run or lift weights, our muscles face increased demands or stress. This stressing of our muscles breaks down the fibers just a little and the body comes in and builds them up a little stronger. Just like exercising builds strength in our muscles, some stress builds strength in our characters and in our confidence. Think of the first time you drove a car by yourself. You were stressed, your body was on high alert and you may even have had some fear. But as you drove more and more, your stress decreased and your confidence took its place.
Short term stress can serve an important purpose
The stress you feel when you face challenges is ultimately meant to protect you. Think of preparing for a presentation or a performance. That little flutter of adrenaline can help you stay focused on your preparation and motivate you to better prepare. This is even more valuable when facing a traumatic or dangerous event. Your brain sends messages to your body to prepare to fight or flee. Your heart rate increases and your mind can only focus on the threat in front of you to ensure that you survive the danger. In these ways, stress can be your friend. Though we certainly must learn to manage our stress better, we don’t want to eliminate it altogether.
Stress has a life cycle.
One of the earliest fathers of stress research, Hans Selye, discovered a pattern of coping with stress and called it: The General Adaptation Syndrome
He theorized that the body experiences three stages of response to stress.
Stage one: The alarm reaction.
When faced with stress, the body sends out an alarm. There is a specific part of our brain, called the amygdala, that actually exists to respond in one of three ways: fight, flee or freeze. Each of these responses is meant to help us survive when we face a threat or danger. The stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol course through the body to prepare to fight or flee from the danger. This is pure survival response and it costs a lot of your energy and strength. Everything else in the body gets put on hold until the crisis has passed.
Stage two: Recovery and Repair
That alarm response was a big hit on your energy supply, your immune system, and your general routine of self-care. Your defenses are depleted and need refilling. If the stress was resolved, then this is the time that the body focuses on repairing.
If the stress is not resolved, or if there is another series of stressful events one after another, the body will continue to keep the stress response going, constantly working to supply the high levels of cortisol and adrenaline required to meet the stress challenges. Problems begin to arise when you repeat this process without rest and recovery.
Stage Three: Exhaustion
When the body has been in fight or flight for too long without adequate rest and recovery, it enters the exhaustion stage. The stress hormones place such a high demand on all the systems of the body, that when over-used and under-supported, the body begins to show physical symptoms of damage.
Nerve cells in tissues and organs can become damaged. Illness is more likely since the immune system has been over challenged. High blood pressure, heart disease, and autoimmune conditions are often the result of the body’s exhaustion. The brain also struggles to function properly and memory, focus, and regulation of emotions become difficult. Depression and Anxiety can be ways the brain manifests its struggle.
Long-term stress can harm you physically and mentally
Our body’s fight or flight stress response is a biochemical process that floods our bodies with stress hormones meant to act only occasionally and for very short periods of time. Unfortunately, in our modern world, we face chronic stress that often alerts our stress response and keeps us on high alert ALL the time. Like a gas pedal on a car that is kept permanently pressed to the floor, our stress engines idle at a constant high level, causing us to stay chronically in Stage two of adapting to stress with little to no recovery.
Is it any surprise that more than 75% of Americans report that they experience high stress on a regular basis and that more than 60% of illnesses and disease have stress as a core cause.
On the mental health side, research shows that chronic stress actually predisposes the brain to mental illness. One study out of Berkely led by Daniela Kaufer showed that chronic stress changes white matter in the hippocampus and even stem cells responsible for communication, learning, and memory.
Stress manifests both as an external force and an internal force.
External stress occurs from the outside, in your environment and in your relationships with others. This includes literally everything that constitutes a challenge in our lives from noisy neighbors or your car not starting in the morning to serious and traumatic threats like those that occur in car accidents or violent crimes.
Internal Stress is stress that occurs from inside our minds and consists of your expectations, perceptions, and desires. For instance, you may be stressed out because your finances aren’t where you think they should be at this time of your life, or you have very high expectations or perfectionistic goals that don’t always get met. Many times, we experience internal stress that makes it harder to deal with the external stress in our lives.
How much control we have over the stress in our lives matters.
There is some stress that we have control over. Think of the things that you choose to do that may sometimes increase your stress. The kind of job you choose, signing up for your child’s classroom party, squeezing in that last appointment into a schedule that really doesn’t have room for it and on and on.
Much of the stress we have control over is the internal kind. Our expectations of things needing to be a certain way create a measurement in our minds to how something has to be. That can increase stress, especially if there is anything in that process that is unrealistic or even slightly out of our control.
How much control we perceive that we have in our lives makes all the difference to how the stress feels to us. In the most severe of stress, the common denominator that creates the trauma is the loss of control. That’s why having emergency knee surgery because you fell and had to be rushed to the hospital is more traumatic than if you hurt your knee playing tennis and you’d tried resting it, physical therapy, a second opinion and then finally decided to schedule surgery for the week your husband could be home to help with the kids. The surgery is the same in either scenario, but the amount of control you had in the process makes all the difference as to how much stress you will feel about it.
It is important to be able to determine what external things are in your control and what things are not. Taking control over the things you can, will give you relief from stress and help you feel more powerful in our life.
Even though it doesn’t always seem to be so, most internal stress is under our control because we ultimately have the power to shift our thinking.
Stress is inevitable but how we handle it is in our control by building resilience
Resilience is the ability to adapt well to the challenges and demands that we face. This adapting means that we do not depend upon the stressor being removed to be able to go forward in our life. Instead, we learn to go forward in spite of the stress. This may require that we re-think the messages we have about stress. We may need to double our efforts to care for ourselves in the face of challenges so that we have the energy to keep going. By doing specific things to cope with stress, we actually build resilience that protects us from the effects of stress.
Even though stress is inevitable, we can practice some very specific and targeted strategies to increase our resilience and protect ourselves.
- We can choose to lower our stress.
Although this may seem like a no-brainer, many people get so overwhelmed and caught in the chronic stress trap that they are unable to look at the options available that may help them actually lower the environmental stress they are facing both externally and internally.
We lower stress by working with the demands of our life and negotiating the most reasonable amount of stress while still seeking to achieve our goals. This can be a bit of a balancing act, but when we mindfully take control over our to-do lists and calendars, we can begin to make calculated and intentional decisions about what we keep in our lives and what we get rid of.
- We can set healthy boundaries.
Boundaries describe what is mine and what is not mine, both in terms of property and in agency or control. They help to determine how close you are allowed to be to me and how you must behave if you are allowed to stay close to me. Boundaries also internally mark the line that separates our thoughts and beliefs determined by what is true and what is good for us to believe. Boundaries help determine how we spend our time, our money, our energy and our trust.
When boundaries are understood, communicated and honored, they have the power to protect and transform our lives. When boundaries are not understood, communicated or honored, they are rendered powerless and we are vulnerable to all sorts of danger.
All too often we find ourselves in situations in which we are overcommitted or even being taken advantage of. Setting healthy boundaries in our relationships allows us to be in charge of how we are treated and who has a say in our life. Sometimes we are the worst offenders in having unhealthy internal boundaries. We can learn to draw a line and keep our thinking and expectations on the healthy side.
- We can use coping strategies.
A lot of people think that coping refers to how well you just “push through” without falling apart. In the middle of a stressful situation, if you are still on your feet, some may say that you are “coping well” and if you are unable to function as you usually do, you are “not coping well”. Missing sleep, skipping out on hobbies and personal interests and neglecting important relationships are short-term band-aids in dealing with a stressed-out life. Too much of this “push through” kind of coping will most likely land you in serious trouble physically and emotionally.
Coping to Survive
When we get hit by the stress truck we are usually overwhelmed and at a low in our ability to function, not to mention our ability to take exceptionally good care of ourselves. Like a swimmer drowning and in a panic, we often reach for anything that delivers quick relief, even if it isn’t necessarily good for us in the long run. Some examples of this survival coping are:
- Going over and over your mistakes (or perceived mistakes)
- Hyper-focusing or obsessing over details
- Procrastinating tasks and decisions that need to happen
- Excessive working- trying harder and harder to “dig out”
- Sleeping too much – hiding under the covers
- Substance use- Alcohol, illicit drug use or prescription medication
- Pornography use- functions in the same way as a substance to distract and numb out
- Eating- to cope and for comfort rather than for health and nutrition
Coping to Thrive!
Healthy coping is somewhat counterintuitive in the midst of stress. It involves slowing things down in your life and making strategic and intentional choices to help you relieve pressure, nurture your mind spirit and body and restore the reservoirs that get used up in dealing with stress.
The fight or flight part of our brain, the Amygdala, can certainly get overworked as it performs its protective function in our lives. Thankfully, another, more mature and powerful part of our brain developed as we grew from infant to adult. This part of our brain is the “thinking and reasoning” neo-cortex. As we grow and mature, our “thinking” brain becomes stronger and more capable of helping us understand the complex relationships and abstract concepts of our world. It also gives us the ability to respond to stress in a way that bypasses much of the survival part of our brains. We can, in fact, learn to turn off the stress response and activate our calming relaxation response. This is done by purposefully choosing to engage in things that are good for us. Some examples of this are:
- Physical activities- running, exercising, eating, dancing
- Social- connecting with your family and friends,
- Spiritual, Mental- Relaxation, meditation, breathing
- Activities that use your strengths and talents (hobbies)
- Healthy distractors like chewing gum, listening to music or reading
We can use coping strategies both as a prescription to help us when we are straining under a lot of stress and also as prevention to keep stress from building.
This prescriptive and preventative approach to coping skills makes it vitally important that you be prepared with a plan that is personalized to your needs and your preferences.
Be proactive rather than reactive
Learning to understand and be proactive rather reactive when it comes to stress can protect you from its negative impact. As you prepare your plan to better handle stress, you will find protection and empowerment. For more information on how to practice healthy boundary setting and coping skills, check out some of my other blog posts in the Self Protection Pillar.