What is stress?
Stress is change that is occurring about us and that require our attention. It is not constant. It is somewhat unpredictable, varying from one moment to the next.
We can experience positive stress; stress that challenges us to grow as we develop new skills to meet it. We refer to this as eu-stress (just as eu-phoria describes positive emotion, eu-stress means positive stress). We can also experience distress, stress that is more than we can cope with. This challenges us too much.
We are wired with a remarkable ability to respond to crisis. Normally our brain operates with a balance between the slower, logical and reasoning pre-frontal lobe and the quicker, emotional and passionate limbic brain. When something occurs which could be life-threatening, however, the reasoning part of the brain shuts down. It probably could make the best possible choice, but to do so takes time. Too much time. Sometimes we must react in an instant. If we’re about to be attacked by a tiger, for example, it probably isn’t best to sit and wonder if we should run in one direction or another. We simply need to run! This is what we call the ‘fight or flight’ response. During the fight or flight response, the passionate, emotional and quick limbic brain takes over, pushing the slower logical, reasoning pre-frontal cortex to the side. It may not always lead to the best decision, but it is fast and sometimes that makes the difference between life and death.
If we do not empty our mind of stress, however, it can sometimes take very little to trigger that ‘fight or flight’ response. Think of our capacity to cope with daily challenges as a bucket which fills up with stress; if it’s empty, we’re relaxed and trouble-free. Each little anxiety — traffic delays on the way to work, a troubling pain in the leg, a big presentation to prepare for, worrying about when to find time to shop for groceries before dinner — with each our tension increases and that bucket begins to fill. The brain can become overwhelmed — like a computer running out of operating memory — and the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered. The quicker, emotional, reactive limbic brain is all that’s left functioning and it tends to be impulsive, less reasonable, more aggressive and less understanding. You can imagine that this might have a negative impact upon our family, friend and work relationships.
Symptoms of this type of stress overload include:
– negative thoughts, focusing on the worst outcome (catastrophizing), cynicism
– negative moods such as irritability, anxiety, or chronic sadness
– elevated heart rate
– sleep difficulties
– ‘pushing through’ rather than reflecting upon problems
– difficulty concentrating
– loss of appetite or, alternatively, compulsive eating or compulsive use of other substances or behaviors (gambling, sex, work) that begin to crowd out personal relationships
Over the long term this can also lead to
– high blood pressure, high cortisol and cholesterol levels
– chronic migraines
– gastro-intestinal problems, and
– autoimmune disease
The solution is not to eliminate stress. That would be to avoid life itself. However, we need to empty the stress bucket on a regular basis so we can handle new difficulties calmly, objectively, and effectively.
In moments of stress we can learn to remain calm through Abdominal Breathing, Use of Self-Calming Talk, and Time-Outs. In addition, daily practices that will help empty that Stress Bucket include Relaxation Visualization or the practice of Mindfulness.
These are skills you may already have or can learn with the assistance of a psychotherapist. And watch for future blogs to assist you with some of these Stress Management techniques. Then enjoy the benefits of putting them to good use both at home and at work.