(by Dr. Joti Samra, for Lifespeak)
We all talk about “how stressed” we are, but we are not always clear about what exactly stress is. Stress can very simply be defined as demands on us (emotional, cognitive, physical) that at any point in time exceed our resources to deal with those demands. Stress comes from both the good and the bad things that happen to us – e.g., a chronic illness, a wedding, a death, and a promotion can all be sources of stress in our lives.
The Stress Response
When we experience a stressor, our body undergoes a series of physiological changes (“the stress response”). There are 3 key stages to the stress response:
Stage One – Energy Mobilization
The human body responds to stress by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, which leads to physiological changes such as increased heart rate, facial flushing, increased blood pressure, and increased rate of breathing. Blood vessels open wider (to allow more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert). Pupils dilate (to improve vision). The liver releases stored glucose (to increase the body’s energy). Sweat is produced (to cool the body). All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.
Stage Two – Consumption of Energy Stores
If you do not for some reason move past the first stage, the human body starts to use existing energy stores (e.g. releasing stored sugars and fats). Side effects include feeling driven, pressured and fatigued. You may begin to engage in behaviours (drinking more coffee, smoking more, and drinking more alcohol) than is good for you. You may also experience ongoing anxiety, attention/concentration problems, some difficulty with sleep, and be more likely to get sick (colds or flues) more often.
Stage Three – Draining of Energy Stores
If stress is not resolved, your body’s need for energy will become greater than its ability to produce that energy, and chronic stress may result. You may experience chronic insomnia, ongoing errors in judgement, and changes in personality (e.g., increased irritability, frustration, anger, depression). You may also develop a serious health condition (e.g. heart disease, ulcers, clinical depression or anxiety).
Functions of the Stress Response
The stress response (and associated worry and anxiety) is essential for our survival. It is important to remember that the stress response serves several important functions:
- It motivates actions that are essential to our survival (i.e. a fight, flight or freeze response).
- It communicates to those in our environment that we are dealing with stressors and that we need support.
- It serves a self-validating function (i.e. tells us something important in our life is changing or is affected, and helps us learn how to deal with recurrent stressors over time).
We all face stressors on a daily basis. Stressors very simply become stressful when we are not sure how to handle an event or a situation or when our worry or anxiety associated with that stress fails to serve an ongoing purpose.
The situations that cause stress for you may not be a problem for your neighbour or friend or colleague, and things that bring stress to that same neighbour or friend of colleague may not worry you at all. It is how you think about and react to certain events that determine whether you experience them as stressful or fairly easy to deal with.
The Power of Your Thoughts
Our thoughts – or the way that we interpret events in our life (past, present, or future) – are integral to whether we emotionally feel stressed. Most of our thoughts are unconscious (i.e. below our level of awareness); however, with practice and over time you can train yourself to be more aware of your thoughts.
When you are having a stress-related thought, ask yourself “Is this thought serving a useful function?”
Ask yourself how accurate & valid your appraisal is of a stressful situation.
- When you have had this thought in the past, how often were you right?
- Did what you worry or fear actually happen when you dealt with this stressor in the past?
- What would you say to a close friend in a similar situation?
Consider how important the implications are in the context of the things that matter most to you.
- How high on your priority list of important things does the stressor fall?
- What would be the implications to things that are most important to you (e.g., family, friends, health)?
Ask how much control do you have over the situation?
- Can you actually do anything about the stressor? If yes, what can you do? Make a plan! If not, then you need to learn to let it go!
You know the stress response is adaptive and serves a function if it is high on all 3 questions above. Just staying in the stress state, however, is not helpful – you need to make a plan and take action to resolve the situation.
Remember: the only person that is in control of your thoughts and whether you feel stressed is you!
…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
…courage to change the things I can;
…and wisdom to know the difference.
– Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer
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