What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand
This definition might be a little vague, but everyone knows what it feels like to be stressed.
When you’re stressed, your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, and you become more acutely aware of your surroundings.
Anything particularly good or bad can be a source of stress.
Stress functions as a survival feature for your body. When an opportunity or threat prevents itself, it’s advantageous to enter a heightened state of energy and awareness while the situation is playing out.
The reason we don’t stay in this state is because it becomes unhealthy after extended periods of time.
Stressors can include:
- Threats, such as the presence of immediate danger.
- Pleasant surprises, like a surprise birthday party.
- Daily stressors
- Limiting beliefs that cause shame and disempowerment
Not all stress is bad.
We can’t live without cortisol. Our stress system is necessary for our body to function properly. Short bursts of stress boost our immune functioning.
Stress is also useful for keeping us safe, as it primes us to avoid danger.
You will experience some stress every day. This is both natural and healthy.
But you can also have too much stress…
Do you often feel like there is just never enough time to do anything?
Do you often get so frustrated and stressed out that you feel like you’re about to lose your mind?
If so, you might have crossed the “good versus bad tipping point”.
This is where healthy stress becomes unhealthy stress.
Duration of stress can make it unhealthy. It is not healthy to stay stressed for hours or days at a time.
Severity of stress can also make it become unhealthy. Stress caused by massive changes to one’s life, like the death of a loved one or a traumatic experience, can also trigger a chronic — or long term — stress response.
Each person has a personal tipping point. Everyone has a different level of resilience to stress, and different coping mechanisms. Something that does not cause unhealthy amounts of stress for one person might overwhelm another.
Stress: Then vs Now
In the primitive world, most threats and opportunities demand a physically demanding response. That’s where we get “fight or flight”. Stress prepares our body to run away or stand and fight.
When an immediate threat is present, our body downregulates functions that have to do with long term health, and upregulates functions that help with immediate survival.
In this way, stress is sort of like a natural, built in, performance enhancing drug.
In the modern world, the most common triggers of stress are things that won’t go away no matter how fast we run, or how many punches we throw. Nowadays, we are inundated with deadlines, money problems, and social turmoil that can reach us wherever we carry our phones.
These threats don’t go away, so they can keep us in fight or flight much longer than is healthy.
The side-effects of stress include:
- Increased cortisol
- Catecholamine surge
- Increased blood sugar
- Increased insulin
- Decreased immune function
- Abdominal obesity
- Done demineralization
- Neuronal atrophy
- Increased amygdala activity
- Increased platelet reactivity
- Increased inflammation
- Intestinal permeability
Any one of these things, if left unaddressed, can become a severe medical condition.
Also — and this is perhaps the most important thing of all — being stressed all the time is a miserable way to live.
So what can we do about it?
Change our Relationship with Stress
To an already stressed out person, finding a way to manage your stress before it ruins your health can just be another item on the list of inescapable stressors.
Afterall, where do you start? When something is stressing you out, you already want it to go away. Becoming more stressed about how stressed you are isn’t going to help.
Instead, try focusing on the feeling of stress itself, and the emotions you have around your stress.
A very helpful and deeply ancient way to do this is through a practice known as “mindfulness”.
If you are not already familiar with mindfulness, you should definitely do some research.
While the concept is simple enough once you understand it, many people have to overcome lots of faulty biases and assumptions they have about how they think and feel before they can fully grasp it.
At its core, mindfulness is about being actively aware of what you are doing while you are doing it.
When you are mindful, you are aware of how quickly and constantly different thoughts appear in your consciousness.
You step in the shower, and perhaps you enjoy the hot water hitting your skin for a few moments, but well before your body ever steps out of the shower, your mind has gone elsewhere.
As you stand there all by yourself under the water, your mind becomes inundated with problems and stressful thoughts. Embarrassing moments from your past, deadlines you have to meet, and things you would have said in a recent argument if you could go back in time.
What if you could take a whole shower and experience nothing but the shower?
This is one of the many rewards that awaits you as you grow more mindful through practice.
There are lots of different specific practices that fall under the label of “mindfulness,” and they all have their own unique benefits. Among the most common of these is breath meditation.
Breath meditation is a form of mindfulness in which you try to keep focus on your breath for as long as possible. Most people discover pretty quickly that it’s practically impossible not to focus on anything. Instead, it can be helpful to choose one thing to keep your focus upon, and since breathing is so easy, healthy, and enjoyable, it’s a common choice for beginners and pros alike.
The first thing you will notice is how hard it is.
Hopefully, the breathing itself isn’t hard. What you might be surprised by, though, is that paying attention to your breathing is hard. Notice how quickly, and how often, you become lost in thought.
It’s more than likely that, two seconds into your first attempt, the first thought to interrupt you will be something along the lines of “this is dumb, why am I doing this.”
Or maybe you’ll silently ask yourself “is it working yet?”.
And just like that…you’re distracted.
At some point along your chain of thoughts, you’ll remember, “oh, I’m supposed to be paying attention to my breath,” and then you’ll start again.
Don’t get discouraged. Once you realize just how hard it is, you’ve made a huge stride in your mindfulness practice.
So the next time you are stressed, try using it as a reminder to practice mindfulness.
This will help break the cycle of being stressed out by stress, and transform it into a process of healing your scattered mind so you can be more equipped to deal with the challenges of the day.
This blog is an excerpt from a group visit Emily Spring, PA-C hosted with patients who are part of our MaxWell Care program. Our weekly group visits (available only to our MaxWell Care patients) are designed to change your life and supercharge your health.
If you have questions about MaxWellCare and how to join please click here to learn more or call us at 615-370-0091. We’d love to help you Maximize your Wellness!