Stress is a response to a stimuli, a stressor, that primes us for action.
Simple as that really. Stress gears us to fight or flee. You may have heard of it is as the bodies "flight or fight" response. Sometimes, it may even make us freeze.
Before we continue on I'm going to state for the record that stress is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. We need a healthy dose of stress otherwise we'd probably never really get anything done on time, much at all or never.
The good amount of stress (the stress that primes us to get our butts off the couch and finish that assignment, task, hurry us to work on time or slam on the brakes when someone pulls out in front of us) is given the term: eustress.
An unhealthy amount of stress, long term stress, is labelled as: distress. (Seems fitting!)
So, keep that in mind. Don't be afraid of a little stress, use it to your advantage. If you feel stressed about something, use it to prime yourself to get **** done. If your "stressors" aren't going away and you're constantly agitated you might be heading towards or already in: distress.
Read on to find out how stress works, how to recognise a stress response and how to manage stress.
A stress response is both a nervous system response and a hormonal one. Generally speaking, our autonomic nervous system will be in a state called the parasympathetic state. This is our rest and digest mode, which is a great state to be for resting and digesting. (Well, duh!)
When something causes us to feel stressed (and depending on your lifestyle, your perspective on things, this could be a little or a lot), the stressor engages our sympathetic nervous system. Our fight or flight.
Ok, so now I gotta mention a few bits of anatomy here. Lets bring up some pictures to help us:
Short-term stress response
A short term stress response (a loud bang, a sudden-lane-changing idiot, or someone randomly charging at us with a knife) sends an impulse straight from the hypothalamus, through the spinal cord and straight to the adrenal medulla.
The adrenal medulla is what releases the norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) hormones.
Think of this as the quick response stress. Normally a short-term stress response lasts a few minutes or hours.
Prolonged stress response
When a stressor is prolonged, that is, it doesn't go away (like poor finances, an abusive boss or colleague, a persistent knife-wielding tiger) our body goes into a long term stress response.
The hypothalamus instead now talks to the pituitary gland, the pituitary gland releases a hormone to the adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex releases steroid hormones called mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids (or known as cortisol).
The thing is, what does this mean for you?
Is a stress response because traffic is stuck, day-after-day, really that good for you? You can't act on it. You can't fight or flee from it (unless you drive a big-foot truck and bowl everyone out of the way).
But still, your body is priming you just for that: moving.
And if you go into prolonged stress because of something you can't change, what is going to happen to you physiologically (body) and psychologically (mind)?
My guess is not a heck of a lot of good. Lets read on...
Here we will look at stress in three stages and review some of the bodies responses at each stage.
Now, there are three main aspects of stress which will tie in with the stages of stress.
Frequency - How often something stresses us out (if its your boss, then most likely everyday)
Intensity - How much impact that stressor (ya boss) has on you (if they're shouty, probably a lot)
Duration - How long does the response to the stressor last (continuing with the boss example, probably until that idiot gets fired or you quit)
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is a popular "health model" to help explain the way we go about stress. This was developed by Hans Selye in 1936 to help explain the response of the body to stress.
Stage 1: Alarm Reaction
Short term stress response or the initiation of stress. Recall the physiological effects above?
Remember, your body is working to get you going, so your blood is diverted to muscles, breathing increases, kidneys stop you from wanting to pee by retaining water. The pores of the skin open up and you can look paler, because the blood has gone to the muscles. Your eyes widen. Your heart rate goes up. You get sweaty, clammy. Dry mouthed...
ALL the fun stuff!
This is a high alert, high energy demand response to get you moving. This can last from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the stressor and/or how you deal with it.
Stage 2: Resistance / Adaptation
After the first stage you adapt and accomodate for the changes. The body attempts to stabilise your hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure. You adapt.
But, if the thing that is stressing you out is still stressing you out... then your ability to adapt is met with a level of resistance.
In the long term, chronic symptoms become accepted as a part of life. You could say that in resistance, your baseline to stress is raised.
Instead of returning to "normal" you accept that you're always going to be on a certain level of stress response. Like a stress stand-by mode. Though, your general health begins to decline.
Sure, the body still functions and goes about its thing but energy levels remain high because the stress hormones are still pumping. Digestive and immune systems are compromised. Blood pressure remains high.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
I think this here might be pretty self explanatory. However...
If you go into resistance for long periods of time you will eventually be unable to cope. This could be several years, or a few hours (in the case of trauma).
Let's say something puts you back to an alarm reaction stage, but the ability to adapt is no longer there. Even minor stressors can't be dealt with.
There may be a collapse into illness, which sometimes can be life threatening. Your body is worn out. You have hit rock bottom.
Stress is cumulative. Lots of different stressors add up and if these "stressors" don't go away, or if we don't deal with them, you are going to stay in that stress state a long time. This can have detrimental effects.
We worry and fret, forgetting about the joys of life and becoming sicker both physically and mentally, without realising it.
We project ourselves into the past or future and then don't properly enjoy that chocolate we bought to make us feel better because we're stressed in the first place! (Sigh!)
Most likely the above and also...
This is a massage therapy blog post so I had to come to this at some point. You're probably quite well aware of how muscles can become tense when we're stressed, remember this is because stress primes us to move.
Ever come home from a hard day at school or work and been utterly exhausted, even though you may not have exerted yourself that much physically?
With stress we tend to hold on, causing ourselves to become fatigued by the end of the day. The continued input to the muscle to be ready for action takes energy.
Muscles can be short and tight due to postural and movement imbalances. However, that general ache and tension you have around your shoulders, neck and chest could be related to your stress and possibly poor breathing habits.
Some people put their stress in other places; their stomach, their jaw, hands, hips.
Muscle tension as a result from stress can also increase the pain response in the body.
Personally, I think when people write about how to cope with stress they sound patronising, and disconnected in their "other-wordly" clinical approach. Like those little pamphlets you find in doctors waiting rooms, they never really help much do they? They mention "stress management" and "coping strategies" but they're not personable. Or very informative.
They mean well, and at least someones trying. Maybe I'll do no better here. But I'll try.
First of all, when people talk about stress management (cringe! It's like being in a corporate team meeting) they're talking about reducing the level of stress in our lives and using "coping strategies".
Stress management in a nutshell:
There are tonnes of websites mentioning ways you can deal with stress. So, I won't cover old ground. However, I will say that there are bad ways of dealing with stress and there are good ways.
It's all pretty self explanatory and common sense, but it's so easy to turn to bad coping strategies. The problem is these things don't last, don't make us feel better and usually have detrimental effects to ourselves and loved ones.
Good coping strategies
Bad coping strategies
I'll admit, getting help can be stressful in of itself and doing these "good coping strategies" can feel like the opposite of what you want to do at the time of a stress response.
But, honestly, do any of the bad strategies ever help? Really?
So, how do you implement these "coping strategies?" This is my own personal thing to do, you might have your own or find a better way.
First, recognise you are in a stressed out state. Sometimes just the recognition alone can calm you down.
Second, pause what you're doing or what you're about to do (especially if you were about to lash out).
Thirdly, remove yourself from the situation (if possible) and perform one of your coping strategies.
I think mindfulness is the best coping strategy. It doesn't require anything of you and you can do it anywhere. You could, essentially, even do it with your boss yelling at you. Well, if you're a pro, I guess.
Mindfulness and meditation are basically the same thing, in my books. However, I feel mindfulness is an act of returning to the present and meditation is an act of no action. (Oxymoron alert!)
Mindfulness brings you to present moment and you don't need to sit or posture up to do it. You can do it whilst driving. You can do it whilst standing. You can do it for thirty seconds or you can do it for hours.
That's it. It can get more in-depth but there are tonnes of resources out there for that. Like this one!
Meditation is something people get the wrong idea of. You don't do meditation. The whole point of meditation is to not do.
Meditation can't be done when super stressed. To go from a stressed state to forcing relaxation is like going from 100 to 0 in an instance.
It ain't happening. Meditation should be done before stress comes. A daily ritual.
I'm going to be brief here (because I'm not a psychologist and I don't want to muddy things) but sometimes stress can seem like anxiety and anxiety like stress.
What's the difference?
Stress is a body-mind response to a stimuli, a stressor, to gear us to fight or flee. To act and deal with what needs to be done.
Anxiety is a constant worry, unease or nervousness about something with an uncertain outcome. This is long term. This is chronic mind state, a disorder, where you just can't cope and you worry and you fret and you worry. This requires help from different avenues. But understanding stress is a good start.
The stress response (especially long-term) would feed into anxiety, anxiety would feed a state of stress.
I don't think stress and anxiety are separate, like you can't have water without it being wet.
Stress is a physiological (body) response to something that stresses us out (a stressor).
Our autonomic nervous system has two modes: Parasympathetic and Sympathetic. Rest & Digest, and, Fight or Flight (respectively).
A stressor puts us into the fight or flight response for a short time. Adrenaline (norepinephrine and epinephrine) hormones get us moving.
If the stressor remains we go into a long term stress response. The hormones cortisol makes long term changes and adaptations so that we can remain in sympathetic state.
Stages of stress are:
Alarm: initial stress response.
Resistance: we adapt to reduce stress and return to parasympathetic. Or remain on stress-standby.
Exhaustion: remain in a stress state long term and we reach burn out.
Stress is a good thing! It gets us moving. Use your stress to get stuff done.
If you're stressed out from things you can't change then you need extra help.
Chris is a fully trained massage therapist, registered with Massage New Zealand.
He has two diplomas in therapeutic and clinical massage therapy and a certificate in relaxation.
Chris works from the historical Orewa House on the Hibiscus Coast and with the team at Lifestyles NMT in New Lynn, Auckland.