09 Oct

Stress is a state of being, to get your A into G! 

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.

STOP: Are you stressed right now? Don't read this! 
It's too long and stressful. Skip to the end for a nice summary!

The  physiology of 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.

What happens

  1. Heart rate increase  (get that blood pumping to move, baby!)
  2. Blood pressure and blood volume increase (need those nutrients!)
  3. Bronchioles in the lung dilate (need that oxygen for those muscles!)
  4. Liver converts glycogen to glucose and releases it to the blood (sugar for energy!)
  5. Metabolic rate increases (that means cells do stuff more and faster)

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). 

What happens

  1. Kidneys retain sodium and water (you need that extra fluid for bodily functions)
  2. Blood volume and blood pressure increase (that's partly because of the above effect)
  3. Proteins and fats are converted to glucose or broken down for energy (Not a good way to loose weight)
  4. Blood glucose increases (sugar in blood means more energy for cell activity. But are you using it?)
  5. Immune system is suppressed (who has time to heal! We're stressed out long time!)
  6. Disruption to normal heart and gut function (guess what? All that healthy food you eat is going to waste!)

Fun fact: When you go into a stress response there is no difference physiologically between a tiger chasing you or bottleneck traffic. The hormones, the effects on the body, are all the same. 

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...

You got GAS

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)

Take note: Stress is pyschosomatic. It affects your body (soma) and mind (psyche). Your body and mind are not separate! When you stress out the body (e.g. too much exercise, not enough sleep) your mind will be impaired. If you have too much mental stress your body can suffer.

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. 

Recognising stress

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!)

Resistance stage 

  • Irritable
  • Frustrated
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory impairment
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Unable to quiet the mind
  • Weight gain
  • Poor judgment
  • Insomnia
  • Chest pain
  • Clenched jaw, teeth grinding
  • Poor breathing habits 


Most likely the above and also...

  • More susceptible to disease
  • Searching for answers outside ourselves
  • Helplessness
  • Wishful thinking
  • Burnout / fatigue
  • Chronic illness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Avoiding others
  • Feeling like you're losing control

Muscle tension:

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. 

Stress happens. So lets deal with it!

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 (cringeIt'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:

  1. Mitigate the stressors - as in deal with them. Eliminate them. (in a good way!) 
  2. Use coping strategies - sounds like a work place mind map system when stuff goes wrong. But these "strategies" could be anything. If they help you deal with stress, it's a coping strategy. Some are good. Some are less than ideal.

Coping strategies 
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

  • Mindfulness/meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • List writing (I like to write out my to-do list on a kitchen white board so I don't forget stuff)
  • Exercise (just walk! Just get outside for five minutes and stroll)
  • Hugs (maybe not a random stranger. People find you odd this way. I know.)
  • Journaling (bitch and burn, if you don't want anyone to read it!)
  • Talking with friends
  • Counseling
  • Getting rid of minor stressors first (make the bed. Send that email. Little bit by little bit...)
  • Reducing the amount of work load / delegating
  • Massage!!! (Calm the body. Calm the mind.)
  • Be kind to yourself! You can only do so much in a day.

Bad coping strategies

  • Alcohol (a wine with friends ain't bad but if it's all the time, you might have an avoidance problem)
  • Gambling (wishful thinking to get you outta the rut)
  • Drugs
  • Adrenaline fixes (speeding off in your car)
  • Using anger to lash out
  • Over eating
  • Under eating
  • Hiding away and binge watching shows (we all do it. But are you avoiding your stressor?)

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?  

Take control: You are in control of the way you perceive things. You are in control of getting rid of those stressors. Sometimes, though, you need to suck it up and just ask for help! We are social beings and rely on each other, so... ASK FOR HELP!

Coping strategies in action

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.

Mindfulness and Meditation

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. 

  • Focus on your body. The breath is good because it will enable you to calm it as well.
  • With your attention on your breath, notice it. Notice the air coming in. Notice it going out. Focus on just one spot, like the tip of your nostrils. The way the air tickles past it. The way it gets sucked in. The way it falls back out.
  • Or: Focus on what you are physically doing, brushing your teeth, brushing your hair. FEEL what it is you're doing.
  • Or: focus on the space around you. Listen to sounds. Don't judge the sound or name the sound. Just listen.
  • Your mind will wander. Gently swing your attention back, as if your minds attention is a search beam, instead of highlighting thoughts, highlight your actions/sound/breath.

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.

To meditate:

  • You sit. 
  • You centre (mindfulness)
  • And nothing.

    Your mind wanders. So what? That is a good thing. You're mentally venting. Just re-centre. Listen to the sounds around you. Focus on your breathing. Easy.

Is it anxiety or stress?

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.

Quote:  "I have come to realise that the past and future are real illusions, in that they exist only in the present moment." - Alan Watts


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).

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.

Remember: Practice mindfulness, relaxation techniques and get massages! These things will lower the stress response and enable you to cope better when **** hits the proverbial fan. Stress ain't the problem, it's how we deal with it.

Book a massage now

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.