Stress happens to everyone, every day, in one form or another; it is an inevitable part of living. Stress is defined as our mental and physical response to a stressor – a change, demand or threat – over which we have no control. We do however, have control of how we respond to stress.
In this article, I outline the basics of stress, written in everyday language that the average reader can understand. First I define the three different kinds of stress and how they affects us, then I explain what happens in the body during stress, followed by a summary of several effective stress management tips and techniques that can be easily learned and practiced by the reader.
Change isn’t all bad, and neither is stress. Commuting to school or work is an everyday, mild stressor. The moderate stress of travel, changing jobs or going to a new school may feel invigorating and can spark creativity. If you’re about to run a race or deliver a presentation, the stress you feel will motivate you to focus and do your best. Extreme stress can be good for you, too, when your safety or survival is at stake. This stress activates specific parts of your nervous system very quickly, so you can fight off an attack, run for your life, or swerve to avoid crashing your car.
Psychologists categorize THREE TYPES OF STRESS:
• short-term, or acute stress- may be mild to extreme; generally easy to manage and treat
• episodic stress – acute stress that occurs too often for adequate recovery; often challenging to treat due to a person’s entrenched lifestyle, limiting beliefs or resistance to change
• chronic stress, a prolonged response to emotional or physical pressure, unresolved trauma, or a disturbing situation which a person believes they cannot control; very challenging to treat, usually requiring several months to two years or more and a combination of health care, behavioral modification and daily stress management
Acute stress, the most common form, is caused by daily demands and pressures, and it’s not always negative; in fact, it can be enjoyable, even thrilling, and when it’s balanced with prompt recovery, it boosts the immune system. For example, my daughter is learning how to drive, which is exciting and empowering for her. When she gets behind the wheel, she feels focused and energized by the acute stress. However, when she’s tired, during stormy weather or when traffic is heavy, the stress of driving can be too much for her, and she may end up feeling tense and irritable by the time she parks in our driveway.
Because acute stress is short-term and recovery generally happens soon after the stress ends, it usually doesn’t do as much damage as we see with long-term stress. If acute stress is extreme or if it builds up, however, it may cause these problems:
• Emotional distress: anger, anxiety, irritability, acute bouts of depression
• Physical symptoms: tension, headache, pain, upset stomach, gut or bowel disorders, vomiting, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or agitation, shortness of breath, hypertension, sweaty palms, cold hands or feet
Acute stress is normally easy to manage with relaxation techniques, like meditation or yoga. If the acute stress is extreme or traumatic though, professional help may be needed to support healing and recovery.
Acute stress that occurs too often is called episodic stress. This type of stress is usually experienced by people with “Type A” personalities; these people are characterized as aggressive, overly competitive, demanding, and intense. They tend to be impatient, abrupt and irritable; they’re always in a hurry in their attempts to meet self-imposed demands, and their relationships tend to suffer. This type of stress isn’t chronic; it stops now and then, but occurs more frequently than acute stress does.
Episodic stress can also stem from constant worry. People who imagine danger around every corner or expect bad things to keep happening tend to be overly aroused and tense. These pessimistic people are often anxious and depressed.
Episodic stress takes a greater toll than acute stress, and symptoms of repeated over-stimulation are:
• Emotional distress: frequent anger, anxiety, irritability, longer bouts of depression, excessive worry
• Physical symptoms: frequent tension headaches, migraines, heart disease, chest pains and high blood pressure, sleep disturbances
Because those who suffer with episodic stress are often strongly resistant to change, effectively treating this type of stress requires interventions on a few levels, usually with professional help, and may take several months.
Unlike acute stress, chronic stress is neither enjoyable nor exciting; it’s exhausting, unhealthy and dangerous. Chronic stress robs a person, day after day, month after month and even year after year of wellness, joy and fulfillment in life.
Chronic stress often stems from long-term exposure to stress related to: unhappy marriage or dysfunctional family relationships, unwanted career or job, repeated traumatic experiences, poverty or homelessness, chronic illness, overwork or excessive demands at school, living in a war zone or gang culture, or feeling powerless to change an unwanted, unhappy or dangerous situation.
Chronic stress can also result from early childhood adversity and traumatic experiences; see the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. When certain kinds of adversity occur in a child’s life, the child may internalize painful experiences that can remain present, as if they’re ongoing, and the child’s personality can be dramatically affected. In order to make sense of what’s happened, a distorted world view or set of limiting beliefs gets created; for example, that the world is unsafe, that he’s unworthy or unlovable, or that if she makes a mistake it means that she’s an idiot, so she must be perfect at all times. This keeps the stress active constantly, as the child and later adult lives with the inner limits and distortions.
Post childhood adversity recovery involves replacing deeply embedded, limiting beliefs and personality distortions with life-affirming beliefs and healthy personality affects. This calls for courageous self-assessment and transformation, often with the caring support of a trauma-informed professional.
Not surprisingly, chronic stress takes the greatest toll of all. Left untreated, chronic stress often leads to serious illness, clinical depression, violence, shortened lifespan and suicide. Here are some common symptoms:
• Emotional distress: abrupt irritability, tension, brain fog, insomnia, fatigue, persistent negative thoughts and attitude, sense of hopelessness, poor decision-making, repeating dysfunctional patterns
• Physical symptoms: dry mouth, breathing difficulty, pounding heart, gut and digestive problems, headache, excessive sweating, frequent urination, muscle tension, chronic pain
Chronic stress is especially dangerous because people can get so used to it that they forget it’s even there. If they’ve lived most of their lives with chronic stress, particularly from childhood, people may be unaware of it or they may ignore it because it’s all they know.
Due to the deep physical and mental damage done by chronic stress, it’s difficult to treat. Many people suffering with chronic stress have resigned themselves to lives of limitation, illness and depression because change seems impossible. Effective treatment generally includes a long term approach using a combination of health care, behavior modification and ongoing stress management. Because chronic stress impacts a person’s mind, body and emotions, holistic lifestyle choices can go a long way to support healing and recovery from chronic stress.
Whether or not stress becomes harmful can vary greatly from one individual to another, depending on a number of factors, including perceptions, past experiences and personal resilience. People who believe they’re resilient and feel confident in their ability handle stress will tend to have a healthier response than people who feel vulnerable or believe that stress is bad news. Also, a person with a functional, healthy background and lifestyle will be more resilient when it comes to stress than someone with a history of adversity, trauma or dysfunction. Another factor is whether a person perceives that they have any control in the situation.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BODY DURING STRESS?
When a serious or extreme change or demand creates stress, the autonomic nervous system gets involved. This “involuntary” nervous system controls our heart, lungs, gut, body temperature, muscle tension, perspiration, and our ability to socially engage with others.
This nervous system has two branches that balance our body between it’s normal, peaceful condition and the aroused, stressed condition known as “fight or flight”. These branches are called the parasympathetic or “peace” branch, and the sympathetic or “stress” branch.
When the sympathetic branch gets aroused by a threat, stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol get released into the bloodstream to mobilize the body for action. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, pupils dilate and breath becomes shallow. This state is meant to be brief, just long enough to escape the threat that triggered it in the first place.
Once the threat is over, the parasympathetic branch activates, stopping the fight or flight energy and the flow of stress hormones. Oxytocin, a happiness hormone, is secreted; heart rate and blood pressure go down, breathing slows and the body returns to it’s healthy state of relaxation. This peaceful condition is the state we humans are designed to live in all the time, except when stress response is required.
Frequent or chronic over-arousal of the sympathetic branch without adequate recovery through activation of the parasympathetic branch can upset healthy balance in the nervous system. This imbalance produces excessive cortisol and other stress hormones in the body, which increase inflammation, raise blood pressure, lower immune function, and cause adrenal gland fatigue. Other serious impacts are brain fog, insomnia, metabolic and digestive problems, cardiovascular disease, and premature aging.
There are infinite ways to manage stress, from quick fixes for when you’re in a crisis to daily practices that train your nervous system over longer periods of time. It helps to have several tools and techniques in your self-help kit that work for you, based on your unique personality, your sensory perceptions and how you experience stress.
A good first step in managing your stress response is to notice how your body feels under stress. Pay attention to your breath, heart rate, muscle tension and gut sensations. Do this before you change anything, so you can increase your awareness of the difference between how stress feels and how relaxation feels in your body.
The quickest way to change your state of mind is to change your physiology, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to change your breathing. Even just one smooth, deep breath in through the nose, pause, and then exhale completely through pursed lips can do wonders. Controlled breathing is a gold-standard method for activating your relaxation response and there are several ways to control your breath. The main point is that you breathe smoothy, slowly and rhythmically, with complete exhale that lasts a bit longer than the inhale, and a pause after each inhale and exhale.
There are many other ways to de-stress by changing your physiology. Try walking, dancing, stretching or jump on a trampoline and have a good laugh.
Healthy social engagement, like reaching out to someone who’s a good listener, can help to ease stress. Think of calling a close friend who always listens attentively and without judgement.
You can also engage with your senses to change your state of mind:
If you’re highly visual, look at something beautiful, like flowers, art or a picture of someone you love.
If you resonate with sound and music, listen to a favorite song or pay attention to whatever sounds are in your immediate environment, like birds, frogs, rain on the roof or even the lawn mower next door.
Our sense of smell is powerful and can deeply impact our emotional response to stressors. Smelling flowers, favorite foods or pure essential oils like lavender can soothe the nervous system very quickly.
Treat yourself to a favorite taste , and keep it healthy, like a juicy piece of fruit or a small square of dark chocolate.
Touch something soft, silky or textured, like fur, satin or corduroy. Give yourself a hand massage, rub your arms or hug someone. Hugs are best if they last for 20 seconds or more, because that’s when oxytocin gets released into the bloodstream. Oxytocin is known as a happiness or love hormone, and it’s been called the “anti-aging hormone”.
Consciously engaging our senses for stress management is empowering, however many of us are constantly being bombarded by sensory input that keeps us stressed. Try skipping the news, especially just before going to bed, turn off the t.v. during meals, and unplug from the steady stream of social demands by leaving your phone behind when you go for a walk.
Emotional Freedom Technique (aka EFT or tapping) is an effective healing tool that you can quickly learn how to do on your own for self-directed healing. For trauma recovery and bigger issues, it may help to tap with a trained professional who can help you work through “stuck” emotions and pain, and it works as well over the phone or via Skype as it does in person. It’s easy to fit a few minutes of tapping into your busy day for stress relief and nervous system balancing.
Consider this challenge: Go for a 10-minute walk, without your phone or device, every day for a week. Pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells as you walk. Notice the feel of the surface beneath your feet. Touch something with your fingertips – a fence, a leaf or flower, a sign post – and really feel it. Check in with yourself at the end of your walk, and note how you feel.
Stress happens every day, so stress management needs to be a daily practice, too. Be patient with yourself and your process; by making stress management and recovery a daily practice, you’ll start to feel more energized, focused and fulfilled in all aspects of your life. If you’d like a little help, you can sign up to download a simple process for stress relief by CLICKING HERE.
If you suffer with chronic stress, you can recover if you’re committed, patient, and tenacious. Chronic stress recovery is a choice that may require courage and strength, because what causes it can be scary or painful, so find the support that will work for you. Although it may be a difficult healing journey, it is well worth it in the long run and could add fulfilling years back to your life.