Responding Positively to Everyday Stress

“I’m so stressed!” For many of us, these three words conjure up feelings of being overwhelmed, ill, anxious and even chronically depressed. We all experience some kind of stress on a daily basis and it can affect each of us very differently. Stress is "out there" - it’s a reality of modern life. The good news is that while no one is immune to stress, we can learn to decrease its impact on the body, mind and spirit.

So, what is stress anyway?

If you’re like most people, you can probably identify the effect of stress in your life. Are sleepless nights a regular occurrence? Do headaches interrupt your ability to function? These are some of the ways that stress can pervade our lives.

But do you really understand what is happening to your body? We tend to refer to the idea of stress frequently but the truth is that many of us have little understanding of the process that occurs when a stressful event happens.

Simply put, stress is the body’s response to physical, psychological or environmental changes or stimuli. The change or stimuli is what we refer to as a “stressor.” Stressors can be as simple as a deadline at work or as dangerous as being in a major car accident. The response that our body has to a stressor ranges from mild and relatively harmless to severe and life altering. Often, the longer the stress is present in our lives, the more detrimental it is to our health and well-being.

Short-term (acute) stress is situational and usually subsides once the event is over. We can experience symptoms such as increased heart rate or blood pressure, feelings of anxiety and even an inability to be rational. Many people have difficulty sleeping, experience gastro-intestinal disturbances or even frequent headaches. Examples of short-term (acute) stress are: deadlines at work or school, a sick child or being caught in a traffic jam. In other words, these are common and unavoidable, every day events.

Long-term (chronic) stress is more harmful to our bodies. Sometimes an acute stressor continues long term. Maybe the deadlines at work become the norm or your child is sick more often. The idea is that the body is always in “response mode.” This constant state of “responding” can have a serious impact on the body.

Initially, symptoms are relatively mild and include things like headaches, body aches and increased susceptibility to colds. If left un-checked, over time the body may begin to lose its ability to digest food and defend against illness. Conditions such as depression, diabetes, hair loss, obesity, cancer and even obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorder have all been linked to long-term stress.

This is not the time for “sympathy”

Constant external stress (stimuli) or the perception of stress can overload our bodies.

Stressors are perceived (or interpreted) by the entire body and the “stress response” begins, causing an increase in pulse rate, a burst of adrenaline, the pooling of blood away from our internal organs and the release of the stress hormone Cortisol.

When a threatening situation or stressor is present, the sympathetic nervous system is engaged and prepares the body for either “fight,” “flight” or “freeze.” This means you will either stay and deal with the situation, run away from it or stop in your tracks and do nothing (which can sometimes be a good thing). At the same exact time, the parasympathetic nervous system gets turned off, suppressing the immune system, digestion, metabolism, tissue building and the production of certain hormones.

This response is both helpful and effective when the body truly needs to respond to a dangerous situation. For example, if we are walking in the woods and come face-to-face with a bear, our sympathetic nervous system should and will kick-in to help. We want this response in acute situations. The problem occurs when this begins to happen frequently, in response to ongoing stressors in our lives. The sympathetic/parasympathetic response systems are not designed for the kinds of everyday stressors that we encounter.

To complicate things even more, our adrenal glands release a stress hormone called Cortisol. This hormone is helpful and necessary in extreme situations, but when released in relation to chronic stress it will suppress immunity and deposit fat around the mid-section. This begins the “spare-tire” or “beach-ball” effect. Basically, the fat deposited around the mid-section can make you feel lethargic and increase the likelihood that you’ll turn to unhealthy substances such as sugar, caffeine, tobacco and fast food to get through the day! This leads to more stress, which triggers the production of more Cortisol, leading to the consumption of more unhealthy substances! The longer a person relies on sugar for quick energy, the greater the chance they will develop obesity and type II diabetes. Clearly, this vicious cycle is not a healthy option for our bodies.

How do we deal with stress?

It’s important to understand that we all have different stresses, in varying amounts that affect us in different ways. And we all manage our stress differently. There is no easy answer, but there are several small steps we can take to reduce and manage our stress.

Step One: Get organized!

Begin by thinking about what is causing your stress. Most of the time what we're feeling is the result of our reaction to the stressor and not necessarily the stressor itself.

It may help to make a list of all of the stresses in your life. Cross out the ones that you have no control over. For example, we all need to do things like go to work, get our kids ready for school in the morning, etc. Those things are not likely to change. Instead, circle the ones that you have a reasonable ability to control. Pick one or two of those and devise a plan to improve them. Sometimes the act of just writing your stresses on paper can help eliminate the anxiety you feel about them.

It’s important to take baby steps here. Taking on too many changes at once may actually serve to make you feel more stressed!

Step Two: Stop the stimulants!

Our lives tend to revolve around stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, suspenseful television shows, daily news reports, loud music and even bright lights. Look at the stimulants that trigger stress in your life. Pick one or two and try eliminating them for a few weeks. Pay close attention to how you feel.

Keep in mind that sometimes we feel worse before we feel better. In time you’ll begin to notice that reducing stimulants will have a positive impact on how you feel.

Life happens fast and we tend to move through it without paying attention to our stress levels until we feel overwhelmed. Increasing our awareness of the ways that stress can make its way into our lives is the first step.

Stay tuned for next month’s article on how to change our reaction to stress, featuring techniques for relaxation.