In the midst of this crazy world we live in, fueled with uncomfortable phenomena, one thing that will never discriminate against us, regardless of our race, sex, or socio-economic status is—stress!
Stress has been described as the epidemic of the century. Prominent scientists around the world have provided us with over five decades of evidence that links stress to more than 90% of today’s disease, regardless of the color of our skin or any other of our unique characteristics.
I have had a tumultuous relationship with stress because I did not make friends with it. I am now living with some significant consequences. I have developed a musculoskeletal condition that graces me with chronic pain and restricts my activities to a great degree. Furthermore, my brain has been sculpted to be over-sensitive to stressors. This means that my amygdala (our nervous system’s alarm system responsible for identifying threats) is probably enlarged and my hippocampus (mainly associated with memory, among other critical functions) has probably experienced some shrinkage. So, you can say that finding a solution to the problematic consequences of not having a good relationship with stress has been a big deal for me.
During my diligent study and experimentation to improve my relationship with stress I came across a bewildering realization:
The dire ramifications of stress are not because stress is such a great villain, but because we don’t fully realize just how much power we have to choose how we relate to stressors and to the critical players involved with our stress response! Could it be that our “untamed” power leads us to the troublesome stress symptoms we experience?
What if we use our power to “befriend” stress?
On first thought, you may think the idea of “befriending stress” is a conundrum. The truth is, we all know how to do it. We go through the process of making friends pretty much every day in life.
In fact, making friends involves a simple two-step process:
- We get to know someone better.
- We establish safety and trust.
What if we followed the same process to improve our relationship with stress?
This week I want to talk about Step One: Getting to know stress better.
- What is stress?
Stress is the pressure we feel when our body goes off-balance (homeostasis) to respond to an environmental demand. In small quantities, stress is not necessarily bad as it motivates us to stretch ourselves to meet life’s demands. Imagine if you were an Olympian training to run for a gold medal. Some stress might be helpful to motivate you. Every day, we are all Olympians having to deal with situations that take us off homeostasis, which is our optimal, internal balance of essential bodily functions like temperature and heart rate. Next time you feel the subtle signs that your stress response is activated (for example, if you notice your heart rate has increased) give yourself sixty seconds to assess if the situation at hand is worthy of the activation of your stress response or not.
2. Is the reason for your stress a truth or a story?
What we don’t realize is that most of the time what triggers our stress response is the subtle, momentary interpretation we give to life situations and not the life situations themselves. For example, public speaking in and of itself does not actually pose any significant threat or danger to an organism. However, the thought of possibly forgetting our words and feeling embarrassed has the power to trigger our stress response, which we can immediately feel by the increase in our heart ratem just the same as if we had encountered a shark while swimming in the ocean. What if we shift our attention to simply recognizing how amazing it is that we are just as powerful as a shark or a bear in activating our fight or flight response, instead of allowing the power of our mind to take us off-balance?
3. Too much of a good thing can be bad.
There are situations that warrant the appropriate elicitation of our stress response. Maybe we are in a car accident and we have to rush to provide aid for ourselves and our loved ones. A temporary, and infrequent, activation of our stress response with ample time to rest and digest what has happened in-between does not lead to health issues. However, we are now estimated to elicit our stress response over ten times a day. We are over-estimating threats and placing our bodies under a tremendous amount of unnecessary strain that does have significant short and long-term health consequences. What if we acknowledge how efficient we are at identifying threats, but shoot for eliminating one unnecessary stress response activation per week?
4. Balance and optimal performance go hand in hand.
When we identify a situation as a threat, our thoughts and words trigger our brain to engage multiple systems in our body to address the threat. This diminishes the effectiveness of critical structures in our brain, for example, those that govern thinking; and shuts down other essential functions of our body, for example, our immune and digestive systems. In other words, when we operate under our stress response, our power is momentarily diminished and we enter a state of temporary impairment. Additionally, when we are in this defensive mode we cannot learn as well. What if we use the old advice to “pause and take ten breaths,” and then reconsider if we want to label a situation a threat, considering how powerful our thoughts and words are?
5. There are significant consequences to chronic stress.
When we allow our body systems to be used too often to address imaginary fears, like public humiliation, we are essentially exhausting our body systems by asking them to work overtime. Allostasis is the process that our body uses to regain homeostasis after it has been taken off-balance by a stressor. The total sum of all the things our body has to do to get back to its balanced state is called allostatic load. When our allostatic load is greater than our ability to recover, we enter the overload-level of allostatic load, and significant damage to organs and functions can occur. What if we consciously infuse breaks of calm in between jumping through hoops of stress as a means of boosting our resilience to life’s demands? Even sneaking out to the garden to water the plans, or creating a five minute space at work to listen to a guided meditation could be enough to restore balance in our nervous system.
We seem to frequently judge ourselves for our shortcomings, but we do not acknowledge how powerful we can be in creating not just our reality, but also our health and well-being. Although life’s demands are endless and many of them are outside of our control, what is actually within our control is working on building the resources that help us bounce back when something pushes us off-balance.
We are all drawn to rewarding experiences, and we strive to be happy. Reinstating an internal sense of safety and security is one of the most sustainable forms of happiness.
We know how to install a security system in our home to help us feel safe, but do we know how to reinstate a sense of safety in our neurobiology to improve our relationship with stress?
Join me next week for the second part of ways to improve our relationship with stress—how to establish safety and trust with stress and our nervous systems.
We cannot eliminate the sheer volume of stressors, but we can improve our relationship with our body systems and our stress response as a powerful way to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives.