Learning more about what stress is, how it can affect us, and beginning to understand the warning signs.
[ Part 1 of 3 in The Ultimate Guide to Stress ]
Did You Know?
What is Stress?
I am going to ask you to not limit yourself to one definition of “stress.” Why? Because stress is subjective… Each of us have our own limits and those change over time, by our body & mind’s natural inclination to adapt.
Mind & body, you say? Yes. Mind and body.
Bear with me, I’ll explain.
Psychology Today defined stress as:
Stress generally refers to two things: the psychological perception of pressure, on the one hand, and the [physical] body’s response to it, on the other, which involves many systems, from metabolism to memory.
How Can I Relate This to Myself?
It might help now to think of your most recent high stress experience, to follow along with this article.
Was it a time when your job required too many hours of you, and you felt guilty for missing out on important moments at home?
Was it a time when your budget was running out days before the next paycheck?
Or was it a time when there were arguments at home – between you and your teenager, or you and your spouse?
For me, it was when my team at work felt under intense scrutiny. We were too often on the receiving end of blame, and people were getting fired left and right. That combined with the inherent “mom guilt” of working longer hours, was a recipe for high stress.
At this point it is important to know that stress, however strongly felt, affects both your mind & your body.
In this post we’ll take a look at the 3 stages of stress, as well as the stress curve, to help understand at what points some stress may be good – and at what points stress becomes harmful. This is the key to help you read your own “stress-meter” and identify at what point you may be red-lining.
Stages of Stress
Dr. Selye defined stress as having 3 stages:
1. Alarm Reaction
The alarm reaction stage of stress gets you ready to respond to the stress trigger you are experiencing.
In a scientific sense, a distress signal is sent to the brain. This part of the brain that receives the signal (the hypothalamus) activates the release of hormones called glucocorticoids. Glucocortoids then set off the release of stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
Put more simply:
This can be felt as a boost of energy, as your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises.
Remember that example I asked you to think of? At the beginning of that experience, do you remember feeling a rush? This is exactly what was happening inside your body.
These types of changes are physiological and are caused by a part of your autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic branch.
(This little sucker is accurately named – who doesn’t feel the need for a little sympathy when they’re crazy stressed??)
Ok, next stage…
During the resistance stage your body is trying to fight back from the physiological effects of the Alarm Reaction phase. Your body’s nervous system tries to counteract the effects by reducing the cortisol produced. At this point heart rate and blood pressure begin to normalize. (whew!)
If your stressor goes away at this point, then your body will return to normal.
However, if your stressor stays, your body will continue to produce stress hormones – causing an elongated alert state… Which can eventually cause poor sleep, a weaker immune system, anxiety, weight gain, and poor cognitive functioning.
And just in case you were curious, the resistance cavalry comes from another part of your autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic branch.
Last comes the Exhaustion phase.
This, simply put, is when your body is no longer equipped to fight stress. You’ve run out of resources to resist the stress and are now in a depleted state. You are exhausted and overwhelmed.
Your body has experienced stress, tried to fight it, and continually failed. (But don’t blame your body. As you can imagine, this is quite the miraculous feat that God made our bodies ready to fight stress. But as great as we are, none of us are invincible.)
The Stress Curve
At this point I want to remind you that not all stress is bad or has a negative effect. Of course, when we reach the Exhaustion phase – aka “Officially Overwhelmed”- that is bad. But at some level before that, we are actually teaching our body to adapt. Pushing ourselves to improve.
Dr. Peter Nixon, a British cardiologist, created the Human Function Curve to help educate his patients. The Human Function Curve helps you visualize good vs. bad stress by illustrating in a curve chart. For you visual learners, get excited. This is pretty great.
Author Robert Holden wrote:
Dr. Nixon taught his patients how to read the Human Function Curve in order to help them manage their personal energy better. He believed that sustainable success is possible only if a person learns how to use his or her physical, mental, and spiritual energy more wisely.
In essence, we can identify 5 phases of stress by comparing our level of effort required versus our productivity. These stages can be further summarized into 2 parts – Eustress (good stress) and Distress (bad stress).
eustress \ ˈyü-ˌstres \ n. Eustress forces us to adapt, to overcome lethargy or enhance performance. It is positive, healthy and challenging.
distress \ di-ˈstres \ n. Distress causes us to overreact. It creates confusion, poor concentration and performance anxiety, usually resulting in sub-par performance.
As you can see, up to a certain point ‘stress’ is good. It helps you feel the right amount of pressure to be most effective, and most productive.
This is the type of stress people refer to when they say they work better under stress.
Although defining exactly what this level is can be completely different person to person. We all have different stressors (causes of stress) and different tolerances, resulting in each person’s unique timing of breakpoints between the phases.
When exposed to stressful situations, your body is reacting to those stressors. It can become stronger to withstand stress over time, but it is imperative that you understand where you fall in the Stress Curve to help manage your own health.
See Part 2 – How Can I Determine My Current Stress Level? (COMING SOON)
Let me know what you thought of this overview on understanding stress.