Stress affects everyone. There’s good stress and bad stress, traumatic stress and the stress of the daily grind, as well as many other kinds of stress, right? Kind of. While there can be many stressful triggers in life, your body only has one way to react. What you think about that reaction and what you do when it arises can make a difference for your health and happiness.
“All things are the manifestation of one thing only.” – Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
A typical stress response in a human adult looks something like this: halt digestion, reproduction and other long-term projects; heighten awareness of surroundings; bring in more oxygen through breathing faster; mobilize glucose and other nutrients needed for physical activity; make the heart and blood vessels work harder to prepare to run or wrestle, all essentially just to stay alive. This kind of stress response is a very useful adaptation of creatures who hunt, and who are hunted. But what about that meeting at work? Heightened awareness could help, but do you really need all that glucose and a faster heart rate? Maybe not. Unfortunately for you, it’s a package deal. Whatever the trigger, be it a lion or a ledger number, your stress response is the same.
“Stress hits us where we are physiologically weakest.” – Mrs. Mote
I heard this idea during an anatomy and physiology class and it stuck with me. Each of us may follow a blueprint for the generic human stress response laid out by our evolutional history, but each person’s stress response experience is unique. Some people feel stress build up in their jaw, some in their shoulders, some in their belly. Some may not feel much of anything until something breaks down. A chronic stress response will erode your body’s most vulnerable system. Then come the louder warning signals. For me those signals are tears, along with some symptoms I associate with the last and most severe of a string of concussions in my early twenties. For many of my patients, it’s an old injury site, a set of weak muscles, or a medical condition that flares up. If you have a family history of heart disease or diabetes, a chronic stress response could silently increase your chances of having those disorders too. Your body’s stress response is made to be short-lived and, if left “on” too long, can engender negative health consequences.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” – Oscar Wilde
In physical therapy school we learned a lot about physical stress theory as we started our journey towards becoming experts in healing. Described by Michael J. Mueller, “changes in the relative level of physical stress cause a predictable adaptive response in all biological tissue.” He goes on to explain that too little stress weakens a tissue and too much stress leads to tissue failure. This concept is not just a physical one, however. We all have our own stress vs. strain curves as whole beings, not just tissues. We need both challenge and recovery. Without pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone every once in a while we lose the wellness buffer I wrote about last time. And without time for rebuilding after intervals of increase stress and challenge, we leave ourselves susceptible to fatigue, exhaustion, and, eventually, failure. I strive to find that elusive balance between enough challenge and too much. Sometimes it’s a fine line, and I’ve experienced both extremes of the spectrum firsthand.
“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” Kelly McGonigal, TED talk
As stated above, stress can promote growth. Stress can be empowering for your wellness if experienced in moderation. In her TED talk, Kelley McGonigal shares the science that supports a new idea that stress doesn’t have to lead to diminished health. She says that if we don’t consider our stress response to be unhealthy, studies show, then it’s not. She also explains the science behind how stress drives us to lean on our relationships and how being socially connected improves our health. Looking back at the transcript I had forgotten the second point. Not surprising as I reflect on a time when I hit burnout because I tried to apply only the first of McGonigal’s lessons. I didn’t lean, so I tumbled. If you have perfectionist tendencies like me, I urge you to remember that everyone needs their people. Think of your stress response as a reminder to get close to your tribe. And enjoy the health benefits as well as the fine company.
“Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.” Gillian Welch
I’ve learned a lot about stress, both as a healing professional and as a human who is still rebuilding after experiencing burnout. Nowadays, I appreciate my stress response. I also respect it. It lets me know I’m approaching something my nervous system perceives as dangerous. That gives me options. I can make changes to either my attitude or, sometimes, my situation. I am the curator of my own life and I can choose to cultivate what matters to me. A life worth living, and not just surviving like hunted game, is one in which I heed my stress response and in turn, it doesn’t rule my mind… or my body.