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Unpacking Stress

Confused. Acrylic on canvas. Meydenbauer, 2022.

When I see the term “reduce stress” in a book or article, I often struggle to understand what they mean. I feel like we are all under a certain amount of stress, and that it’s virtually impossible to avoid in modern life. 

So how much stress is too much, and how do we measure its impact on our health?  

Taking a deeper dive into the scientific literature turns out to be even more confusing, because there’s no agreement on what stress actually means.

Defining stress

Part of the reason for this confusion is that stress is inherently a personal and subjective experience. What one person finds intensely stressful may not be so bad for someone else. For example, I will completely freak out when I see a cockroach, whereas other people don’t seem as bothered (and also get to enjoy considerable amusement at my expense). 😊

So if we were to unpack the term “stress,” it makes sense to start by acknowledging that it’s actually borrowed from the field of physics, where it means “pressure or tension exerted on a material object” (Oxford Dictionary). 

Eustress is caused by positive changes in our lives

When applied to the human body, we might talk about physically stressing the body like running a marathon or dealing with jetlag. But more often we are referring to emotional or psychological stress. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress simply as being “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.”

Sometimes stress is caused by positive changes in our lives—like graduation or getting a promotion at work. These kinds of situations can make us feel anxious and stressed, but there is generally also a degree of excitement and pleasure that helps us to face these challenges in our lives. This kind of stress is called “eustress.”

The kind of stress that we generally refer to when it comes to health is where emotional tension or mental pressure exceeds our capacity to cope, also known as “distress.” 

So there is a kind of middle ground between healthy adaptation to stress that facilitates learning adaptive skills and not-so-healthy coping behaviours

Photo credit: Unsplash+ in collaboration with Andrej Lišakov

For example, it’s normal to feel a certain degree of stress or anxiety when acquiring new skills—like learning to drive a car. But we get used to those feelings and they even help us a little by focusing our attention and memory. Over time as skills and muscle memory improve, our stress levels also improve. 

Stress also triggers not-so-healthy coping behaviours like overconsumption of food or alcohol that can help to numb or lessen those feelings of anxiety in the moment. But over the longer term, these coping mechanisms can actually cause other problems like health concerns or dependency issues. 

Stress response

Your human brain is your key stress organ because it not only scans your environment to assess for threats, but it also determines how your body reacts at both the physiological level (what happens inside our bodies), and behaviourally (what we do). 

The reptilian part of your brain gets you out of harm’s way so quickly that you don’t even remember consciously doing it, like dodging away from fast moving traffic. Our primitive brains react reflexively to help us survive by mobilizing cascades of neurochemicals that prompt fight-or-flight reactions.

Distress is where emotional tension or mental pressure exceeds our capacity to cope

We have been biologically hardwired over the millennia to respond to stress in ways that were critical to survival when humans were preyed upon by carnivores. But our biology has yet to catch up to these modern times when we are no longer threatened by predators on a daily basis. 

We consider our prefrontal cortex to be the most highly evolved part of our brain, but that’s also the part that gets us ‘freaked out’ over being stuck in traffic or missing a deadline. The issue is that our primitive brains can’t always tell the difference between fear that’s caused by missing a deadline versus something that’s actually life-threatening.

Our primitive brains only know one way to respond to threats, and that’s by activating our flight-and-fight hormones. 

So when we’re afraid that we could lose our jobs and financial security, our brain mobilizes all those same stress chemicals. And while they help us deal with immediate life-threatening situations, those molecules can actually be harmful to us over the long term

Meet Zoe the Zebra

In order to illustrate these concepts, I’ve taken the liberty of adapting the story of a zebra as told by author Alan Gordon in his book on chronic pain, The Way Out.  

Click the ▶️ Play button above to watch the Zoe the Zebra video story, narrated by Dr Em.

Coping with stress

The reality is that we all experience multiple stressors throughout the day, whether it’s work-related, financial, relationships, health or world events. Sometimes we seem to be doing fine; other times, we can feel like we’re in danger of “losing it.”

It turns out that stress exists on a spectrum from mild to extreme intensity. 

So while most of us can agree that life events like getting injured or losing a loved one are stressful, each of us will have our own experience of stress that is completely subjective and personal. 

And how we each cope with stress is also unique and individual. What works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Physical movement like dance or yoga can help some people, while others prefer to sleep, connect with friends, or be creative in some way.   

I’ve found that it helps me to visualize stress as being a messy tangle of negative thoughts and emotions. Pulling on the strands will only make the knots tighter—so I have to give myself the time and space to gently tease them apart. I write down the whole crazy jumble of thoughts, describing what sensations I feel in my body. 

Photo credit: Unsplash_alex-shuper

There’s often a tight knot between my shoulder blades and a dense heavy lump at the base of my throat. But the sensations can show up anywhere in my body. 

I’ve found that approaching my stress with curiosity and compassion works so much better than avoidance or escape. And my best self coaching sessions often include the shedding of a few tears—bringing humility and gratitude along with clarity.   

Another concept that I’ve found helpful is to think of stress as being a drain on my emotional energy. Some situations and people take more energy than others. But even just a pile of clutter or a leaky tap can be a low level drain. These sources of stress or worry create a kind of tension that keeps those fight-or-flight hormones running all the time. 

Approaching stress with curiosity and compassion works so much better than avoidance

So we need to cultivate practices that help us to recharge our emotional batteries and boost emotional resilience. 

These practices intentionally flip the switch, turning off the fight-or-flight and turning on the rest-and-digest state. Like a newborn infant, our primitive brain only understands actions, not words. That’s why it’s important to convey soothing and safety. 

For me, these resilience practices include:

  • connecting and sharing with family and friends

  • practicing creativity—like making art or journaling

  • getting regular exercise

  • eating healthy food, and 

  • making time for solid sleep

Doing these things bring me energy, benefit my physical brain, and help ensure that my cognitive function and physical resilience are in peak form. 

Mind body practices like yoga or qi gong are especially powerful in bringing me back into a place of emotional equilibrium. The more I practice these tools, the better they work for me and the more they build my reserve of emotional resilience. 

I like to think of my emotional resilience as a bank account, where I’ve built a reserve of mental wellness through resilience practices that can either be drained or topped up each day. 

Sometimes the emotional drain from stressful events can completely overwhelm those reserves. But it’s tremendously empowering to remind myself that resilience is a dynamic equilibrium. And I know that I have the tools to get back there whenever I want to. 

Dr Em’s coaching tips

  1. Can you relate to any part of Zoe’s story? What would you advise her in terms of coping with stress?

  2. What are your favourite, most useful ways to deal with stress?

  3. Can you make a list of 10 things that drain your energy? What are 10 things that bring you energy?


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