In order to learn how to thrive under stress, we first need to understand what stress is. Most of us would probably describe stress as something stressful that happens to us, or feeling stressed. Those descriptions are mostly true, but don’t really quite encompass the depth and breadth of what stress is. Feeling stressed is the result of a biological response to a perceived stressor.
Once we understand how we perceive stress, and the biological response, we can determine what ways we can intervene and prevent, or mitigate the stress response. How we perceive stress starts with the way in which we frame our experiences, our unique perspective. Our perspective is formed from our unique experiences and the thoughts that form around them. And that is different for everybody since we each view the world through a unique vantage point – ourselves, which no one else has ever been or can ever be.
This explains why what stresses me out may not be what stresses you out, and that in and of itself may be a valuable thing to realize. So can understanding that what stresses me out currently, may not be what stresses me out in the future… if my perspective changes. Of course, some things are just inherently stressful because they tax our system, like not getting enough sleep. But most stress responses stem from a thought.
If we can change our thought process, our response will change. This is not an easy undertaking but it is an important one. It means that we are not stuck becoming stressed over and over again from the same types of things. If you are just realising this, it may feel like you have been granted a freedom. And being able to change your thoughts and perspective is freedom, because it allows you the opportunity to change how your body reacts.
Next, we need to understand the physiological stress response. This is what happens after we perceive something as stressful and have thoughts that trigger the stress response. We enter into the first of the 3 stages of the stress response: Alarm. Our sympathetic nervous system takes over and increases our heart rate, breathing, slows digestion, and the HPA axis is activated (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals) and increases production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Normal cortisol levels help to regulate blood sugar, metabolism, inflammation, immunity and memory formation. Clearly it has very important functions. Cortisol levels peak in the morning to rev our body up for the day and decrease in time to be able to relax for bed. With the stress response, there is a surge in cortisol, and this increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, respiration, and muscle tension, while decreasing reproductive and digestive functioning.
The results of increased cortisol are slow to occur, but adrenaline on the other hand is fast acting. It increases muscle contractions (heart rate, muscle strength), blood pressure, blood sugar, and metabolism. It decreases digestion, sex hormones, and the immune system. It is best known for the Fight of Flight Response. Entering into this cycle frequently will cause a cortisol imbalance which can lead to weight gain, reproductive dysfunction, insulin resistance, and poor digestion.
Next we enter the Resistance Stage where our parasympathetic system kicks in and tries to bring the body back to homeostasis. However, if we keep encountering new stressors that trigger and reinitiate the Alarm Stage, the body doesn’t get a chance to return back to baseline and enters the Exhaustion Stage where we are run down, have compromised immunity, and a lower threshold for dealing with minor stressors.
Look out for Part 2 to learn about what you can do to support yourself in the resistance phase of the stress response.