A stress response happens when our brain perceives a threat, sending a cascade of messages, via hormones and neurotransmitters, that result in our natural reaction to either fight, flight or freeze. The word stress normally carries a negative connotation, but from an evolutionary standpoint it’s the reason why we were able to survive and thrive from living in the wilderness to where we are today. There are many kinds of stress, from physiological and emotional to eustress, and distress, which we all experience on a regular basis.
Physiological stress can be anything from environmental toxins, to injuries, and poor sleep, which causes a need for more energy to repair and heal the body. Emotional stress usually presents itself as anger, anxiety, depression and loneliness, stemming from our mind and consequently affecting our bodies. Eustress is deemed “good stress” because it’s responsible for allowing us to step up in times of need. We use this kind of stress as we prepare to take bat in a sports competition, give a stellar presentation at work, or excel on an exam. Finally, distress is that extra “weight” we feel when we think about deadlines, the potential for failure, and the vast amount of responsibility we have in everyday life. While we will all encounter challenging times, there are ways in which we can help manage the toll that stress places our bodies.
When we allow stress to accumulate and snowball, we wind up increasing systemic inflammation, leading to an increased risk of disease. The more we repeat a certain task like driving to work, the more that task becomes ingrained in our minds. Eventually we can leave the house and end up at work, having completed the journey in “auto-polit” and recalling nothing more than the fact that we’ve reached our destination. The same patterns become ingrained in our stress response. If we continuously respond to stressors in a panicked state, our bodies will default to panic attacks every time we hit the train crossing and wind up late to work. The more panic attacks we have, the more energy and resources our body needs to recover, leaving us depleted of nutrients and liable to disease if we don’t replenish them. The good news is, just as we can create negative patterns and habits, we can also re-wire ourselves to change those responses for the better. Quite literally, we can lower our own stress, without quitting our jobs, leaving our families, or fleeing to a deserted island.
Our stress response can be altered when we are able to bring our minds back into the present moment, ensuring our bodies that we are safe, and letting go of things outside of our control. Practicing meditation, breathing techniques, tapping, moving and getting into nature are some physical tactics we can use to reframe our thoughts. We can also address our internal stress by increasing our digestion, regulating our blood sugar, getting in adequate amounts of water, and eating nutrient dense foods. While stress comes in forms that we can and cannot control, we can improve our stress response by taking care of our mind and body. If we notice one tactic doesn’t work, perhaps trying a new technique would suit us better. Improving this response will not only allow us to move through life with more confidence and ability, but it will also help ward off the nursing home and support us on our journey to being fit for life.
Ewert, A., & Chang, Y. (2018). Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behavioral Sciences, 8(5): 49.
Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. BMJ, 1383-1392.