Dissecting Stress: How Today We’re Collectively Committing Slow Suicide

Why is stress both the worst and one of the best states a human being can experience? And how to tame the beast?

Sofia Yotova

It all started with a few bruises

About two years ago I woke up one day and saw the inside of my left forearm covered in bruises. I was in the hospital.

Nobody had hit me, I hadn’t been in any fights, or practiced any full-contact sports, so the bruising didn’t have physiological causes for sure.

The bruises had nothing to do with me being in the hospital either. Well, for the most part.

The day before the bruising appeared, I had undergone a procedure. A medical procedure.

I was put under full anesthesia to have a dead fetus removed from my womb. I was 12 weeks pregnant when I suffered a miscarriage. I had lost the baby my boyfriend and I were happily and excitedly waiting for.

I was being given some antibiotics for a few days after the procedure due to a heart condition that I have called mitral valve prolapse. The doctors thought the bruising may have had something in common with the antibiotics.

It didn’t.

The week before my miscarriage I had one of the most stressful experiences I had ever had at work. I was supposed to be at the office around 6 a.m. for my first overseas release of a complex project I had worked on for a really long time. Whatever could go wrong with the release — did. I spent almost 6 hours in conference calls with several other people, troubleshooting and trying to fix the mess. Eventually we did.

And so what?

Once — an accident. Twice — a precedent

Several months later, a little before I was supposed to give birth, something even weirder happened.

I came home after traveling to my hometown for a few days. A few extremely stressful and traumatic days.

As I was undressing and took my jeans off, my boyfriend gasped from across the room.

The back side of both of my thighs was covered with huge bruises. Painfully-looking, different-sized purplish bruises that yet again had zero physiological causes.

What the fuck?

When all hell breaks loose

In between those situations and in the months to follow I met with two gynecologists, with two hematologists, with a vascular surgeon, with a dermatologist, with two geneticists, and had all kinds of tests and examinations performed on me. Nobody knew what was wrong.

One of the geneticists even politely asked me to get back to her if I learned what my problem was as my case appeared to be extremely rare and intriguing to her team.

And this wasn’t even the end of it.

My hair was falling out dramatically. My gums were bleeding to the point where it was painful for me to eat a ripe banana. I was unable to sleep and would wake up in the middle of the night almost every single night for weeks. I would consequently be dead tired in the morning and my day would start with me already being physically and emotionally exhausted, and — consequently, completely unable to perform at my job.

Then the panic attacks started.

I would find myself sitting on a bench on the roof of my office building, shaking life a leaf, crying uncontrollably, and unable to calm down for over 15 minutes. And that would happen at least twice daily.

And then one day my brain just froze.

I went completely blank.

The beginning of the end

My boyfriend and I had just left from a meeting with a bank representative. We had talked about buying an apartment. We had discussed mortgage and credit details. We had decided on a place and we had to move quickly. We really liked the apartment, it was all furnished and ready for us to move in immediately, so if we wanted to get it — we had to act right away.

I was sitting in the car seat next to my boyfriend, going over the details with him and deciding whether or not we were ready to effectively doom ourselves to decades of being slaves to the bank. The conversation went nowhere. We couldn’t make up our minds — that was not a decision you take lightly.

And then I felt odd.

I was supposed to grab the subway and go to work.

I could not.

I literally did not know how to get out of the car. I knew what I was supposed to do, yet it felt like there was no connection between my brain and my body.

I had to call up my manager and let her know that I wasn’t going to make it to the office that day. I was unable to do that either. I had absolutely no idea how to construct my words to give them meaning. I texted her.

The danger of romanticizing chronic business and the obsession with productivity & accomplishment

I was scared out of my mind. I had absolutely no idea what was happening to me.

I had always prided myself on being a multi-tasker, type-A, driven, highly-effective, and super energetic individual, who has no problem juggling all kinds of projects, and rocking them all.

We all exist in that social narrative — if you want to be successful, you’ve gotta hustle. You’ve gotta hustle real bad. You’ve gotta accomplish stuff, climb corporate ladders, get promoted, and all that. Right? Well, not really. But I had it all wrong at the time.

But we don’t do all that hustle just for the sake of it. Today’s social narrative conditions us to believe that this would make us happy.

But does it really?

Less than two months before my breakdown I had been promoted and had become the youngest Senior Technical Writer within my organization globally. And I had earned it!

And so what?

There was no way that numb and psychologically paralyzed person in the car, who couldn’t even get to work, was the same person, who could simultaneously work in a promotion-worthy way, bootstrap her own business, and organize extracurricular events for women in technical communications.

Or was it?

What kind of person can’t get out of a car, drag her ass to the subway, and get to work?

Turns out — a burned out one. A dangerously, irreversibly burned out person. But at the time I was not aware of the irreversible part.

I took the day off and went back to the office the day after. It was a Friday so things were kind of quiet and there wasn’t too much work anyway, so I could take it slow.

The following week was my 29th birthday. The day before it I was supposed to be a panel moderator at an event about The Different Dimensions of Career Transformation.

That day was an absolute nightmare.

I had another panic attack before lunch. I had to leave the office and shake that nasty energy off my mind if I were to get back on my feet and lead the damn panel later that day.

I went to grab lunch nearby.

I drank three glasses of red wine before 1 in the afternoon and spoke to my absolutely terrified mom on the phone for 2 hours. She had no idea how to help me. I had no idea what kind of help I needed.

By that time I had started a social experiment. I was taking pictures of myself in all kinds of emotional situations — both positive and negative ones. I was exploring how my face, my expressions, and my features were changing in unison with how I was feeling.

The alcohol kind of numbed the pain.

I made it to the event venue, put on a dress that I had carried in my bag the whole day, let my hair down, and put some make up on. I kind of looked like a normally-functioning human being again.

I hosted the event and moderated the panel. Several women were sharing their professional experience and career transformations, and I had to guide them through the conversation, and ask them relevant questions.

Midway through the panel discussion, my vision got blurry.

I got an atrocious headache that was making me physically sick. I thought I was going to vomit in front of the entire audience. At that point, I was barely able to see. My headache was so strong that my eyes weren’t functioning properly.

I somehow made it through.

After the panel discussion, my manager followed me to the restroom. She was genuinely worried for me. I crumbled on the floor and started crying uncontrollably. We decided it was time for me to take a break.

I needed some serious time off. When all hell breaks loose, you don’t have the luxury to power through. As a person, who has powered through incredible hardships and pressure, this wasn’t something I was ready to accept. But I had no other choice.

My boyfriend and I decided not to buy the apartment after all. Sometimes you need life to protect you from yourself. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is shut your brain the fuck up, not trust everything you think, and just go with your gut.

Thank God there was a subconscious mechanism in place that was putting on the breaks for me.

I needed emergency damage control. I had burned myself out to the point of near madness. And if I were to trust my brain — which I initially did, all I needed to get back to normal was supposedly to take a few weeks off of work, travel a bit, and have some fun with my friends. And I did all that. Except that it didn’t work as planned.

That’s what catalyzed the most dramatic and traumatic professional transformation of my life and caused me to leave my corporate job and dive into the unknown, building my own thing off the ground.

A series of seemingly completely unrelated things had happened to me that catalyzed something, which no doctor could explain. The ONLY common denominator was STRESS.

Let’s talk about STRESS

The human body is a remarkable machine. But as advanced as science is today, it doesn’t have it all figured out yet.

Stress, just like happiness, just like fulfillment, just like failure — is one of those emotional, psychological, and physiological phenomena that can manifest in billions of ways.

The stress that some people experience may seem pretty silly to other people. We get stressed that someone is performing better than us at work. We get stressed about not getting in shape as fast as our best friend is. We get stressed about not being able to buy the perfect gift for our parents’ anniversary. We get stressed about our kid being late to school because we got stuck in traffic.

Regardless what causes it and what shape and form our stress takes, the one common thing about the very concept of it as a shared social experience is how it registers in our brains and the involuntary consequences that come as a result of experiencing stress. Biologically speaking, all humans perceive stress in the exact same way.

The problem with stress is that whenever we experience it, our brain thinks we’re in danger. Whatever is causing us to experience stress, our brain doesn’t distinguish between the type of stress that we’re experiencing when we think our life is in danger and the stress we’re experiencing when we’re about to get up on a stage and deliver a speech. It’s all the same in the brain.

And even though there’s nothing wrong with stress in and of itself, things get a little nasty when we realize what stress actually does to us.

Stress is the experience of a perceived threat (real or imagined).

This is how Prof. Bruce McEwen explains how the amygdala is involved in processing fear and stress:

The amygdala is the brain area that’s involved in fear, fear learning, also to some extent in aggression. It’s also a brain structure that is involved in turning on the stress response, turning on the adrenaline, turning on the ACTH [adrenocorticotropic hormone] that causes cortisol secretion. It’s also an area that’s involved when you’re stressed and see something dangerous, like a snake walking in the woods. You freeze and then you later move back. It’s involved in all of these primary actions that are related to stress and self-defense.

In other words, whether your life is in danger or you’re about to face your manager for your annual performance review, your brain doesn’t differentiate between the two.

A deep dive into the Autonomic Nervous System

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our involuntary and unconscious body functions. It keeps us alive while we sleep. It helps us breathe when we’re unconscious. It tells our heart how fast to beat and makes sure our muscles have adequate blood/oxygen when we ‘tell’ them to move. It operates without our knowledge or consent, without our lifting a finger to help.

There are 2 branches within the autonomic nervous system:

  • the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
  • the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS)

They do different things but function as corollaries, not opposites. Within the ANS, there is a constant calibration between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems!

  • Our SNS is externally facing. It provides the speed, energy and fuel to thwart danger. It’s widely associated with the Fight or Flight response.
  • PSNS is internally-directed. It takes care of the daily business of life: Rest. Digestion. Reproduction (yes, with a boost from our SNS during sex). It’s nicknamed Rest & Digest or Breed & Feed. Two sides of the same coin, that can only be spent together.

SNS (Fight or Flight) — sympathetic nervous system dominance

Our body constantly scans our environment, evaluating stimuli. When we sense a threat, our sympathetic nervous system leaps into action to immediately divert resources to the parts of our body needed to fight danger.

The SNS activates our adrenal gland. Our breathing quickens, to bring in more oxygen. Our heart beats faster, to increase blood flow to our muscles. Our mouth dries. We don’t need to pee anymore. We are ready for battle. Digestion slows. The absorption of nutrients from the food we consume decreases. That’s why stress is often associated with inability or decreased ability for weight loss.

PSNS (Rest and Recovery) — parasympathetic nervous system dominance

The parasympathetic nervous system is our default setting when we are not in danger. It lets us conduct the day to day business of life. Eating. Sleeping. Recovering. Reproducing.

It is an anabolic process, which builds up needed compounds.

When our PSNS is activated, our heart slows. Our breathing calms. Because we don’t need to run, fight or hide, our body sends blood to our organs and away from skeletal muscles. We digest our food and absorb all the nutrients contained in it. We make hormones. We repair our muscles. We build strength. Our body is in a state of relaxation, and this relaxation breeds recovery.

The more time we spend in PSNS the healthier we are.

But unfortunately, the way we live today does not make it easy for us to spend enough time in PSNS.

STRESS: One of the omnipotent and omnipresent components of today’s reality

Whatever you do for a living, however your life is structured and designed, chances are you experience stress on a daily basis in dozens of different scenarios.

There are two types of stress that we can experience, depending on the nature of the stressor (trigger). One is the “good” kind of stress and the other is the “evil” kind. One has constructive, and the other one has a destructive impact over our lives, well-being, health, and longevity.

The good type of stress is called eustress and the bad one is called distress

We know stress is what our predecessors experienced during a fight or flight response. When a tiger was chasing them. When they needed to protect their lives. Whenever there was an imminent threat. That was the most basic definition of stress.

The caveman did not have an important meeting at his boss’ office. He knew no such stress, yet his body, much like ours, suffered the same consequences as a result of that stress. The only difference is that the caveman stressed out much less often than we do today. And the relevant lifestyle-related diseases of our generations make it quite easy for us to see what happens when we experience stress that often in such big amounts.

Stress is nothing more than our brains reacting to our changing environments

But our brains don’t distinguish between real and perceived or imagined stress. This basically means that the chemistry within our bodies could be the same in situations, when there’s actual danger for our lives, but also in situations, when we’re just about to have a performance review at work that we’ve been very anxious about.

The problem is that the body literally doesn’t know what type of external stimuli are triggering that stress response within it. The body can’t tell whether a particular stimulus is truly dangerous and threatening to our life or it is only unpleasant and discomforting.

We don’t distinguish between factors — our bodies experience minuscule and non-fatal things in much the same way as actual threats. And what this does to our bodies in the long term is that our very perception or our experience of the stress can turn out to be more dangerous for the body, the organism, and our long-term health than the actual stressful activity or the trigger that’s causing the stress itself.

My nasty overseas project release? Nobody cares how I acted during that 6-hour early morning troubleshooting session now, right? My life certainly was not in danger, but I guess I may have inadvertently contributed to my miscarriage.

Our hustle around the apartment-buying decision? This was even more trivial! Yet, it pushed me to such stress levels that my very brain got stuck!

But even though stress does sound like a scary and sneaky sabotaging villain in this context, it’s not all bad news.

Stress can also have a positive overall impact over our bodies and consequently lives

Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics:

  • It motivates us and helps us focus our energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance

In contrast, Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short- or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems

So, by now we know that there’s good and there’s bad stress.

We know that the good or “healthy” type of stress — eustress, is that tingly sensation of adrenaline boost within our body that pushes us beyond our limits, keeps us going, and motivates us to be dedicated, energetic, and excited about our jobs, daily assignments, and all kinds of engagements within our lives.

Eustress can do miracles at home, at the office, in the gym, when we’re practicing some hobbies of ours, etc. Some types of physical and mental stress are good for the body and our systems as a whole. But you know what they say — the doze makes the poison.

Unlike eustress, distress is a literal poison for our bodies. Especially in the doses and amounts that we tend to experience it in our lives today.

In the context of our typical life structure, here are some of the recognizable patterns, that are mostly associated with the collective increases of distress among society today:

Work and Internal Sources of Distress

Work and employment concerns, such as those listed below, are frequent causes of distress:

  • Excessive job demands
  • Job insecurity
  • Conflicts with teammates and supervisors
  • Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks
  • Lack of training necessary to do the job
  • Making presentations in front of colleagues or clients
  • Unproductive and time-consuming meetings
  • Commuting and travel schedules

Stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem. Internal events such as feelings and thoughts and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.

Common internally caused sources of distress include:

  • Fears: (fears of flying, heights, public speaking, chatting with strangers at a party, etc.)
  • Repetitive thought patterns
  • Worrying about future events (e.g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring)
  • Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations

Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to distress include:

  • Overscheduling
  • Failing to be assertive
  • Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead

What happens as a result of experiencing distress in the body is that our body automatically switches to sympathetic nervous system dominance.

This means that during this so-called fight or flight mode that’s activated in our systems as a result of experiencing distress, the SNS takes the wheel. It determines what processes are active in our bodies.

What happens during fight or flight response or during SNS dominance is that we switch to functioning in a sort of an emergency mode.

When we’re in SNS dominance, our bodies think that a tiger is chasing us because we can’t distinguish between the different stressors that actually activate our body’s responses. A completely different part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective is controlling our body’s functions and involuntary processes when we’re in SNS from when we are in PSNS.

What happens in SNS is that we start preserving energy, we absorb less nutrients, which means that we literally get less bank for our buck as we get less nutrients from the calories we consume. Which further means that our systems or bodies are hungry for actual nutrients and our engines are operating sub-optimally, even though there is plenty of fuel within our systems or calories in our bodies.

Why should we care so much about stress?

To sum it up, it’s pretty important to be easily able to tell whether your stress levels are high or low, what type of stress you’re experiencing, whether the cortisol levels in your body are within healthy limits or you should immediately do some emergency intervention, so that you quickly lower your cortisol levels and get out of SNS and return the body to its relaxed, optimal state.

Because constant high levels of distress or constant SNS is absolutely detrimental and literally poisonous for the organism, we need to know exactly what it does to us. And it’s no joke.

What is the long-term impact of negative stress over our health and overall life quality?

  • Distress can literally make us sick — both physiologically and psychologically.
  • Distress could unlock autoimmune diseases within the organism.
  • Distress could push us into burnout or depression.
  • Distress can prevent us from ever being able to lose weight long-term. It’s also associated with Type-II diabetes.
  • Distress could worsen the condition of our skin, it can make our hair fall out, it can lead to spontaneous bruising all over our bodies or it could make our gums bleed without any reason.
  • Distress is also linked to miscarriages and infertility — not necessarily due to physical causes but very likely as a result of psychological auto paralysis and locking our minds into failure mode, which then does become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Distress could literally impact the way our brain functions as it can even change the chemical balances in the brain, which in turn could have long-term impact over the way we go about our lives and behave with our loved ones.

In essence, constant high levels of cortisol linked to frequent sympathetic nervous system dominance in our organisms could make us short-tempered, aggressive, somewhat irrational, and less able to think creatively and objectively. And, who knows, maybe even more likely to consider ending our lives.

Could this all be linked to the chemistry in our brains? And, more importantly, can we do something about it?

Could I have prevented my miscarriage?

Could I have prevented my burnout?

Could I have prevented my hair loss, the bleeding of my gums, the spontaneous bruising?

I don’t know if I could have prevented any of it, but I know that introducing a daily mindfulness meditation practice, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, taking deliberate time to be “lazy and unproductive”, making rest and sleep a priority, “sacrificing” ultra productivity for meaningful and focused work, enjoying long, mindless walks, traveling with no agenda, and all kinds of similar “hacks” have all transformed my entire existence.

It sounds much harder than it is. It’s certainly not easy, but it is a matter of choice and optimizing our own personal context.

There’s no single formula that works for everyone.

Cultivating internal harmony in a world that praises accomplishments associated with the constant strive to get busy is not easy. It takes time, patience, persistence, diligence, and certainly no negative self-talk.

Stress is something that we inevitably live with. But we don’t need to eradicate it in order to feel balanced and harmonious. It’s not an “either — or” scenario. It’s not a binary situation.

What we need to do is find our own personal way to tame the best and learn how to use it to our advantage.

Once you’ve learned how to navigate your subconscious urges to get stressed and become overwhelmed by its physiological manifestations, it actually becomes something you can play with. And once you actually observe yourself noticing stress emerge within your body and manage to let it pass the physical sensations through you without them taking over, your life will never be the same again.

Sofia Yotova

Written by

Bold dreamer. Eternal learner. Passionate writer. Recovering ED warrior. Food blogger & taste architect. Certified eating psychology coach.

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