Stress is Normal
Experiencing stress is a part of our daily lives.
Within the past couple of years, research has been increasingly focused on topics such as health, wellness, and well-being — including stress. However, stress has gotten a pretty bad rep.
We’ll often learn that stress is an adaptive response that our ancestors needed to survive unpredictable and dangerous environments. With threats of being attacked and even killed by wild animals, they needed a system to fight, flee, or freeze.
We are then often introduced to cortisol.
Cortisol is one of the hormones released by our endocrine system along with epinephrine to prepare the body for potential threats. It is responsible for:
- Making our heart rate and breathing rate increase
- Temporary suppression of digestion and healing mechanisms
- Dilation of the eyes
- Perspiration of our bodies (and many more)
Chronic cortisol levels have been shown to be detrimental to our health, making it difficult for our body to heal, recover, and fortify its immune defences. However, stress has been undermined so much, that even acute levels of stress are seen negatively by the masses.
The Mixed Message Behind Stress
In my opinion, the health field has done a poor job of helping individuals understand the difference between chronic levels of stress (the kind that leads to adverse health outcomes) and acute levels of stress (the kind that is often normal and should be expected).
I would also argue that the idea of “chronic stress being always bad” isn’t helpful for individuals undergoing complex situations — especially when they have very little to no control over their immediate circumstances.
Acute Stress Versus Chronic Stress
Within this article, The University of Central Florida teases apart the difference between acute and chronic stress:
- Acute stress is the short-term mild stress response that arises from minor stressful situations.
- Acute stress often passes once the stressful situation or circumstance is gone.
- Acute stress is a rather common experience in our day-to-day lives and may include situations like waiting in a long line at the grocery store or not being able to find your keys in the morning.
Chronic stress is associated with lingering feelings of being overwhelmed or pressured. They’re due to extreme circumstances that are not always everyday occurrences. A few examples can include:
- Relationship stress
- Traumatic stress (and/or living with posttraumatic stress disorder)
- Work-related stress
- Location-related stress
“Chronic Stress Is Always Bad”
A very common human experience is to go through a period of time, or even multiple periods of time, where our circumstances pile up into a series of events that is out of the scope of immediate control.
These circumstances may require you to be on your toes all day, and even all night long. Even when you try to make time for yourself, your plans may be forced to change with little to no anticipation.
These circumstances may include:
- Taking care of an ailing family member
- Being in an abusive relationship
- Experiencing disease
- Extreme sociopolitical changes, such as war
The “chronic stress is always bad” model is not always helpful for these sets of circumstances. Hearing this may cause you (and others) to feel helpless about the inability to do recommended self-care practices, like sleep hygiene, breathing techniques, talking to friends, etc.
Consequently, we may feel that suffering from the consequences of chronic stress will be inevitable — when this isn’t necessarily the case.
A Brief Aside
Although self-care and other behavioral actions are best practices that aid in reducing stress levels, they may invalidate the experiences that some people go through.
I believe that these difficult and complex situations are best handled with a change in perception. In a recent article I wrote (see further below), I mentioned a research study done with housekeepers.
To quickly summarize the findings, the housekeepers’ perception of their job duties played a large role in the outcomes of their health — especially when it was primed as a form of healthy exercise. This contrasts the task being primed as a form of arduous labor, versus no instruction at all.
Therefore, individuals under chronic levels of stress (with little to no power to change their circumstances), should be encouraged to see their stress response as a helping hand.
Instead of seeing stress as something that is “tearing them apart,” their stress response is currently helping them and should be appreciated for its biological worth. After all, it was perfected across many generations.
Experiencing stress is part of our daily lives. Never experiencing stress could be an indicator that your nervous system is not properly regulated or stimulated. Not experiencing any form of stress, could be due to a number of factors, including:
- A lack of consistent environmental stimulation
- Not being challenged enough
- Biological issues, including issues with your adrenals
Overall, our stress response manages complex situations, overcomes barriers, and is resilient in times of chaos. Recognizing that there is a difference between acute and chronic stress, we are better equipped to make changes, especially when typical self-care practices are not always enough. Sometimes, reframing things are enough to get by.
To read more about the study that I mentioned in this piece, please read:
How Improving Your Mindset Also Improves Your Life
Resilience requires mind-and-body interaction.
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