An Uncomfortable Conversation About Stress
Just like balance, stress means different things to different people and stress impacts each person differently. What is stressful to you might not be stressful to your manager, coworkers, friends, or spouse. It is important to remember that when it comes to defining stress, everybody has their own idea of what is acceptable, tolerable, and comfortable. Before we talk about resolving stress when we experience it, it’s important to understand WHY we experience stress.
At its most basic, the answer is survival. Fight or flight. We want the ability to experience stress — it is what has kept us alive as a species. When we face danger, such as being chased by a wild animal, the body secretes into the bloodstream stress hormones (called adrenaline and made up of cortisol and a few other hormones), this initiates the body’s “fight or flight” response. This hormone cocktail causes a quick gust of energy, a burst of increased immunity, tunnel vision and tunnel hearing to help you move away from danger, and lower sensitivity to pain as not to distract you if you get hurt as you flee from the source of danger. After experiencing this flood of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, it’s important that the body and brain move to a relaxation response after the perceived threat has gone away so hormone levels can return to baseline. Research says it takes 40 to 60 minutes for this to happen.
If the body and brain don’t have the chance to relax then the body stays in a stress state because it perceives that danger is still near. When we were cave people, it was much easier to tell if a threat had moved away — the tiger was gone. In our modern world, many times the threat or cause of stress does not move away as quickly or in some cases at all, and our bodies and brains stay in a state of mild, persistent stress.
When the body doesn’t reach a rest state after a prolonged period of time, the result is a chronic stress state. Chronic stress can disrupt the immune system, sleep patterns, digestion, growth, and even reproduction. When the body feels perceived danger, it will prioritize its survival systems. Things like digesting lunch go to the bottom of the to-do list when the body thinks a tiger is going to attack.
As you are well aware, lots of things can cause modern day stress. The most common big stress triggers in life include moving, switching jobs, divorce, and death. Common situations that can lead to chronic stress states include unhealthy relationships, over-committing oneself, dysfunctional work teams, and unrealistic expectations of self and others.
Just as many people don’t know what balance means to them, the same is true for stress — many people are not clear on what causes them to feel stress in their daily lives. In my research, I’ve come to believe that most modern-day stress is linked to communication, or rather lack of it. And the topics we avoid talking about most often relate to our values. A lot of stress comes from the conversations we don’t have about our values with others as well as the conversations we avoid having with our selves. A great way to better understand what is driving your stress is to consider what conversations you are not having right now.
What stresses you out? Remember most modern day stress is linked to communication, specifically when we are hedging, when we’re not aware of how our complaints and criticisms are intermingled, and when we might be withholding to avoid feeling discomfort.
How do these situations make your body and mind feel? What symptoms let you know you are heading into the stress zone? For example, do you get stomach aches, skin rashes or headaches? Do you crave certain foods? We all have a stress “tell” — something our body does that sends a message to us to slow down and pay better attention.
What do you do to take care of yourself when you are feeling stressed? This is a big one as many people I work with haven’t considered how to intentionally care for themselves when they experience stress. We will all experience stress throughout our lives. But how do we want to manage it? Being active, time with friends and family, meditation, engaging in a hobby, being in nature — there is no wrong way to move yourself out of a stress state. Just know what ways feel right to you. The most important thing is to KNOW what is causing your stress, or what is likely to cause stress in the future so you can then nourish yourself when you encounter it. Know your answers and follow through.
As you reflect on your answers, begin to become aware of where your behaviors are supporting you and where they are sabotaging you. Notice the choices you make, notice when you feel in balance, notice when you feel out of balance. Then make the necessary shift.