Warning: What You Need to Understand About Stress
If we have an interest in managing, or reducing stress effectively we need to understand it. My aim in this post is to provide a brief overview of stress, with the aim to help you consider a wider perspective of it. So you are better armed to more effectively manage it from a holistic and comprehensive view.
One definition of stress is: "what you feel when life’s demands exceed your ability to meet those demands" (1). There are also other ways to view stress that have value that are active irrespective of our awareness or perception of them.
Stress is not inherently bad, it is part of nature. We have evolved with it. Part of the challenge with stress in modern society is that the way human beings have evolved with stress in nature, and the way our body's mechanisms are set up to deal with stress do not lend themselves to many of the demands we are exposed to in the modern world.
It is also important to consider that stress has the potential to be both good and bad for our health. It can be said that a degree of stress is advantageous to our development as human beings, both physically and mentally. As is true with fire, the right amount of fire will keep you warm, too much will burn you. Similarly this is true of water; it has the ability to sustain life through drinking an appropriate amount of it, yet too little or too much can also kill you. It therefore might be helpful to consider stress in a similar light. For example to grow, requires us to move out of our comfort zone.
In our evolution the demands of survival in the world were more related to acute, short bursts of stress, for example a burst of running to avoiding a bear eating you. These events would commonly provoke strong elevations in the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (the active branch, or turbo if you like), which caused immediate elevations in stress hormones - cortisol and adrenaline - which improved our chances of survival from the acute stress, i.e. heightened reactions, better speed, etc. The key point here is that in the natural world there was a stress stimulus, then recovery, where the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (the chilled out bit) resumed its place as the dominant branch of the autonomic nervous system, its natural baseline in between these bouts of stress.
In the modern world the stressors are different. They are generally lower in severity yet greater in number, with commonly no recovery element from the elevation in stress hormones; so this is sort of like travelling through a day from one moderate stress to another with the cumulative stressors being sufficient to elevate our stress hormones to a degree for most of the day. And this continues day in, day out. This situation is also compounded by modern lifestyle habits and additional external stressors that are all around us in the modern world.
This chronic elevation in stress hormones, such as cortisol, can cause havoc on your body. For example, just from a physical health perspective, excessive stress load might be a contributing factor to fertility problems, immune suppression, impaired digestive function, reduced nutritional absorption, potential ulcer formation, hormone cycle disruption, be detrimental to heart health, obesity, sleep disruption and insulin sensitivity issues among others. The bottom line: excessive stress loads, especially those of a chronic nature will have a catabolic effect on the body, weaken it and likely move you closer to a state of disease. In addition there is not a health condition out there that’s damage will not be exacerbated by chronic excessive stress load.(1)(2)(3)(4)
It can also be helpful to view stress load from a comprehensive holistic perspective, such as that offered by the CHEK Institute(2). In this view there are sub-categories of stress: physical, chemical, electromagnetic, mental and thermal. Think of each of these sub categories as separate taps, within the same sink, coined the 'stress bucket'. This view of stress has an appreciation of a person’s total stress load. (imagine a line of taps into a long sink) The overall volume of all the differing stress taps running at any given time is considered, as well as consideration of the duration the person has been under such stresses and provides a more accurate understanding of a person’s total stress load. In considering the above perspective, one person may have a very strong short-term stress going on in their life and recover quite well. Yet another person may have multiple imbalances that are more chronic, or long-standing in nature, for example they might experience an underlying negativity in the way they think: living a sedentary lifestyle, working at a desk all day, eating poor quality food for years, being under increasing work pressure/increasing mental demands and working late at night. In these two examples the stress load of the second person might cause more problems with regard to their health.
I would suggest that to thrive in the modern world you cannot just be a passenger, or be reactive to your total stress load and expect good levels of health, vitality and high performance at work or in any field of your life. Rather I would suggest it requires a degree of management of both your exposure to chronic stress, as well as the strategies you use for building your resilience to stress from both a mental and physical perspective.
So in conclusion, and the take away point here is to consider all the areas of stress in your life as a total stress load at any given time (the sink), as well as how long you are under high total stress loads. The remedy being reducing stress coming in, and off setting stress with an effective plan of recovery and restoration activities.
(1) The Cortisol Connection. Talbott, S Ph.D (2007) 2nd edition, Hunter House, Canada.
(2) Eat Move and be Healthy. Chek, P (2004) CHEK Institute, San Diego.
(3) Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers. Sapolsky, R (2004) 3rd edition, St. Martins, New York
(4) CHEK Holistic Lifestyle Coach- Level 2 Course Manual, Chek,P, Oliver,. C, Remsen,J,.(2002) CHEK Institute, San Diego.
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About the author, Shaun Mckeown: could be labeled as a performance strategist, or coach, or a life balance specialist. In essence Shaun is a strategic, creative problem solver, with a holistic view. He has over 15 years professional experience helping people with health, well-being, sport performance, reducing stress and life balance. He has a BSc.(Hons) degree in Sport and Exercise Science, as well as experience coaching and teaching in exercise conditioning, holistic lifestyle and nutrition, sport performance and Reiki. So has both science and holistic perspectives.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Shaun Mckeown, disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.
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