Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
When it comes to stress, we’ve all certainly got enough to go around. But when it comes to talking about stress, our language might just end with the words “I’m stressed.”
Although it may be a true feeling, “I’m stressed” doesn’t leave us with options for understanding and managing our situation. To talk about stress in a functional way, we need to be specific about our stressors, and we need clarity on how each stressor affects the body and mind.
Becoming familiar with the words used to describe stress and its impact on health is health literacy – which is essential to help us better understand our bodies, address our stress and find solutions.
How many of the words in bold below can you define? How many of these words could you use in context this week?
Stress: A pressure or tension exerted against a material, psyche or syllable. (i.e. distressed jeans, first day of a new job, EL-e-phant)
Stressor: Any agent, environment or condition that puts pressure on an individual. Not all stressors are negative.
Challenging stressors teach us about self-assurance, inspiration, disappointment, decision and consequence, autonomy, mastery and purpose. Challenge creates EUSTRESS.
Eustress is positive stress. It is often managed with responsive problem-solving, long-term planning, clear thinking and agility in the body, which helps minimize the stress. Eustress builds strength of emotional maturity and physical robustness.
Unrelenting burdens – where we don’t have the time to reflect, recover or repair – put us in a state of alarm and exhaustion. Our immune systems malfunction, our vessels clog and become weak, we become inflamed (emotionally and physically), our pain receptors start firing inappropriately, and we can become nervous, anxious and depressed. Burdens create DISTRESS.
Distress is negative stress. It is often managed with reactive behaviour, short-term solutions, fuzzy logic and comfort food, which compounds the stress. Distress causes the unravelling of mental stability and physical health.
Once we know that we are experiencing distress, it’s even more helpful to know what type of stressor is causing it:
Physical stressors: Illness, insufficient sleep, poor nutrition or hydration, physical strain, sounds and smells.
Emotional stressors: Grief, resentment, fear, anger, shame and anxiety.
Cognitive stressors: Unprepared problem-solving, information overload, rapid demands and over-thinking.
What underlies our response to these stressors is our autonomic (automatic) nervous system, which has two main operating modes:
- Sympathetic nervous system: Nerves in our spine light up when we feel fear or nervousness. These nerves prep us for the “fight or flight” response. The five main clues that this system has been triggered include sweating, increased heart rate, more blood flow to the big muscles and lungs, tunnel vision and less tears/drooling. This system makes us REACT.
- Parasympathetic nervous system: Nerves in the brain and in the pelvis that light up when we feel calm and safe. These nerves allow us to “rest and digest.” The five main clues that this system has been triggered are less obvious, and include less sweating, lowered heart rate, increased digestion, peripheral vision, more tears/salivation. This system helps us RESPOND.
Both of these states are involuntary. They turn on and off depending on our perceptions and our context and are not controlled by our more mature, rational selves. Our job is to create an environment that allows for growth more than depletion.
React: To immediately speak or take action in a situation. Reactions are often instinctual and based on emotions and personal history, and they happen without reflection. Reactions are not negative unless they create negative outcomes. Healthy reactions come from practice. Practice is pausing and responding.
Respond: To take into account the context and desired outcome of a situation, and choose a course of action based on your values. Practicing responsiveness regularly builds the capacity for healthy instincts.
Adrenaline: A hormone (a chemical messenger) produced in the adrenal glands, which sit above your kidneys. When the system becomes alarmed or frightened, adrenaline surges in the bloodstream. Adrenaline helps us get hyped up for the “fight or flight response.” It lasts for around 20 minutes and then passes the torch to…
Cortisol: A hormone that is also produced in the adrenal glands. This hormone is useful for a multitude of important body functions. It rises after adrenaline peaks and it sends messages to keep us alarmed and vigilant if a stressor happens to extend for longer than 20 minutes. Cortisol is only meant to be put to work in this way for a few hours.
Acute stress: A short-term situation that happens when stressors pop up, challenge us and then resolve as the situation calms down. Adrenaline and cortisol shine in acute stress and help us move quickly, stay focused and get stuff done. Although the situation can be distressing, it passes.
Chronic stress: When overwhelming stressors arrive and do not recede. In these situations of chronic stress, cortisol is required in constant amounts, and this unrelenting stream impacts our energy, our intellect and our motivation. The distress lingers and can hinder our best intentions.
Stress reduction: Preventive actions that decrease the likelihood of unhealthy cortisol fluctuations. These actions can include avoiding certain situations, altering your behaviour, accepting the change or adapting to the situation.
Stress management: Preventive habits that assist resiliency. These are also called mindfulness tools, and can include finding quiet time, building sensory awareness, choosing priorities and drawing boundaries.
Stress release: Recognizing what you feel and finding an outlet for the feeling, including exercise, cleaning, laughter and time in nature.
Resilience: This is the power you have to pick yourself up after any type of stressful circumstance (which can include adversity, conflict, loss of control, uncertainty, positive challenge or increased responsibility). Resilience determines how you react or respond. Healthy resilience allows you to absorb, process and move forward. Healthy resilience is built from knowing you have the tools for stress reduction, management and release.
I encourage you to get comfortable with these words so you can be specific and more accurate when describing the types of stress you experience. It will also put you in a better position to understand what’s causing your stress and allow you to find healthy solutions to reduce, manage and release your stress, and to become more resilient.
Once you have the vocabulary, you are ready to go out into the world and be a Stress Literati!
Stress management resources at UBC
- Stress Coach Connects: An online stress management program through UBC’s Employee and Family Assistance Program
- Learn to Meditate Workshop Series: A three-part series to learn how build a personal meditation practice
- Virtual Health Fair: Online resources and self-assessment tools
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.