By Guest Contributor on May 4, 2017
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.
Posted in A Thoughtful Mind, Guest Contributor, Mental Health | Tagged definitions, Dr. Thara Vayali, health literacy, impact, language, learning, reactions, resources, Stress, stress management, Support | Leave a response
By Melissa Lafrance on May 3, 2016
What exactly is Health Literacy?
The Public Health Agency of Canada defines Health Literacy as “the ability to access, comprehend, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course”.
To put it more simply, health literacy means being able to obtain and understand information relating to our health. We need to be critical when looking at health claims and advertising presented to us. Some health claims are based on research and evidence, while other claims are inaccurate and unsupported (and, in some cases, can be dangerous).
Studies show that people with higher health literacy are healthier. When you are able to understand and use health information, you have the important components to build a healthy lifestyle (including taking preventative measures to avoid illness, and knowing how and when to seek medical care).
However, figures show that 60% of adults and 88% of seniors in Canada are not health literate. This means a lot of us may have difficulty using the health information that is available in health care facilities, grocery stores, retail outlets, schools, through the media, and in our communities.
We can all benefit from gaining clarity and knowledge to improve our health literacy, and the following strategies can help:
Stay Curious & Ask Questions
Being curious leads us to explore, investigate and learn. Curiosity gives us the drive and motivation to acquire valuable health information, by questioning expert sources and unravelling new subject areas. Find the things that motivate you to continue, and ask for clarification if something doesn’t make sense to you.
Be Your Own Health Advocate
When it comes down to it, we have a lot of control over our health, and the freedom to choose the type of lifestyle we live. For many of us, our health is our most prized possession and we must value and treasure it. We must treat our minds and bodies kindly, and sometimes fight for what is best for ourselves. Learn tips on becoming your own health advocate in a health care setting.
We don’t always have the answers for health questions – no one does! It is okay to ask for help and consult with expert sources as you make decisions about your health.
Do the Research
When something piques your interest, research it! And I don’t mean reading bogus articles with fancy clickbait headlines (you may have seen some on your news feed). While it may seem difficult to sift through the information available at our fingertips, I highly encourage you to explore reliable websites. Some credible sources include not-for-profit organizations, government health agencies, and educational institutions. Here are some to use as a starting place:
- UBC Human Resources – Staff & Faculty Health
- Workhealthlife by Shepell
- Health Canada
- Government of Canada – Healthy Canadians
- Heart and Stroke Foundation
- Canadian Mental Health Association
- Dietitians of Canada
Take What You Read with a Grain of Salt & Be Critical
A lot of health information is confusing. There is a lot of conflicting claims circulating. Do what makes sense to you at the time. Learn questions to evaluate the reliability of online information. You can also read these tips on evaluating health information online.
Communicate Clearly with Patients (for healthcare providers)
If you are a health care provider, here are 8 ways to improve health literacy with patients to help improve safety and reliability of care.
By Miranda Massie on March 1, 2016
When it comes to food and diet, we have all heard the phrase: “everything in moderation”. But what does that really mean? How do I serve up moderation? What does moderation look like in a measuring cup or on the end of my fork?
I have recently started to think a lot about the cultural role that language plays with respect to eating. Words, terms, catch phrases and labels permeate our world, particularly when we are dealing with health and eating.
‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ Foods
One example is the recent official classification of salami, bacon and other processed meats as carcinogenic. The World Health Organization published guidelines to support this 15 years ago, and yet it took a shift in language to make it into the headlines. Overnight, these foods became enemy number 1 to some people, joining a growing list of so-called ‘bad’ foods.
A few years ago (after watching her eat ice cream on waffles for breakfast) I asked a dietitian friend for advice. “Tell me about bad sugar vs. good sugar,” I asked. “What about good fats vs bad fats?”
Her response: there are no such things as bad foods or good foods. Just eat more of this and less of that. Fill your plate with more of the foods containing whole and healthy nutrients and with less of the foods containing empty calories or processed ingredients.
Terms like ‘bad’ or ‘good’ are rife with judgement and can make us feel ashamed and guilty if we’re seen to be ‘giving in’ or eating something that is labelled ‘bad’ for us. The negative psychological impact of this disappointment and deprivation can derail our healthy eating goals or weight-loss plans and discourage us from trying again.
Here comes that word again…moderation.
Studies are starting to show that this eating philosophy is actually leading to larger amounts of high sugar and high fat foods taking the place of healthy foods in our diets. Our modern diets have also become so diverse that eating all of these foods in moderation can actually lead to weight gain.
Moderation can certainly be used as a tool to reduce or quit our consumption of certain foods but as an overall nutrition philosophy, it leaves a lot to be desired and it may not work for everyone.
Milk in “moderation” for someone with a dairy allergy will make them sick. Sugary desserts in “moderation” for someone with diabetes could have serious health outcomes.
This month, I encourage you to think about the language you use when talking about food. Think about how that language makes you feel and its impact on your health. And perhaps try eating more of this and less of that.
- Eat more whole foods, and less processed foods.
- Drink more water, and less alcohol or soda pop.
- Fill your plate with more veggies and less meat.
- Add more herbs and less salt when cooking.
- Have more breakfast and less dessert.
Make an effort to consume more of the foods that we know will give us energy, feed our muscles and keep our bodies strong and eat less of the foods that can be harmful and destructive to our long term health.
All my best,
More reading on this topic: