Understanding Stress

Originally Posted on August 19, 2012 by BJ Howell.

As we work toward an individual plan to handle the stress in our lives, there are some foundational items that we need to discuss.  What is stress and how does it manifest in your life?  Stress comes in both internal and external forms. It was defined in the past by Hans Selye “as the non-specific response of the body to any demand placed upon it” and more presently neuro-scientists Bruce McEwen and Jaap Koolhaas said that it “should be restricted to conditions where an environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity of an organism” (Wikipedia).  Merriam-Webster.com defines it as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”  It has also been defined by authors Heather Forbes and Bryan Post as “the internal reaction to either an external or internal event; creating a systematic reaction geared towards restoration of homeostasis.”

As you can see there are a lot of views on what it is, however, they all have a common thread.  A very basic understanding is that anything that is too much for the body or mind to handle (deal with); that stretches the physical or mental being to a capacity that causes unhealthy reactions can be considered stress.  Victor E Frankl, author, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor  said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  Forbes and Post refer to it as the “window of tolerance”.  Everyone’s space or window of tolerance is different because everyone’s mental, emotional and life experiences are different.  For example, if one person grew up in an abusive home where their needs were not met, their space might be considerable smaller than someone who grew up nurtured and loved.  A huge part of the “space” in between is the skill set that an individual has that allows them self-regulate.  Learning how much “space” you have in-between is the first step.  Ultimately, learning how to lessen your stress can be a two-part task.  It can include doing what is needed to increase your “window of tolerance” and/or it can be removing unnecessary stresses.

The reason for moving toward a less stressed life is simple.  It means being (and staying) mentally and physically healthy longer.  As I stated in the last blog, research is showing that stress can cause disease.  Hundreds of years ago the effects of stress was very helpful.  That flight, fight, freeze mechanism came in handy in the wild.  The problem is that we are (for the most part :-))civilized human beings.  We no longer hunt in the wilderness for our food.  We no longer compete for territory or have to protect our family from the wild.  Yet our internal mechanism for handling stress has not changed.  It has not evolved with us.  Thus, when we feel stress, even if what is stressful is not putting our lives in jeopardy, once it reaches the level of being negative stress, our body still takes us through that process as if our survival were in question.  Without getting too technical, when the stress reaction is triggered, there are hormones/chemicals that are released in the body with the main purpose of priming the body for “survival mode”.  If the situation isn’t one of survival, these changes are still taking place.  If this happens repeatedly, then the chemicals/hormones affect the body in an adverse way.  This adverse effect in the body leaves the body vulnerable, thereby, allowing disease to fester. 

So you’ve lived your life in constant stress?  All is not lost.  Finding a plan that allows you to live a more stress-free live is key.  But before setting up your plan of action you have to acknowledge what is.  What is the stress in your life?  Does your inner critic (self-talk) add to your stress?  Who brings stress into your life and are they people who are not in our inner circle?  Do you really want to live a stress less type of life?  If you do, are you willing to take action to make that happen? The one thing that is necessary to stress less and live a more relaxing, rewarding life is that you have to do what you say you are going to do.Most well-thought out plans sound good, but in reality, they are only as good as the person willing to act on that plan.

What are you willing to do to be the change that you want to see?

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