by Hope Staton, CMT
Co-Owner of Integrative Health Therapies
No matter who you are, what you do, or even how old you are, stress is something that we all have to deal with. We hear about it on TV, read about it in magazines and experience it on an almost daily basis. So what is stress? How does it affect us? And what can we do about it?
Physiologically, stress is the body’s reaction to external forces to return a sense of balance. The reason we have the capacity for stress is very simple…it’s there to keep us alive. At one time or another we have all had that “adrenaline rush” feeling. That is the start of the stress response pattern. The Stress Response Pattern consists of three phases: (1) Alarm, (2) Resistance and (3) Exhaustion. You may have heard the Alarm phase termed “fight or flight”.
Throughout human history, the Stress Response pattern has been vital to human survival. The Alarm phase would allow immediate response to a sudden life or death situation. However, in modern society we have a problem. Our stressors today can be brought on by sudden events, but are far more likely to be ongoing situations such as our work, schedules, money, disorder and even our families. While our Alarms tend to be less frequent, we seem to be stuck in the Resistance phase.
The Resistance phase is what keeps you going during a stressful event and past the initial Alarm phase. If we stay stuck in this phase bad things happen. We get grouchy, short tempered and have lapses in memory and judgment. This is because our bodies are paying an even higher price by releasing chemicals to help combat stress and not absorbing the chemicals we need to maintain a healthy body. The Exhaustion phase follows that and probably need’s no explanation.
Scientific study is beginning to show what we have known for a while that our stress response effects more than just the mind. Some people have even gone so far as to claim that stress causes disease. This is not correct. Stress does not cause disease outright. However, chronic stress does exacerbate per-existing conditions, making them worse; and stress lowers the body’s immune system making it harder to fight things off and much more likely that a person will get sick in the first place. So, while stress does not cause disease or illness outright, it does create the perfect conditions for them to happen and thrive in.
One of the greatest difficulties in finding a specific answer to stress relief is that our perspective influences the magnitude of the stress response. In other words, because people see the world differently and respond to situations differently, what triggers a stress response in them will be different as well. When one person is faced with a room full of people they have never met before they might respond with excitement over the possibility of meeting new and interesting people, while another person is intimidated and nervous by the exact same scenario.
As if our natural differences didn’t make stress complicated enough, there is also the fact that our individual perception varies as well. On a week when things are going pretty well, having a computer printer go down temporarily in the middle of a project is mildly annoying, but on a week that has been difficult and already full of stressors it can be the last straw that breaks us down. The way we perceive a stressor at any given moment can greatly impact how strong our stress response is to any situation.
The good news is that we know the two major factors that can influence and reduce stress. The bad news is that it will take some work because they have to be personalized to your life. There will always be stressors that surprise us, but more often than not, you are already aware of the events, situations or scenarios you personally find stressful. The first step in reducing stress in your daily life is acknowledging what your individual stressors are then applying the two factors that most influence stress:
1) Successful Prediction
2) Perception of Control
The challenge is that just like trying to build any good habit, reducing the impact of stress in your life can only happen through a lifestyle change. It means we have to make a conscious effort to apply the principles of Successful Prediction & Perception of Control as often as possible in our daily lives. When we are able to predict stress, when we know a stressful event is going to happen in our lives, we are better able to prepare for it and therefore it will cause a much smaller stress response. When you are faced with a busy week full of activities and obligations, you can have a stress response before it even gets there by just dwelling on it. But by Predicting what your week will be like- if you plan your meals for the week, decide which day you need to do laundry, and what day you need to clean what room, you give yourself the Perception of Control that allows you to focus on the other events in the week that really do need attention. Successful Prediction, or planning ahead, will give you the Perception of Control that you need to navigate through any week with less stress.
Learning time-management and organizational skills are great ways to reduce unnecessary stress, because repetition of using Prediction and Perception of Control techniques actually shortens our stress response pattern over time. When practiced over and over the very skills and methods we use to prevent stress also help us cope better with unexpected stressful situations in general.
Developing the tools to reduce your daily stress will not come quickly or easily but will pay off in your life, not just giving you more emotional and mental peace, but also helping your overall physical health as well.