Inside: What you need to know about stress: This is part one in a three-part series to help you feel more empowered as you navigate stressful life experiences.
Would you agree that right now life feels more hectic and stressful than ever? That there are fewer times when you feel amazing in-the-moment clarity and confidence and all appears to be going well? And when those clear and confident times happen, do they seem to pale in comparison to the times when you’re really feeling the pressure?
Do these stressful times when life seems too demanding and it feels like there are too many things to worry about and you simply don’t can’t function like your very best self come around too often for too long?
This article goes over some of the benefits and risks of stress and the physical and mental effects it can have on our health. It also covers the biological basis behind what stress does in your body and mind, as well as several empowering and practical strategies to influence the causes and effects of your stress.
Education empowers us. It helps us (re)build resilience by reclaiming our voice and agency so that we can show up brave, whole, and on purpose in every season. Including the hardest of them.
hope empowers us to navigate stress and come out whole on the other end
I’ve shared a similar variation from research in this post from March 2020 but I’ll share here the version Brené Brown included in her new book, Atlas of the Heart:
We experience HOPE when:
1. We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).
2. We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative pathways (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try new paths again and again).
3. We have agency – we believe in ourselves ( I can do this!).
The intention for this series of three articles is to offer you HOPE as you show up fully to your messy and beautiful life.
What is stress and how does it affect health?
Everyone can identify stress (or learn to do so) —when situations feel overwhelming and it gets hard to cope well. Having said that, we experience it differently in our minds and bodies and some of us have an easier time “accessing” the emotions or physical sensations associated with our experience of stress.
For example, my son (Enneagram one, HSP), my youngest daughter (Enneagram four, HSP), and myself (Enneagram one, HSP) are deep feelers and can pinpoint where stress “lives” in our bodies. My older daughter (Enneagram 5) and some clients and friends (Enneagram 5, Autistic) find it much more difficult to connect to their bodies and name emotional and physical or somatic experience. You can learn more about The Enneagram in the Brave and Beautiful Community or through private coaching.
Perhaps you feel that this season of life is arguably one of the most stressful times we’ve collectively walked through. Pandemic fatigue, war, income insecurity, dealing with loss, relationship conflict from political differences, etc. all take their toll. Both “big T trauma” and “little t trauma” need to be acknowledged and processed or else they lead to nervous system dysregulation and find ways to manifest in our bodies in order to be heard.
Before we dive into all of the negative effects of stress, let’s acknowledge that it can have some benefits. On one hand, stress can motivate you to accomplish goals, like becoming more alert and efficient so you meet deadlines. That’s especially true for short-term stress. Doing hard things to build a life we want involves stress, building brave relationships and boundaries involves stress, saying yes to soul-stretching and freeing personal growth work involves stress.
A healthy nervous system is a flexible and adaptive one – we’re not wired to live in a constantly serene state. Our nervous system mobilizes to help us take action, defend, use our voice, respond to potential harm. And it moves into a rest and digest state so we can sleep and relax and shut our busy mind off some of the time. All of this is good and necessary.
But too much stress over too long of a timespan has negative consequences on your mental and physical health (or unresolved trauma – experiences that were “too much, too soon, or too fast” for us to process). These can manifest as effects on how well you can emotionally handle life’s curveballs and your relationships, and can affect your eating, sleeping, and movement patterns. Stress can even increase your risks for short-term—or even long-term—health issues.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, stress is “our body’s response to a real or perceived threat.” [According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand.”] Stress isn’t the situation (or “stressor”) itself, but rather stress is the reaction to that threat or demand. It happens when you feel threatened or when the demands on you are greater than your ability to deal with them.
Interestingly, this means that as we navigate stressful experiences, we need to keep in mind that “we heal, grow, and become at the speed of safety.” If we push ourselves too hard and fast, if we’re unkind to ourselves for how we’re handling the situation in front of us, or if we judge ourselves as wrong, bad, or broken, these can potentially stress our nervous system further tipping us into either fight or flight or collapse or shutdown. I write more about this later on but teach this more in depth in the BB community and with coaching clients.
Trauma is not what happens to you, it is what happens inside you.Dr. Gabor Maté
Stress is a reaction to a situation or “stressor”
Let’s take a second to unpack the fact that stress is the reaction to a situation or “stressor.” It’s true that not everyone has the same response to the same situation—some things that stress me out may not stress you out. For example, if you love the adventure of moving to a new home or city, it won’t stress you out as much as it would for someone who loathes packing up. If you’re an extrovert who thrives on being with and around others all the time you’ll be happy and healthy while another person, someone who is introverted or highly sensitive for example (though some HSPs are extroverts) may crumble without ample quiet and solitude.
Plus, everybody’s responses to stressors can be slightly different. Sometimes when two different people are equally stressed, one may be able to manage and recover more effectively than the other. In other words, how we experience stressors can be unique, even if the biological stress response is the same.
I’ll share another very personal example. After a serious car accident, the death of my son three weeks later, then the arrival of Covid four months after that, our family was hurting deeply and seriously rocked. My youngest daughter and I experienced panic attacks and I developed PTSD (though I also walked with my son through more vulnerable and painful situations than anyone else). My older daughter who is wired much more like her dad, and my husband/her dad, did not.
My youngest and I need to grieve out loud and talk lots about Jairus in order to heal and make sense of our new reality, the other two are not talkers or external processors. There is no right or wrong in any of this, we’re all hurting and we’ve all been navigating extreme stress, but we grieve and heal in our unique ways and need different forms of support. Our mind-emotion-body experience of the same situation is different.
Stressors come in all shapes and sizes, too. Some of the biggest stressors are significant life events, like changing jobs, divorce, or the death of someone you care about, or they can be traumatic events like a natural disaster, war, or assault. Other stressors can come from day-to-day life, like parenting, dealing with a chronic illness, or being a caregiver.[1,3] Some stressors are even shorter-term and smaller, like traffic on your way to work or school, or “spilled milk.”
DISCLAIMER: If you are dealing with trauma or a serious mental health issue, please see a medical or mental health professional. I recommend seeking out a practitioner who takes an integrative, somatic, or mind-body approach to health care.
What you need to know about stress, one of the most important things to know is that stress is your body’s completely natural way of trying to protect you. There are several strategies you can use to manage and reduce it. This three-part series of articles goes over some of the impacts that stress can have on your life, the biological basis for it, and then several empowering ways to deal with stress.
The normal stress reaction
When a situation stresses you out, it’s because your body and mind are instinctively trying to help you survive that stressful threat or demand. This prioritizes the “threat” above everything else and activates your biological fight, flight, or freeze reactions.
- Fight – Stress can put your brain on “high alert,” make you feel frustrated or angry, increase your heart rate and breathing, and tense your muscles.
- Flight – Stress can motivate you to run away, procrastinate, or avoid the problem altogether.
- Freeze – Stress can make you feel overwhelmed and unable to focus or concentrate on anything—including a solution to the stressor.
However, many of the stressful situations that activate these natural survival mechanisms don’t literally threaten your survival. Of course, there are exceptions—reacting to a natural disaster, war, or assault may very well be for survival.
The problem is that your body reacts in the same way when you’re facing a less threatening, but equally stressful situation like a job change, short deadline, parenting issues, or a traffic jam. In these cases, your normal biological reaction may be a bit too intense for the reality of the situation—and it’s not your fault!
There are biological mechanisms in place that I’ll share with you in Part 2 of this series.
I’ll share a personal example. Last week, I had two major panic attacks after months of being panic-free due to trauma triggers. And again today, even as I write this post, I am experiencing panic – my nervous system has shifted into a sympathetic (fight or flight) state. My son’s 26th birthday is fast approaching and there are reminders of him everywhere. Reminders that he is no longer here, growing, becoming. And right now, these are tipping my body into a panic state.
And so fighting, fleeing, or freezing is often not a useful strategy to deal with “every day” demands that most certainly are stressful but don’t in fact threaten your survival. But biologically, your natural reactions don’t distinguish between the two.
I speak to this in the JOY workshop and if you’re interested in learning more about nervous system regulation or somatic embodiment, check out the Brave and Beautiful Community.
IMAGINE BEING PART OF A PRIVATE COMMUNITY TO TALK ABOUT THE THINGS THAT TRULY MATTER TO YOU
The Brave + Beautiful Community is a place for brave, weary, curious women in the middle season of life to come aside and rest awhile, be nourished and strengthened, mind, emotion, body, and then continue the journey to freedom and wholeness.
The 2 types of stress (acute and chronic)
Acute stress is usually very high but very short-lived. An example might be swerving to avoid a collision. In this case, the mind goes into “high alert” stress mode and the body uses instant reflexes for a short time—sometimes just seconds or minutes—and then can start relaxing after the stressor is gone so you can continue on with your day.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is long term. Dealing with a drawn-out legal issue, for example, or a disease that goes on for months and even years can become a legitimate cause of chronic stress. This type of stress is particularly harmful because it keeps your body and mind on “high alert” all the time without giving it the opportunity to relax and get back to normal functions like resting and digesting.[B]
When you’re feeling stressed you may notice that it affects your mood and attention. You may feel irritable, worried, sad, angry, or otherwise unable to focus in a rational and calm way. Stress can also lead to more serious mental health issues like depression or anxiety.[2,3,4]
Over time, your natural physical reactions to stressors can become chronic and can impact many of your body’s systems and healthy functions. Stress can negatively affect your digestion, immune, cardiovascular and reproductive systems.[1,2,4] This can lead to many symptoms such as digestive distress, headaches, muscle tension, impaired sleep, or weight gain or loss.[1,2,3,4] Stress can also increase your risk for conditions such as asthma, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure.[3,5,6]
I think it’s so interesting (though not always joyful) that stress can have so many different and seemingly unrelated health effects. Stress can impact your mental and physical health in a multitude of ways. In the next post, we’ll talk about how these effects are even possible—which becomes clear when you understand the biology of stress.