Inside: When you’re stressed out remember your stress reactions are biologically the same whether it’s to literally save your life or if your stress is due to a triggering, annoying, or frustrating situation. That’s not your fault. That’s biology. This post contains a referral link.
We can’t avoid all stress (not to mention that not all stress is bad). What we can do is distinguish between stress that is causing us harm and that which is simply part of a healthy life in a messy world. We can become more self-aware about our patterns, the things that activate our nervous system, those habits, practices, and stories or thoughts that help us process stress and grief in healthy ways, learn to expand our capacity (for joy, pain, possibility), and live more often in a “safe and social state.”
Before we dive in further, I want to share a distinction that you may find helpful. In Brené Brown’s newest book, Atlas of the Heart, she distinguishes between two terms, stress and overwhelm, that we often use interchangeably and why this matters.
“Feeling stressed and feeling overwhelmed seem to be related to our perception of how we are coping with our current situation and our ability to handle the accompanying emotions,” she writes.
Brené writes that “We feel stressed when we evaluate demands as beyond our ability to cope successfully.” And Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches that we feel overwhelmed when “our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well.”
The nuances matter because “accurately naming an experience gives us the power of understanding, meaning, and choice.” And choice is the pathway to freedom.
Some extra resources to support you in this work: In this podcast episode, Brené breaks down the difference between stressed and overwhelmed—and gives us tools to navigate both. Listen here. And my workshops offer education to help you reduce stress and live more empowered.
You’re invited to take this free, ready to watch workshop about learning strategies to discharge stress and feel more empowered. Click below to access the workshop.
The science of stress and the autonomic nervous system
Stress starts in the brain. The Mayo Clinic refers to stress as a “complex natural alarm system.” At the base of the brain, there is a small part called the hypothalamus. When triggered by stress, the hypothalamus sets off a cascade of reactions through two different systems: your nervous system and your hormonal system.
By understanding these mechanisms, it will become clear how your body physically and mentally reacts to stress with so many possible symptoms and why this increases your risks for many health conditions and diseases.
Stress makes your nervous system more alert and ready to fight, flee, or freeze. One way it does this is by redistributing your body’s resources away from non-essential functions by hyper activating the sympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system.[5,8]
(I teach my clients and community members how to “map their autonomic nervous system” to become aware of their patterns and then practice a new response to stress or stressful triggers.) Learn more here.
This means that it tells the nerves that control your attention, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and muscles to ramp up, while at the same time, telling the nerves that control your digestion, immune response, and reproduction that they’re not really needed as much in this stressful moment, so they can ramp down for a while.
When it comes to the hormonal response to stress, this happens via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis).[5,9,10] One of the major messages from your brain’s hypothalamus goes to your adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys.[7,10] These glands produce the powerful stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine). These two hormones direct your body to hold off on any resting, digesting, immunity, or reproduction because they’ve been told that your body’s focus and resources need to go toward survival.
These stress reactions happen because your brain and muscles are getting prepared for moving quickly and powerfully. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase to supply your brain and muscles with more oxygen.[5,7] Your blood sugar level increases to supply them with fuel.
Remember your stress reactions are biologically the same whether it’s to literally save your life or if your stress is due to a triggering, annoying, or frustrating situation. That’s not your fault. That’s biology.
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When you’re stressed, you may have less control over food cravings . An interesting recent finding is that ghrelin —the “hunger” hormone—is also activated in response to stress. Studies show that, upon acute stress, high levels of ghrelin are immediately released by the stomach into the bloodstream to promote food-seeking and meal initiation. It’s possible that by releasing ghrelin when stressed, the eating that follows helps people alleviate some of their stress. When stress subsides, the levels of ghrelin decrease slowly over the course of minutes or hours, even if nothing is eaten.
As you can imagine, once the stressful situation has passed, all of these stress hormones slowly drop down to normal levels and your body can start going back to its balanced state. Your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and blood sugar all reduce, and your body can start picking up where it left off in terms of resting, digestion, immunity, and reproduction.
The difference between acute (short-term) stress and chronic (long-term) stress is that with chronic stress, you constantly feel demands and threats over the long run, so this biological reaction continues. This is where long-term consequences such as increased risks for anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension, heart disease risk, sleep problems, and unexplained weight gain may come into play.
With all of these biological responses, our nervous system and hormones focus on ensuring your body’s resources are focused on survival in this immediate present danger, even if the stressor isn’t, in fact, immediately a matter of life or death. This explains how stress can have such a vast array of seemingly unrelated symptoms: digestive distress, headaches, muscle tension, susceptibility to infections, mood changes, etc., and how living in this stressful state too often for too long can lead to more serious issues mentioned above.
feeling stressed or overwhelmed is not a character flaw
Stress is a completely normal physical and mental reaction to life’s demands. Stress is not all bad—it can help you reach your goals or literally save your life. The problem is chronic stress because your body responds to all stress in the same (big) way by instantly prioritizing survival mechanisms of fighting, fleeing, or freezing. This means it increases your alertness, blood pressure, blood sugar, and breathing. It also means that it de-prioritizes your ability to rest, digest, fight infections, and reproduce.
When stress goes on for a long time and your body and mind don’t get a chance to re-stabilize/re-balance (which means your nervous system becomes dysregulated), that’s when it can have detrimental effects on your mental and physical health.
Managing and reducing stress can be a challenge, but there are many things you can do to try to mitigate the stressor itself. And there are also productive ways to cope and manage your reaction to these stressors in a healthy way. In the next part of this series, I will share some of the common—and less common—strategies to help you better manage your stress and reduce those stressors in a healthy and productive way.
If you’re chronically stressed out you’re likely living in survival mode instead of truly thriving. We can’t always control the situations we face but fortunately, we can take action to build new habits, to retrain our minds to see differently, and to feel empowered through the inevitable stressors of being human in a messy world.