My definition of stress: A thief in the night that robs you of your essence and your innate creativity, strengths and spirit to thrive. For most clinicians and researchers stress is the resulting situation when pressure and challenged exceed our perceived ability to cope. A stressor is anything that knocks you out of allostatic balance. Here’s the bottom line courtesy of Robert Sapolsky1, allostatic balance is all about the brain coordinating body wide behaviors and changes in a given situation. Stress response is constellation of physical reactions mounted by the body in the face of a stressor. It is what your body does to try to reestablish balance.
So what we call “Stress” or what we experience is stress is the body’s reaction to a threat, perceived or real. It’s our flight or flight response mediated by adrenaline and other stress hormones. Increased heart rate, faster breathing, increased blood pressure, tension in our muscles, dry mouth, dilated pupils all indicators of increased arousal. Great primers designed to bring the necessary “scobysnacks” when we need extra energy in our legs and other muscles when we need to physically flee or fight. I would be remiss to not mention Shelly Taylor’s2 convincing argument that for females the stress response might be more about “tend and befriend”- taking care of young or dependents and seeking social affliction. This certainly is true for many people, but it is also true that many females have been known to fight or flee. So instead of getting bogged down in the scientific details and its complications let’s try to keep things simple. We’re not innately wired to stop think and consider what is going on or what we might choose as our reaction to a stressful event. We are wired to get into action.
Stressful events that are too frequent, too long or too intense lead to distress. Distress is what we commonly refer to as stress.
Not all stress is bad. Eustress, healthy stress allows us to perform well. It is the challenge that keeps you going, engaged and excited to be pushed.
To master stress you must change. Discovering where your stresses are coming from and what thoughts and behaviors contribute to your very real experience of stress you can then take considered specific actions to change your experience of distressing experiences. Change your behavior. Change your thinking. Change your lifestyle choices. Change the situation you are in or creating- if possible. Discovering where your stresses are coming from is not a mere listing of what ticks you off or a litany of difficulties. It is those things AND your appraisal of the situation at hand AND evaluation of your ability to handle it.
Thriving in spite of stress is a two-part process: appraising the situation and then taking action to soothe the savage beast.
In my upcoming September 18, 2010 Taming Your Stress Things workshop in Jackson, MS, I’ll help you identify the impact of both your pet peeves and the major stressful events in your life and where to focus your stress taming energy to make the greatest impact. More details about the workshop coming soon.
1Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
2Shelly Taylor UCLA