Understanding Stress and What We Can Do To Best Manage It

Understanding Stress and What We Can Do To Best Manage It

Do you ever find yourself tossing and turning late at night, or wondering why that one spot in your back is always so tight? If so, you're not alone.

According to The American Institute of Stress, more than 50% of us experience stress that affects our physical, mental and sleep health.

Stress is a cunning disruptor that can infiltrate every aspect of our lives.

As April is Stress Awareness Month, we thought it a good time as any to take a hard look at the impact stress has on our lives and what we can do about it.  

So let's dive in… 

What is stress, exactly? 

Stress is our psychological and physiological reaction to change, more formally described as the “nonspecific response” of the body to any demand placed on it. 

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By activating our sympathetic nervous system, aka our fight or flight response, stress is what causes us to react to danger to protect ourselves. 

The stress response is designed to protect us from threats by causing a chain of reactions, including a release of hormones that causes our pupils to dilate so we can see better, and an increase in our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates. Blood is shunted away from our digestive organs straight to our muscles so we can run or fight if necessary. 

After the stress response is activated, it takes between 20-60 minutes for our body to return to its pre-arousal state or the parasympathetic nervous system, aka rest and restore state.

When does stress become bad for us or toxic?

Stress becomes toxic when our stress response is constantly activated over a prolonged period of time, thus making it difficult for us to return to the rest and restore state, meaning we’re continuously living in a state of protection or safety seeking. 

Toxic stress can result from a variety of factors, including ongoing work pressure, financial struggles, health issues, or difficult relationships.

When we experience toxic stress, our bodies remain in a constant state of "fight or flight" mode, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

This can have negative effects on our physical and mental health, including an increased risk of heart disease, depression, and anxiety.

Over time, toxic stress can also impair our cognitive function, reduce our immune system function, and decrease our overall quality of life.

How do I recognize when I'm in a toxic stress state?

When we don’t recover from a stressful situation we have likely experienced General Adaption Syndrome. According to GAS, when the body encounters a stressor, it goes through three stages of adaptation.

The first stage is the alarm stage, where the body recognizes the stressor and activates the "fight or flight" response. During this stage, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body to respond to the stressor.

The second stage is the resistance stage, where the body attempts to adapt to the ongoing stressor. During this stage, the body continues to release stress hormones, but at a lower level than during the alarm stage. The body may also activate other systems, such as the immune system, to help cope with the stressor.

The third stage is the exhaustion stage, where the body's resources are depleted and it can no longer maintain its resistance to the stressor. This stage can lead to a variety of physical and mental health problems, including burnout, depression, and illness.

GAS suggests that the body has a limited capacity to adapt to stress, and that toxic stress can have negative effects on physical and mental health. 

We all have different levels of stress capacity. It's important to know yours and when you're coming close to your limit so you never enter the third stage of GAS when you're exhausted and burnout.

You can tell when you're in the fight or flight state because you're showing the below signs:

  1. Headaches or tension in your neck, shoulders or back
  2. Muscle tension or stiffness
  3. Fatigue or exhaustion
  4. Sleep disturbances
  5. Upset stomach or digestive issues
  6. Changes in appetite, either overeating or undereating
  7. Increased heart rate or palpitations
  8. Sweating or clammy hands
  9. Shallow breathing or feeling short of breath

Some common emotional symptoms of stress include:

  1. Feeling anxious or worried
  2. Feeling irritable or angry
  3. Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope
  4. Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  5. Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy
  6. Feeling sad or depressed
  7. Mood swings or emotional outbursts
  8. Social withdrawal or avoiding people and activities

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be a sign that you are stressed and in the fight or flight state. It's important to take the neccessary steps to manage your stress levels so you can return to a rested and restored state.

How do I increase my capacity for stress?

When a stressor happens instead of ignoring it or accepting it as part of life work to reduce the stressor and leverage a stress leaving tool that works for you such as going for a walk outside, breathing exercises, or The Feel Good Mat + App.  

Practicing de-stressing and relaxation techniques will over time increase your capacity and help you rebound your nervous system back to the rest and restore state much quicker. 

Follow Feel Good People on Instagram where we share de-stressing practices you can try for yourself. 

In summary

Not all stress is bad, but repeated stress over time can cause toxic stress which is a destroyer of health and well-being. We don’t have to accept toxic stress as a normal part of life. We don’t have to let it control us. 

By being aware of when we’re experiencing stress and employing solutions that help us get back into the rest and restore our nervous system, we can increase our capacity to handle stress more healthfully and our ability to rebound from it more quickly. It's important to find what stress-relieving solutions work best works for you and to make it a priority in your life.

So this April, let's raise awareness about the impact stress has on our lives. Let's educate ourselves and our loved ones about the importance of managing stress. And let's take action to reduce stress in our daily lives.

***The American Institute of Stress (AIS) is a non-profit organization that aims to advance the field of stress research and management and to promote awareness of the impact of stress on health, productivity, and quality of life.