Stress: A Deeper Dive
Changing Perspectives on Stress: Understanding and Getting Better at Stress
Stress, The Basics:
The word “stress” can conjure up images and feelings for each of us that vary immensely. We may associate stress with emotionally draining life events, but can also experience stress in day to day life when standing in line, waiting in traffic, or simply trying to get through our work day.
The stress response that takes place in our bodies when we experience any of these triggers is the result of hormonal changes that are preparing us to take some sort of action in response to these triggers. We may feel physical sensations such as sweating, a fast heart rate, and tense muscles, as well as psychological shifts like anxiety and intrusive thoughts.
According to PhD psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, ”Stress usually occurs when people operate at the edge of their abilities — when they push themselves or are forced by circumstances to stretch beyond their familiar limits.” Another way to describe stress, from a 2017 publication by Stanford Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Alia Crum: the stress response is determined by the balance of perceived resources (e.g. knowledge, skills) and perceived demands (e.g. danger, uncertainty).
In essence, stress results when we don’t feel like we have the resources, support or coping skills to meet internal or external demands. It’s important to understand that the stress response is based not only on the actual stressor (the internal or external trigger), but is based on the reserves and resources we each have to cope. As one of the original researchers involved in identifying the stress response, Dr. Hans Selye, put it: “stress is not what happens to you, but how you react to it”.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, PhD, Stanford Associate Professor of Neurobiology, explains the concept of stress well in his podcast. He talks about how many of us learn about stress as a mechanism that originated as part of our physiology in more ancient times when we literally had to face threats like running from an animal, but this doesn’t give us the full picture of stress. First off, he explains that even in ancient times, there were also psycho-emotional stressors like a family member getting lost while traveling, or discord in relationships, not to mention the stress of potentially not having enough food, or living through cold seasons. So, while there may have been some physical threats in the past that we no longer have to worry about (like running from a tiger), humans have always had other emotional and physical stressors, many of which we continue to experience today.
Dr. Huberman explains that the stress response was and still is a system to mobilize other systems in the body. Some of the challenges we face in coping with stress are because it is a generic system; it doesn’t necessarily change its basic mechanisms depending on the kind of stress we are facing. He explains that we can use this to our advantage in controlling it when it is not serving us and we can control it in real-time with tools like breathing in certain specific ways.
Types of Stressors and Our Response:
Next, let’s talk about the types of stressors we may face, what determines how we respond, and specifically what is going on internally when faced with a stressor. Stress can by psychological in nature (like challenges with a partner, or preparing for a big presentation) or physical (like cold temperatures or loud noise exposure). Our bodies use the same stress response system when faced with any of these challenges.
How we respond to stress can be of course related to the particular stressor and its intensity, but it can also be related to the resources and support we have to cope. Whenever the resources we have are insufficient to deal with a stressor, we tend to feel stress and a sense of anxiety/overwhelm. For example, if you have several weeks to prepare for a presentation and have adequate support from colleagues and dedicated time to spend on it, you will likely feel less stress than if you were given 1 day’s notice and don’t have the adequate time or support to prepare.
So, what exactly happens when we are hit by a stressor, be it physical or psychological? Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and neurotransmitters are released. We feel the effects of these chemical messengers in our brains and bodies. Adrenaline causes our blood vessels to dilate in our extremities and our heart rate goes up. At the same time, these neurotransmitters decrease flow to areas of our body that we would not want to focus on during times of acute stress, like the digestive tract and our reproductive organs. Our body is getting us ready for action.
Defining Stress Duration and Health Consequences:
Next, let’s talk about different durations of stress and how this variable can affect our health. We know that stress can enhance our immune system at times in the short-term, but can also have detrimental health effects if it goes on too long. The next question would be, what is short-term vs long-term stress?
Short-term stress is defined as the minutes/hours/few days when the stress hits us. Dr. Huberman discusses how short-
term stress and the associated adrenaline release can actually be good for us in the short-term. For example, this kind of short-term stress can help us when it’s activated to fight a viral infection, etc. as it activates parts of our immune system like natural killer cells to help us get over the illness.
Medium-term stress lasts several days to several weeks. For example, this may be related to a particularly hard month at school/work. There are ways to increase our “stress threshold” so we can more effectively cope with unavoidable medium-term stress and Dr. Huberman goes over some of these techniques in his podcast.
Finally, long-term stress is what we all hear about, and this does indeed have long-term negative impacts on our health. This is the type of stress that lasts from months to years.
The take home message is that we need our acute stress response to respond to situations like an infection, but we want to be able to turn off the stress response when it stays on inappropriately from other triggers when it is no longer serving us. Breathing techniques are one way to help turn down the effects of ongoing stress. Read on to learn of other ways to help cope with long-term stress.
Getting Better at Stress:
Even with long-term stress that nearly all of us face to some extent, there is hope for additional ways in which we can mitigate the impacts on our health and physiology. Dr. Huberman talks about social connection as one of the most powerful ways to mitigate the effects of long-term stress. While it takes work to maintain relationships with family and friends when the busyness of life gets in the way, it’s well worth it.
In addition to social connection, the work of Dr. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, health psychologist and researcher at Stanford, teaches us that our “stress-mindset” can also have an impactful role in decreasing the negative effects of long-term stress.
So, what is stress-mindset and how can it help us? Stress-mindset has to do with how we view stress. It has to do with whether we view stress through an adaptive mindset (the stress-is-enhancing mindset) or a maladaptive mindset (the stress-is-debilitating mindset). Stanford associate professor of psychology Alia Crum, PhD conducts research on stress mindsets, and found that viewing stress as a helpful part of life, rather than harmful, is associated with improved health outcomes, and even associated with improved productivity at work. This doesn’t mean that we view stress as “good” per say, but if we have more of an adaptive mindset, we can see that stress may potentially lead to some positive outcomes in the realms of productivity/performance, learning and growth.
Dr. McGonigal teaches about how rather than viewing stress as “good” or “bad”, we can change our overall view of stress. She says that “we can embrace stress as our body’s way of responding to certain events, rather than seeing it as a negative. One way to think about stress is that it's energy and you get to decide what the right thing to do with that energy is." Since we all know stress is inevitable, her goal is not to teach about how to avoid stress, but to “get better at stress.”
Dr. McGonigal gives some additional tips with her 3 most protective beliefs about stress:
view your body’s stress response as helpful
view yourself as able to handle, and even learn and grow from the stress in your life
to view stress as something everyone deals with, and not something that proves how uniquely screwed up you or your life is
We all know that chronic stress is associated with more risks of illness and poor health outcomes. Changing our mindset is one way that we can mitigate these effects. Numerous studies have shown how stress mindset in various groups, including teachers, college students, business school students, among others, is associated with more job satisfaction, and reduced symptoms of mental health disorders.
Other important research findings indicate that helping others, volunteering, and social connection are all important pieces that reduce the impacts of unavoidable long-term stress.
The take home message here is that rather than trying to avoid stress (which is not really possible), we can change how we view it, and look at the potential opportunity for growth. Not only does this give us a way to find meaning out of the event, but this mindset is also associated with improved health outcomes.