I was more than a little shocked, years ago, when my graduate school professor informed my class that stress is a good thing, up to a point. You might, as I did at the time, find this hard to believe.
But hang on! Here’s the definition of stress: The activation of our physical and emotional resources to cope with the challenges of life. Now when that challenge is a traffic jam or a deadline at work, that’s no fun. But if we didn’t like getting activated now and again, why would we do this?
photo credit: Frog and Onion (from Wikimedia Commons)
Or play any sport, or read a mystery novel for that matter. If feels good to get the heart thumping a bit and the juices flowing.
But even when we’re not doing something quite as drastic as fencing or hanging upside down from a roller coaster, stress is a good thing, up to a point, in everyday life.
Let me go back and explain a few things first, so this will make more sense.
Why Stress Has a Bad Reputation
Our bodies were designed to handle far more primitive challenges than we face today. Most of the challenges our cave-person ancestors encountered were physical, such as hunting for food or fending off wild animals and hostile tribes.
So our bodies have this thing called the stress response, that prepares us for physical action to deal with those physical challenges. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, adrenaline’s released, muscles tense, you start sweating, and your digestive system temporarily shuts down (because it’s more important to deal with the sabertooth tiger trying to eat you than it is to digest what you just ate).
Today, however, 90% of our challenges are psychological/emotional–coping with changes in our lives, relationships, deadlines, etc. So you’re sitting at your computer all stressed out about the report/paper you’re trying to finish for your boss/teacher, while your body is preparing you to fight off sabertooth tigers. All those physical changes take a toll on your body, especially when you don’t actually do anything physical in response to the stressor.
There’s a part of our nervous systems, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that deals with all this. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic branch (SNS) that causes all those changes listed above (plus several more) and the parasympathetic branch (PNS), that brings our bodies back to a calm state once the challenge or threat is over.
So after our ancestors fought the sabertooth tiger, their bodies would go “ah, time to relax.” (Assuming they won, that is.) Their PNS would kick in. Heart rate and BP came back down, muscles relaxed, digestion came back online, and life was good again. 🙂
In modern society, we tend to be stressed for longer periods of time, with no physical outlet. This is what does such a number on our bodies! You’ve probably heard the old expression, “All dressed up and no place to go.” Well, this is all revved up and no place to go!
Why Do We Feel Stressed?
We tend to assume that our stress level is dictated by how much we have on our to-do lists. But stressors are not the only factor involved.
That grad school prof I mentioned above (Dr. George Everly, Loyola University, Maryland) taught us a three-factor model to understand stress. His explanations regarding how stress works and what to do about it made so much sense, they have stuck with me for 30 years! And I’ve passed them on to hundreds of my students.
I’ll go into more detail regarding these factors in future posts. For now, a brief summary.
The first factor is the stressors. Some events–getting married, losing a job, etc.–are biggies in the stressor category, but a lot of little stuff can add up as well. And even good events contribute to our stress load, because they still require resources to deal with them. Take vacations, for example. We go on them to relieve stress, right? But they also cause stress! We’ve gotta plan them, pack for them, make sure stuff at work is organized to get along without us, deal with traveling hassles, worry about lost luggage… you get the picture.
photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author (from WANA Commons)
In my pre-Christmas post on managing stress overload, I talked about how to reduce stressors by dumping, delegating and postponing some of them. I’ll deal with stressors some more in a later post as well.
The second factor in how stressed we feel is our body’s response to stress. There are several issues here. One is whether our bodies have any predisposed vulnerabilities to stress-induced illnesses. Another is our innate tolerance for stress (called our stress threshold). More on this in a moment. And last but not least is how often we relax our bodies, something that makes a huge difference in our stress level.
Third is our cognitive and emotional interpretation of the stressors. There are exceptions, but most stressors are not stressors until we interpret them as such. Quick example: I love to drive. I find it relaxing. For my husband, it is one of the most stressful aspects of life. How we perceive stressors is going to be affected by our personalities and our past experiences.
In later posts I’ll dissect these factors a bit more. Today, I want to focus on the stress threshold aspect of the body’s response.
So Get to the Point; Why Is Stress Good, Up to a Point?
Okay, okay. Here it is.
We all have a stress threshold, the point at which our coping ability is exhausted. Below that threshold, stress is a good thing. It motivates and energizes us. Have you ever had a day (hopefully you’ve had many like this) when you’re feeling good, chugging along at a nice pace, getting a whole bunch of stuff accomplished? I love days like that! The challenges are manageable and I’m being activated to meet them. That activation makes me feel alive and gives me a sense of achievement.
The problem arises when the stress level hits our threshold, and sometimes–no, make that often–we don’t see this coming. We may feel our best, the most energized and alive, when we’re hovering dangerously close to this threshold. And then one more little stressor comes along, and whammo, we’re over the edge.
This threshold is an on-off switch. When our coping ability is gone, it’s gone. One minute we’re handling everything, the next, we’re not handling anything.
When I was thirty, I was in graduate school, working full-time, starting my own business on the side and raising a preschooler. ~ Okay, that sentence stressed me out just typing it. ~ But at the time, I thought I had a handle on it all. I was revved! Life was exciting and satisfying.
That fall (ironically, while I was taking Dr. Everly’s class), mortgage interest rates dropped and my husband and I naively decided it would be good to refinance our house. Before we realized what all was involved in this, we were committed. One evening I came home from work, and sitting on the table was yet another letter from the bank informing us of yet another thing we needed to do, and pay for.
I lost it! I started slamming doors and yelling things that brought into question the pedigree of the bank employees. I had gone totally over the stress-overload cliff. When I finally simmered down, my husband (bless him) calmly said, “Maybe I should handle the refinance. You’re a little stressed out right now, dear.”
It was a tough lesson learned. Stop and think before you pile yet another stressor on an already full plate.
Here’s another sneaky problem with this dang threshold thing. There are actually two of them. The one I just described is our psychological one. The other is our health threshold. We’ve reached that one when our tissues and organs are suffering more wear and tear per day from stress than can be repaired that night while we sleep. When we’re past that threshold, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a whole slew of stress-related ailments, including heart disease and cancer.
And here’s the total kicker. The health threshold is lower than the psychological one. So we may still be coping well, may even feel great about all we’re getting done, when we are already doing our bodies damage from that level of stress.
Optimizing the Good Stress, Minimizing the Bad
So the moral of the story, folks: If we want to live long and prosper, we need to stay in the good stress level zone, comfortably below our threshold. That way, we’re not putting excessive wear and tear on our bodies, and we’re leaving some leeway for unforeseen stressors.
To accomplish this, one has to do two things. First, pay attention to your stress level for awhile and get a sense of just how much stuff you can handle (i.e., where your threshold is). And while you’re doing that, pay attention to your early warning signs that you are getting too close to your threshold.
For me, it’s getting grumpy and short-tempered (my husband would say, getting grumpier and more short-tempered). The big flag is if I start losing it on the road when other drivers cut me off or are dragging their feet. Normally, I just mumble something sarcastic like, “Uh, ya see that pedal, the long skinny one on the right?” And then I let it go. But if I find myself yelling at them (inside my car; I’m not crazy enough to actually get in their face) and I’m still fuming about it when I get to my destination…
As Jeff Foxworthy would say, “Here’s your sign.”
I am way too close to the edge of that cliff. It is time to dump, delegate or postpone a few stressors in order to get comfortably back in the good stress level range again. Because I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to stand too close to that edge; the ground might just crumble away beneath me.
What about you, what are your early warning signs that you’re getting too close to the stress-overload cliff?
(More on stress management in future weeks. Next week I’ll be guest blogging over at Rhonda Hopkins’ place as part of her Authors Give Back series. I’ll be talking about my experience as the grandmother of an autistic child, and the organization, Autism Speaks, that helps these children get the help they need to live fuller lives. Come join me there next Tuesday, February 12.)
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.
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