by Kassandra Lamb ~ Our blog has a lot of posts on stress management, because that was one of my specialty areas as a psychotherapist. And since we all have stress, and we can all benefit from learning to manage it better, it’s a popular topic!
Here is a brief summary of the info available on the subject on our blog, with links to the posts that go into more detail.
The model I was taught for understanding stress has been one of the most helpful things I ever learned in graduate school. I studied stress management under George Everly, PhD, at Loyola University in Maryland. He is both an excellent scientist and an excellent teacher.
First let me start with the definition of stress: The activation of our physical and emotional resources to cope with the challenges of life.
We tend to think of stress as a bad thing, but actually it isn’t totally so. Up to a point, it is a necessary and positive aspect of life. Without any stress—no challenges, no demands, no interesting things we want to do—we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. How depressing is that?
So the key to managing stress isn’t to eliminate it but to keep it in balance. And how stressed we feel at any given time is dependent on three things:
- The number and nature of the stressors in our lives at that point in time.
- How our bodies respond to those stressors.
- How we interpret those stressors emotionally and cognitively.
This is Dr. Everly’s model, simple and clear. So let’s take a look at each of these components.
Here are several things to keep in mind about stressors:
- Even happy events are stressful, because they place demands on our mental and physical resources.
- Stress is cumulative, so it is the number and not just the magnitude of the stressors that affects us.
- Some stressors are sneaky, in that we don’t realize they are stressing us. (For example, traffic noise.)
For more on stressors and some suggestions for how to reduce the number of stressors in our lives, see this post: Handling Stress, Part II: Managing the Stressors in our Lives
With regards to how our bodies respond to stress, here are several key factors:
- Our bodies react to stress automatically. A part of our nervous system called the Autonomic (as in automatic) Nervous System triggers the flight-or-fight response when our brains perceive a threat or challenge in our environment. And when the threat/challenge passes, the ANS calms us down again.
- We all have a stress threshold, which varies from person to person. This is the level of stress at which we have used up all of our coping ability. It is an on-off switch. When we’ve passed it, we aren’t coping with anything very well anymore.
- We also have a health threshold, the point past which we are putting more wear and tear on our bodies because of stress than we can completely recuperate from with a good night’s sleep.
- Our genetic predispositions and previous health challenges will play a large part in how, when and to what degree the stress in our lives causes stress-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.
- How often and how well we relax our bodies will have a huge impact on our coping ability and our health.
For more on the ANS and our stress thresholds, see this post: Handling Stress, Part I: Stress Isn’t Always Bad, and for more on relaxation: Handling Stress, Part III: Simple Relaxation Techniques .
And there are some other interesting aspects of genetics and how our brains operate that affect our individual coping abilities. Check out this post: This is Your Brain on Stress.
And last but not least, our cognitive and emotional interpretation of the events in our lives affects our stress level.
These interpretations are influenced by two major factors:
- Our past experiences.
- Our genetic predisposition to certain personality traits.
But wait, didn’t I just say we’re talking about cognitive and emotional interpretations. How can those be affected by genetics?
Many personality traits have varying degrees of genetic predisposition involved. They are not formed solely via environmental experiences.
And certain personality traits will play a role in how we interpret and cope with certain stressors.
For example, I am coping better, in general, with the Covid-19 pandemic than my husband is because I tend toward the optimistic end of the continuum and he is more of a pessimist. This trait is definitely dictated partially by genetics (25 to 50%).
Because of his pessimistic tendencies, he dwells more on the negatives and worries more about whether we will catch the disease and what the long-term impacts on the U.S. economy will be.
I, on the other hand, am a Polyanna. I tend to believe that everything will always turn out okay. And during recent times, I have made a conscious effort to hang on to that attitude, because it is helping me to cope.
But despite the genetic component, this aspect of stress is often one where we can have the most impact. A fair amount of the time, we can change our cognitive/emotional interpretation of a stressor. It takes work and a certain level of psychological astuteness, but it can be done.
For more on this interpretation aspect of stress management and, most importantly, how it can be changed, see this post: Handling Stress, Part IV: How We Interpret Stressors