What is stress?
Are you Stressed?
The stress response is a normal life-saving response.
It activates a series of events in your body, especially when you feel your life is under attack.
The stress response helps us prepare our body to get out of harm’s way.
It kicks in when we feel our life is under threat. That we may die!
For example, if we have a massive virus such as Ebola, or a grizzly bear is about to attack us and when need to move in a hurry.
Our immediate response to this - our stress response - is critical to our survival.
The stress response though, when this happens, it can be negative.
We are not in harm’s way.
For example, when we are running late or feel overworked, neither are going to threaten our existence but we feel it is.
We experience a slight distortion on reality.
The stress response is the same.
Despite the cause of our “perception’ is that our life is under threat.
The bottom line is that unless we are being attacked by a virus or bacteria, most other triggers of stress are more about our perception of a threat and our fears.
The stress response is a series of physical, emotional and physiological responses.
It can be caused through thoughts, events, situations, feelings, pain, viruses, medications, work, foods, people and times of the year (e.g. Christmas time)!
The more we understand our own stress response and what triggers it, the better we can manage it.
Is stress normal?
The crux to understanding the stress response is understanding that anything we perceive to be a threat to our life (i.e. may kill us) and well-being (even our family’s) will generate a stress response.
As will certain chemicals in foods (Monosodium Glutamate, MSG, is one such food), chemicals in medications and our environment can also put our bodies through stress. This however, is a physical stress response - not one you might have triggered through thoughts or beliefs. It is a physical response to a trigger.
A viral or bacterial attack can set our body on high alert and will stress our bodies until the attack is under control and we have fought it off. We might not be conscious of it, but it will occur.
It’s the prolongation of the stress response that leads to burn out.
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It’s the unsolicited, unconscious responses that drive our hormones into over drive, creating an increased response initially but over time ongoing stress, leads to the hormones and glands literally depleting and petering out.
That’s when we feel fatigued, exhausted and ultimately burn out.
Fight or Flight Response
Let’s analysis the stress response a little closer.
Evolutionary think about the bear advancing to the opening of your cave and growling at you.
You need to make a split decision about your life.
Do you fight or do you flee (i.e. run for it)?
It’s this conundrum that explains all the symptoms you feel when you have a stress response or reaction.
Your body and mind are instantaneously alerted to the fact that your life, your survival is under threat.
Deciding whether to punch, kick and defend your life (fight), or run for it (flight) are split decisions that require a few things to kick in at once.
This response is innate, wired into your reptilian brain to save your life.
Over your life, you build on your unconscious memory archive of “life threatening situations” and put them into auto bank (the reptilian part of your brain, to access at will).
These “stored in memory” experiences, will over your life, help save you from traumas and accidents.
You may get to a stage though, that you need to readdress what does create stress in you. aybe now, with your added experience, you can deal with things and stresses another way, or the stress doesn’t even exist anymore.
Just like defragging your computer and deleting old programs on your computer that no longer serve you, clearing your brain of old responses helps you become clearer, less stressed and higher functioning.
Stress activates your adrenal glands (2 small glands that sit above your kidneys) to secrete hormones.
These hormones orchestrate a series of body responses.
Adrenaline and noradrenaline lead to the following reactions: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, faster breathing, dilated pupils, a surge of glycogen (stored sugar) and insulin are released in your muscles. I go into the actual response in subsequent chapters.
The adrenals also secrete the hormones cortisol when you are stressed or anxious.
And another hormone I have come to love and appreciate called testosterone.
You can measure your stress hormones and sex hormones here.
Interestingly you can activate your stress response even when your life is not under immediate harm or threat.
If you perceive life events to be harmful to yourself (even though they are not), for example having assignments due, deadlines, running late for school pick-ups, court hearings, one can activate the stress response.
How Does Stress Feel?
You may be familiar with the feeling?
It’s that BUZZ feeling you get like when something takes your breath away.
If you are jumping out of a plane or on a roller coaster ride at a theme park, it feels exhilarating.
BUT when you are hiding in terror somewhere in the dark, it feels overwhelmingly uncomfortable and bad. Same response, different context and meaning.
Stress can become insidious and long term can be experienced differently.
The degree to which you feel stressed in situations depends on many things – previous experiences, nutritional state, influence of drugs and alcohol, time pressures, expectations and how much sleep you have had.
These are other ways I have seen chronic stress/fear/flight or fright manifest:
- It might be the inability to switch off at night. To never feel truly relaxed.
- It might be the self-doubt monster – the voice in your heads that talks negative, questioning words all the time.
- It might be the inability to feel confident in a social situation (commonly referred to as social phobia).
- It might be the avoidance behaviours one adapts and keeps to protect oneself from stressful situations (EG: you never go camping because the night scares you).
- It might be the crippling inability to breathe when you must speak publicly.
- It might be going to the dentist, anticipating the feeling of someone shoving one of those dentist’s things down your throat sucking up any drop of saliva and making your chest pound along while they drill your jaw! You feel you are going to drown on dribble.
- It’s the feeling that you need to race to the toilet immediately or you will soil yourself when doing an exam or test.
- It’s the pounding feeling like people can see straight through you with X-ray vision when they look at you when you stand in front of people at work and give a presentation.
- It’s the feeling of “I can NOT keep going! When is, my bad luck going to stop?”
Even when we are exposed to little everyday stresses, such as changing lanes in our car, taking money out of the bank, or dropping our kids at school, the stress response can be activated.
So, in a nut shell, stress is a natural response in your body that occurs when you feel under threat.
How Can You Change Your Stress Response?
You can (choose to) trigger your stress response regardless of whether the event is an actual threat to your body or not, just through your thoughts.
Long term this leads to anxiety and what we call “stress” and eventually our body wears out or “burns out”.
The solution for managing unwanted stress and anxiety, therefore, lies in recognizing the triggers for your stress.
The moment when you first recognize one of the stress feelings, or feel “stressed,” anxious, or worried, you need to questioning whether your body is under a real-life threat or a perceived one.
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Make your response conscious and be mindful of what is going on around and inside you.
Once this step occurs we can talk ourselves out of it and use techniques to relax our body and switch off the fright and flight response.
This is called awareness or mindfulness.
Mindfulness and being present, are what I teach people to do on my retreats.
These are some common incidences that I hear about in my clinic and how they can be major triggers of stress.
They can escalate to panic quickly but as you can see none of them are life-threatening.
Do any of these things stress you? Are these your triggers?
- Finding a car park to drop and pick kids up from school?
- Ironing the kid’s school uniforms in the morning and running late for work?
- Waiting in line at the bank that seems to be moving very slowly?
- Being stuck in traffic?
- Running out of milk in the morning even though you went shopping the night before?
- Someone mowing early on a Sunday morning and waking you on your only day off?
- Having someone jump your car park at shopping car park?
- Grocery shopping with crying babies?
- Being yelled at?
- Talking to Tel-com company and trouble-shooting bills?
- Having your children badger you for take away food after you have said “no” at least six times!
- Partners wanting sex when you are tired?
- Trying to lose weight and nothing is shifting?
- Dealing with disease maybe cancer and worried that you may not beat it?
- Dealing with family and in laws at Christmas time?
- Going to a job every day that you don’t want but knowing you need it for the money?
I might add here that medical professionals acknowledge stress and nervous break downs, but will often say that adrenal fatigue is a “naturopath term” only.
This baffles me.
I don’t think labels are all that helpful anyway but they do give you a reason and a starting point to get better.
Patients, people, individuals, are a sum of their life choices, their foods. Their numbers (blood tests and other diagnostics) simply reflect those choices.
As a health practitioner, helping people with fatigue and burn out, one really needs to spend a longer period of time getting to know their clients. Asking them how stressed the individual is, do they rest adequately and do they get adequate nutrition and exercise, are often questions revealed by naturopaths and alternative practitioners.
It’s nearly impossible to gather all that information in 15-minute consultation.
So usually people stuck in this system, of only asking a doctor for health advice, will struggle to get practical tips on combatting fatigue, stress and burn out.
If you want true recovery and understanding, see someone who is prepared to spend time with you. Find someone who will hold your hand and guide you gently, while you nut it all out. Don’t band aid it.
Don’t turn to stimulants, antidepressants and avoidance as resolution strategies.
Find someone who really gets it, gets you and can help YOU avoid future burn out episodes and be sure to pick up a copy of my latest book, Chill Out or Burn Out.
Or click here for the saliva sex and stress hormone test + hair test + consultation with me.