We start every workshop by explaining what stress is in the body. If we can identify it we can more easily deal with it. If we know what it is we can work to move through it. There is power in knowledge.
Stress As A Cup
When we talk about stress we like to explain with the visual aid of a cup. A cup has a finite amount of liquid it can hold as there is a finite amount of stress you can conceivably deal with at a given time. The water (stress) in your cup might be from working a job where you’re underappreciated, or conflict you had with a significant other the night before, or it might be more fundamental issues like facing systemic racism on a regular basis, or dealing with financial insecurity. All of these things go into the cup and fill it up in different amounts depending on how affected you are by them, how intense they are, or how consistent they are. If you’re starting every day with a mostly full cup then every successive stressor threatens to spill out and over the side and onto the table. This overflow can feel like overwhelm. It can make something small feel like something very large. It can also increase our frustration when we think something is going to add a tablespoon of water and it actually adds a cup of water. It reduces our capacity to hold more water for other things later. Unless of course, we do something to help move the stress out of our body or get the help we need.
Okay, So What Is It Really?
When you’re stressed you probably notice changes in your body—fatigue, tension, and sometimes an upset stomach. These unconsciously controlled elements of our bodies, like heart rate and digestion, are controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two main parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as our rest and digest response. When the body is not under stress from external factors it moves into the parasympathetic nervous system allowing us to digest, slow the heart rate and rest. When the body is under stress however, the sympathetic nervous system responds to the threat by releasing adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart to beat faster, make us sweat more, dilate blood vessels, reduce digestive function, and change glucose levels––all to help us deal with the emergency.* There is a third part of this system known as the Enteric Nervous System [ENS] which is primarily involved with digestion. For our purposes we will focus on the autonomic and the sympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system protects us from danger. It responds to stressors by prepping our body to either fight or flee thereby moving energy away from the rest-and-digest response of the parasympathetic nervous system so it can do the work it needs to. Despite modern and technological advances––our bodies still respond to stress fairly primitively...it sees stress as stress, hard stop. Our bodies don’t recognize the difference between the stress of traveling with screaming kids in the backseat of the car and the stress of an attack. Fear or anxiety that we feel from dealing with difficult co-workers is processed in the body with the same response that’s triggered when we are under physical threat. And we are inundated with this stress all day, every day. We experience stress from expectations, we have conflict with family, we have anxiety around finances, politics, and so much more, which means we activate our stress response way more than is necessary or healthy.
We need this response because it keeps us safe and ready to respond to threats, but the danger is in spending too much time here. When we find ourselves stuck in our stress response it can move from acute to chronic stress. Chronic stress can raise our blood pressure, decrease libido, increase our chance of poor cardiovascular outcomes, make us feel like we are constantly on edge, and many more symptoms. You can eliminate the stressor and still carry the stress in your body. You can also manage the stress in your body while the stressor rages on. The trick is to help your body move out of the stress response by signaling to it that you are safe. We'll talk through HOW to move through it in a future post, but for now we want you to understand what it is and why is NOT the enemy so we can choose to stress better at more appropriate times and in less destructive ways.
Homework (the fun kind):
Spend some time this week noticing your automatic reactions to stress. You can even go the extra mile by journaling about what you pick up on. When you're feeling stressed do you notice it in your heart? Or maybe more so your gut? Do you notice that you're scrunching between the eyebrows or clenching the jaw? Notice what causes you the most stress and how you react to it. This is where we start to build awareness around our default settings.