Everyone has stress, some more than others. I myself am the type of person who tends to worry about situations, which don’t warrant the stress. For example, showing up on time when meeting a friend (even though punctuality is becoming a forgotten art form, but that’s a different matter).
Stress tends to be portrayed as bad, negatively impacting on our health and generally just a menace to society! While this can be true in certain circumstances, stress=bad isn’t quite the full story.
Stress happens when the body is out of homeostasis (the body’s way of maintaining normal function). The body is always looking to find homeostasis. Stress prevents this in many different forms. Almost anything in fact; meeting new people, taking a test and even exercise all cause stress. What determines the scale of the stressor is our perception of it.
So if I am about to meet Daenerys Targaryen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons (Game Of Thrones people, c’mon), and in my head, I’m like ‘Oh my gosh!! I’m about to meet the true queen of the 7 kingdoms, I am so nervous!’. Then I’ll likely have higher stress levels than if I was to meet Daenerys Targaryen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, and think ‘she seems cool, whatever’.
With the former reaction, I’ve gone into a fight or flight mode. This is an expression used in reference to when a stressful situation occurs. The body prepares itself either to attack the stressor or run from it.
To fight or flight, that is the question
In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr Robert Sapolsky explains that during a stressor the body will suppress or up-regulate particular systems. This occurs as the body is looking for the most effective functions to tackle the stressor.
Say for instance that you are running away from something terrifying, like a tall clown, the digestive system isn’t going to be very helpful. That’s not the time we want our bodies to focus on breaking down the grilled chicken. A better use would be supplying blood flow to our legs to turn us into Usain Bolt!
This type of stress response has evolved over the years. Back in the day, our hunter/gatherer ancestors relied on the fight/flight response for survival. If they were to hunt for food or avoid becoming food, they needed their bodies to react appropriately to the stimulus. Although I’m sure there were a few alphas who chose fight when the flight would have been the survival option. Evolution can be a slow process.
When stress can be harmful though is when it goes on too long. A hunter chasing their kill has a high-stress response, but once the chase had ended the body returns to its normal homeostasis. In the age we live in, we may not have such extremes stressors, but we’re inclined to respond to them longer.
Busy work schedules for example. The thought of handing in a heavy workload can begin a stress response. The longer this response lasts, the longer the body will be out of homeostasis. The benefit of a suppressed digestive system would be lost as the body would have decreased energy from the lack of nutrient uptake. This also has the potential to increase the risk of infection, and as the immune system is also suppressed during stress, it’s not able to help deal with this infection!
Perception is key
What this shows, as with everything, is the amount of stress is what can be dangerous. Moderation appears to be the word most appropriate in the health and fitness world. Too much or too little of anything can have negative impacts. Whether that is food, exercise or stress.
To find a suitable balance with stress, we must refer back to our perception of it. A stressor is only as strong as we perceive it. To minimise prolonged stress we need to change our perception of it.
This requires a change in mindset. Beliefs that have been held for years may be causing chronic, unnecessary stress. These beliefs need to be adapted to improve our perception. Instead of fretting over deadlines weeks away, we should plan a schedule leading up to the date. Rather than worrying about what isn’t within our control, we should concentrate on what is.
A process like this takes time. Unfortunately, we can’t suddenly decide to not worry. But by building an awareness to unhelpful stressors, we can start to control them better.
And this will mean that when the lion does come to attack us, we can use our stress response in the right away. By going one on one with the big cat!
Take home points
- Stress isn’t a straightforward good or bad
- Stress is caused when the body is out of homeostasis
- Fight/flight is a response to stress
- Acute stress supports body functions, chronic stress can cause harm
- Controlling perception of a stressor helps to minimise stress