Stress – Even the word is enough to put us on edge. We all experience it and try to manage it with varying degrees of success. The aim of this three part series of posts is to develop our understanding of stress so that we can reduce the negative impact it can have on our lives. We will begin by looking at the positive side of stress, otherwise known as acute stress.To understand acute stress it is really helpful to look at three of its key aspects:
1: Causes of Stress
Any number of events can initiate our primal reaction to stress. These stress inducing events or stressors fall into one of two categories, internal or external:Internal Stressor: Originates from within mind and\or bodyExamples: Chronic worry, physical pain, negative self-talk, perfectionism etcExternal Stressor: Originates from outside mind and\or bodyExamples: Financial problems, work pressures, relationship issues etc
2: Automatic Process
We have evolved to experience stress (just like other mammals) in order to stay safe, so that we can ultimately reproduce. When our ancestors experienced a stressor it often meant that they needed to act quickly in order to survive. Natural selection therefore ensured that stress is an automatic process. Our brain decides if we are under threat and our bodies react accordingly. The initial stress reaction is not something we choose, it just happens!
3: Perception Based
When faced with a stressor we essentially ask ourselves: “Do I have the resources to cope with this?”. If the answer is ‘yes’ we experience a little stress, if the answer is ‘no’ we experience a lot (and everything in between). The main point is that we don’t react based on fact, we react based on perception. This is why we can experience a full blown stress reaction when the threat is completely imaginary. The threat doesn’t have to be real and usually isn’t in my experience.Let’s now look at an example of how acute stress can play out. Although not a very exciting example, it clearly shows the process and primal nature of acute stress:1. While out running recently I suddenly heard a dog barking right behind me.
1. My brain received this sound and interpreted it as threatening
2. My brain then initiated a stress reaction (fight, flight, freeze)
3. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol were released into my body
4. My body and mind reacted to these hormones (heart racing, tunnel vision etc)
5. I instinctively turned around to face the dog with my fists clenched, ready to fight presumably (This reaction just happened).
6. I then saw that the dog was more like a chihuahua than the pit bull I had imagined
7. My brain then perceived the threat as having passed
8. Stress hormones gradually left my body
9. I gradually returned to a relaxed state
That’s it, that is acute stress in a nutshell. Acute stress is a normal and healthy reaction to the everyday stressors that we encounter, whether it’s a barking dog or a presentation at work. It helps to keeps us safe and gather our resources when needed.In part two, we will look at how repeat exposure to stressors (one or multiple) for an extended period of time can leave us susceptible to chronic stress. When stress becomes chronic our physical and mental health can be compromised. Luckily there is much we can do to limit and work with this kind of stress.