Stress 101

There are a myriad of terms related to stress which can often seem confusing. I hope that this helps to make things a little simpler.  

Stress

In 1950, Hans Seyle1 who is often referred to as the founding father of stress research, said “Anything that causes stress endangers life, (and conversely) anything that endangers life, causes stress”.

In its simplest form, stress is merely our body’s response to a perceived danger. It’s something that everyone experiences to some extent. That doesn’t mean that we’ll all react to stress in the same way though. Stressors have always existed and the way that our bodies have been designed to be aware, prepare and relate to them, is through the physical and mental reactions received by our nervous systems.

Why we experience stress differently from one another is complex. There are however, a number of factors which may contribute to how we interpret and how we experience stress. This can include; our current ‘life load’. Current and past life events, our upbringing and childhood events, our general state of health and mindset, as well as our reaction to stress, our levels of resilience and our ability to rebound. In addition, there are many things which may help or hinder our stress levels including; our relationships with family and friends, community, work, economics, faith and lifestyle.

Acute stress

Acute stress may feel intense, but here the stress response is quite short. Our bodies recognise and react to a stressor, then mitigate it before returning to a ‘normal’ state. Biochemically, the body is fuelled by adrenaline. Our heart rate and blood pressure increases and glucose floods the bloodstream. This is often known as the ‘fight or flight’ stage.

Chronic stress

In chronic stress, stress occurs repeatedly over a period of time. It can be repetitive, perpetual or happen episodically. Here the biochemical mechanism differs from acute stress, because whilst the heart rate and blood pressure are still raised, the body is responding to cortisol activation. So here the stress response often stays active for a much longer period. We also see the immune system suppressed and the body starting to utilise fat stores.

Although chronic stress can be very uncomfortable, it can also become familiar. It is this that can make it problematic for our health. The body can become so accustomed to a ‘danger’ stimulus that it reacts to a situation whether it is real or not. So a certain smell or even a thought can recreate a real life experience. This is where we can then experience physical symptoms such as sweating, a headache or even stomach cramps.

Eustress

Eustress is associated with ‘eu’-phoria, or highly pleasurable feelings. It may be difficult to think of stress as pleasurable, but biochemically the body does not distinguish between the heightened feelings that are experienced in response to something which we perceive as stressful or something which is just a heightened experience. So a 15 minute presentation and a 5 minute rollercoaster ride can produce the same biochemical responses in the body. What differs is our perception (either excitement or dread) of the event.

Distress

Distress is conversely seen as being negative or adverse to our wellbeing. It can also keep us focused on, or replaying a negative event. But this too can be skewed by our viewpoint. For example, a dog barking and running up to someone in the park can invoke feelings of fear or joy depending on whether the dog is yours or whether you like or are scared of dogs.

Burnout

Burnout is not exclusive to work, but the term is often related to someone feeling completely washed out and depleted due to work activities. In ‘6 Sources of burnout at work’, Paula Davis-Laack2 writing in the Huffington Post talks about work burnout originating from; a lack of control, values conflict, insufficient reward, work overload, unfairness and breakdown of community. 20 years earlier Psychologists Maslach and Jackson3 related burnout as a syndrome (as a set of symptoms usually seen together) where there are ‘increased feelings of exhaustion’ but also ‘negative, cynical attitudes’. Interestingly they found that those most susceptible to burnout were those who did ‘people’ work.

Loneliness

Loneliness is not only something that the elderly experience. In an article for Forbes 4, Caroline Beaton suggests that the millennial generation may the loneliest generation of our time. Interestingly in another related article 5, she goes on to describe the impacts of loneliness as feeling more stressed, less creative, having a lower self-esteem and feeling less in control. Loneliness is not the same as being happy to spend time alone or being okay with having time apart from others. Loneliness grows when we feel isolated, apart from and unattached from others. It may also be the feeling of being bereft of friendship or feeling that we do not matter to others.

Anxiety

In many ways stress is a protective mechanism. So as strange as it sounds, anxiety can be seen in some ways as the height of that protection. Feeling anxious may be rational or irrational, but regardless of which, the feelings will be very real to the person experiencing them. Anxiety often occurs as a perpetual fear loop. We react to something which happens or which is thought of, but instead of the stimulus dissipating, it continues almost seemingly without end.

Depression

Whereas anxiety is an overt stress reaction, depression can be the opposite. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we just feel sad or low. It can be far worse, a feeling of endless flatness, or a feeling which goes beyond numb, or the feeling of simply having no connection to anything.

Adverse Childhood Events

As is often said, ‘knowledge is power’. Although we cannot change the past, knowledge of the past can help to inform us for the future.  In the 90s, Vincent Felitti, a doctor and researcher started studying the impact that ‘Adverse Childhood Events’ (ACE) have on health later in life. Correlations were drawn to heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, cancer, depression, CFS and even obesity. It was not only the traumatic event that had an impact, but the accumulated impact that that seeing and being exposed to trauma had. In this TED talk Nadine Harris goes in to more detail. Click here

What’s important for us to know

Stress is experiential and individualistic. What this means is that we will all feel and experience stress differently. What one person perceives as being stressful may be very different to that for someone else. This also means that how we react and deal with our own stress differs. It’s not always useful to pass on tips to others or get frustrated when what worked for us doesn’t work for others. The good news is that there are a myriad of ways that stress can be dealt with. Reactions to stressors or stressful stimuli can be reduced or mediated and we can develop resilience and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with and in many cases overcome unhealthy levels of stress.

How nutrition and stress management can help you

Every cell in our body needs nutrients to function. Without these, essential interactions from energy production, to thought processes and sleep, simply falter. We can use nutrition to aid stress complaints by supplying the body with the essential nutrients it may be lacking for effective neurotransmission and hormonal functioning. Or it may be that we require specific nutrients to stimulate or support the functioning of certain tissues or organs.

When we ‘feel’ stressed, our body alerts us to the fact that we are experiencing something above and beyond what we are used to, or can comfortably cope with. But we can readdress this by identifying the issues which trigger the stress response and using tools to mediate the stressful feelings.

  1. Seyle, H. (1950) ‘Stress and the General Adaption Syndrome’, British Medical Journal. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2038162/pdf/brmedj03603-0003.pdf
  2. Davis-Laack, P (2014) ‘6 Sources of Burnout at Work’, Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paula-davislaack/work-burnout_b_4298130.html
  3. Maslach, C and Jackson, S (1981) ‘The measurement of experienced burnout’, Journal of Occupational Behaviour, Vol 2, 99-113. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/job.4030020205/pdf
  4. Beaton, C (2017) ‘Why Millennials are Lonely’, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinebeaton/2017/02/09/why-millennials-are-lonely/#1f5be7157c35
  5. Beaton, C (2017) ‘The Solution to Millennial Loneliness’, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinebeaton/2017/03/03/the-solution-to-millennial-loneliness/#6b526b4f6731