In early 2020 I became a certified stress management coach because I believed that stress was both an underlying cause of my clients’ problems as well as a distracting symptom blocking their progress. I knew so much of what I coach — productivity, decluttering & organizing, time management, self-care & self-compassion — all yielded lower stress levels. But I wanted to understand stress better. After working through a thorough curriculum, I was able to reverse engineer why what I do works…but I learned more than I expected about the complex relationship we have with stress and why we need to manage it. And that’s what we’re talking about today…
If you’ve felt pressure, anxiety, or worry, been burdened, overextended yourself or described yourself as overwhelmed… then you are in the right place.
Today we’re covering what stress is, how it affects us, and what managing it means.
I’m confident you have described yourself as stressed at some point in your life, or maybe even in the last month or week…or as you hit play on this episode. It may be what brought you here. That’s because we all feel it. But navigating stress can be tricky because it’s not all bad. When we talk about “stress” and being “stressed out” we are talking about a particular kind.
Stress experiences aren’t inherently good or bad; what matters most is understanding how stress affects you and determining what is helpful and harmful, and what to do about it.
A noted stress researcher, Hans Selye, once said “Stress is a scientific concept which has suffered from the mixed blessing of being too well known and too little understood.”
He used the term “eustress” to describe the kind that is positive and desirable, that keeps life interesting and challenges us to achieve our goals and the term “distress” for the negative — or potentially harmful — that drains us and pushes beyond our ability to cope. Often when we talk about STRESS we’re actually talking about DISTRESS.
Stress is described as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” It challenges our ability to adapt.
We experience stress as a physiological and psychological response designed to maintain stability — the fancy word being homeostasis — homeo meaning same, stasis meaning stable. We have built-in feedback systems to do that. Whether you experience change in your life like a shift temperature or the loss of a job, your body and mind will respond to it.
The thing forcing the response is a stressor and what you do with it is your stress response.
STRESS AND STRESSORS
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognizes two types of stress and three types of stressors
The two types of stress: acute and chronic. Acute is short-term, chronic is long-term. Although chronic is our biggest concern, acute stress can definitely be problematic if it is frequent.
The three examples of types of stressors:
- routine stress, such as childcare, homework, or financial responsibilities
- sudden, disruptive changes, such as a death or job loss
- traumatic stress, such as a severe accident, an assault, an environmental disaster, or war
According to a survey done in 2018 by the American Psychological Association, the most common stressors were employment and money. I would imagine that would still be accurate at the time of this recording, along with significant additions such as COVID-19, the political environment, and the fight against racial injustice to name a few.
My EXAMPLES of Eustress & Distress
As you might imagine, we regularly experience a mix of these types of stress and stressors.
I’d like to share a somewhat “meta” example of the mix I experienced in early 2020.
I had given myself a first-quarter deadline to obtain my stress management coaching certification. It was a goal for the new year that I’d started well before January. I had scheduled in my studying over the course of months to conclude by the end of March. Because project management is part of my skill set for coaching, I had given myself plenty of time to achieve this even with standard delays. However, by the beginning of March, things in my home state of New York were changing rapidly as news of a virus was spreading almost as fast as the virus itself. Like you, my life was turned upside down due to COVID-19 and a shelter-in-place requirement and my time management nearly flew out the window. Suddenly everyone was home, we were trying to make sense of the virus and what it meant for us, sorting through tons of information and misinformation while trying not to panic, my husband’s job was changing, my clients had different coaching needs, we were crisis schooling, and many new routines had to be put in place. My energy was drained from change and worry and a desire to be fully present for my family, which also included more cooking and cleaning and hands-on assistance for distance learning as well as emotional processing. Calling it overwhelm doesn’t do it justice. It might have been a good time to adjust my original deadline for this certification; however, I truly valued this learning experience and felt as though this kind of expertise would be needed now more than ever. So I kept my self-imposed deadline, though it brought about some seriously late nights in March and a generous share of crankiness. The good news is I pushed through, and I met my goal and was able to move on from the temporary pressure.
Were you able to identify the different types of stress in that description? Eustress, Distress, Acute and Chronic? The certification push was Eustress — positive stress — and also Acute, because it was short term. The stress I felt due to the virus is Distress because it drained me and made coping difficult. And because it was not something quickly resolved — I’m still dealing with it as of this recording — it is considered chronic as well.
OUR BIOLOGICAL RESPONSE
When we experience stress, the brain undergoes chemical and physical changes that affect its overall functioning. The stress response — sometimes called the “fight or flight” response — happens when our nervous system tells our body to release stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These help us cope with the perceived threats, which is a key point. We experience a stress response when we feel threatened and that doesn’t always mean life or death or that we’ll be hurt, but that is where the response originally came from. It goes back to a time when we’d need to run for our lives from a large, carnivorous animal, but now we still respond that way to a request to speak in public or on a deadline for our taxes.
The stress response, intended to save us from harm, can help us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand, which is helpful. Then, when the pressure subsides, the body adjusts and we start to feel calm again.
The problem happens when we experience stress beyond our ability to cope. Continually activating the “stress response” – whether too often or for too long — causes wear and tear on the body and mind.
Chronic (Long-Term) Stress
Ongoing, chronic stress can contribute to an incredibly long list of health issues. You need only Google stress symptoms and effects and you’ll find a multitude of examples. Stress — specifically chronic DISTRESS — slows healing because it has a significant impact on our immune system. It is linked to
- Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure
- Obesity and other eating disorders
- Menstrual problems
- Sexual dysfunction
- Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and hair loss
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, which is the disease behind ulcers — one of the best-known symptoms linked to excessive stress.
To complicate matters, these issues may be misperceived as normal or potentially linked to other causes without giving proper consideration to stress. While stress may not be the only reason for them, addressing stress is one of the simplest steps to help with healing.
When we think of stress management, we tend to think of reducing stress. The reason we do is that we, as a society, are plagued by chronic stress to the point where it can be a challenge to embrace stress in a helpful way. And that makes sense. When you are overwhelmed, it’s difficult to find space for “more” of anything, let alone pressure, even if it’s good for you. And even when we want to, we find pushing ourselves doesn’t always work because the chronic stress is blocking our ability to cope with acute stress.
Stress management is about managing both kinds of stress — leveraging positive stress to achieve your goals and reducing excessive stress responses that can threaten your health. However, I believe our primary focus needs to be on managing responses and seeking stress relief. This will help bring us back into balance so that we can be more open to positive stress and begin to make real progress in our lives.
It bears repeating that not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Depending upon your resources — your health, your perspective, your personal, professional, and financial support systems — you may respond differently to the same stressor than someone else. The same goes for how you manage your response.
Tips for Managing Stress
When focusing on stress relief, there are many tried and true methods, which I’ll be covering in detail in other episodes. In the meantime, I encourage you to review my “10 Steps to Stress Less” Checklist, which includes what I consider to be the top choices to help you stress less and live more.
Today I’ll leave you with a simple overview to stress reduction courtesy of The Mayo Clinic. They offer the 4 A’s of Stress. I’ll link to a detailed article in the show notes and quickly summarize them for you now. The A’s are Avoid, Alter, Accept, and Adapt.
To Avoid means to remove stressors, specifically removing the things and the people that contribute to your stress (decluttering). To Alter means designing systems and habits that help you be proactive, encourage you to speak up and create boundaries, and own what can be controlled. At the same time, it helps to Accept what can’t be controlled and make peace with it so that it will no longer be a burden to you. To Adapt means managing your own expectations and making the adjustments necessary to help you find balance.
Lastly, I will add my own A, which you have heard before: Awareness
Stress can be a double edged sword…helpful or hurtful…or both. When you become aware of what your stressors are and how they shift depending what you do and what you think, you will become much more effective at managing your stress. And that will lead to a healthier, happier life.
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. – William James (American Philosopher)