Don’t mistake stressor and stress. The failure to deal with both can hurt you.
Dealing with your stress is different from dealing with your stressors. You need to address both if you want to live a happy and healthy life. So what is the difference, and how do you healthily manage your stress?
Stressors are what causes stress. They can be anything you fear could do you harm. They include external factors such as your job, money problems, family issues, culture, and politics. Stressors can also be internal, like self-criticism, identity, self-worth, body image, and past events. Anything your body can interpret as a threat can act as a stressor.
Stress is the physiologic response your body initiates when it feels threatened. This response results in a cascade of chemical and biological changes intend to help us survive the danger. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase to supply your muscles with more blood. Breathing quickens to increase oxygen supply to your muscles. Cortisol floods your system, producing a rise in your blood sugar to feed those same muscles. In fact, much of the stress response is directed at your muscles. Why is that?
Response to stress
In the Paleolithic world of your ancestors, most threats were from physical dangers. Your progenitors did not fear bad bosses and missed car payments. Instead, they feared physical threats like saber-toothed tigers. And when you come face to face with a hungry prehistoric cat, what do you do? You run for your life or stand and fight, but it will be a physical act either way.
So your body’s response to a stressor is to prepare you to take action, specifically to run or fight. That is why your stress response focuses on getting blood, oxygen, and energy to your muscles.
Today you live in a world free of saber-toothed tigers. The stressors you experience are rarely an immediate threat to your physical safety. Yet, your caveman body responds to those stressors as if they are a risk to life and limb. Your body prepares to run away or strike out, but those behaviors are not appropriate in the current situations. Oh sure, it might feel good in the short-term to punch that rude co-worker or run away from a stressful task at work, but that won’t work out well for you in the long term.
Dealing with Stressors does not equal dealing with stress.
What modern humans try to do is mitigate stress by dealing with the stressor. You could ask not to work on a team with the rude co-worker. Or get an extension on a deadline. Both actions will alleviate the stressor, but not the stress. And that is where most people get in trouble deal with stress.
Dealing with the stressor does not deal with the stress. Remember, the stressor is a trigger for a physiological response. Once those physical changes have taken place, you need to deal with them. And just like a caveman would not understand how completing a stack of forms eliminates a stressor, your body doesn’t get that message either.
In the face of stress, your body only understands one thing, action. If faced with a hungry tiger, you would run away. That makes sense to your body. That is the response your body expects. Your body was built for action, and that is how it is prepared to react to stress. If you don’t give it that action, it does not know that it has dealt with the problem. If the body does not respond physically, it does not feel safe. So your body remains in a heightened state of readiness, and that is when stress can hurt you.
Today, you can correct many stressors without the need for physical activity. Rather than attack the rude barista at one local coffee shop, you resolve to take your business somewhere else. Stressor eliminated, but the stress remains in the body. Without getting a physical release for all the pent-up hormones, your body does not feel like it is safe. Your blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and blood sugar remain elevated in preparation for fight or flight, which is not to come. So you enter a state of chronic stress, and that is the harmful stress.
Chronic stress is harmful because stress affects every system in your body. Shunting energy to your muscles means other systems must pay a price. Two essential systems that pay the price are your digestive and immune systems. Your digestion slows, and your immune system falters, making you more likely to get sick.
To avoid the adverse effects of stress, you need to complete the stress cycle. You need to give your body what it expects. What the body does not expect is not that you are going to talk it out. Even if you solve the problem by talking, that only eliminates the stressor and not the stress. No, what your body expects is action, and it will not believe you are safe until you do something.
Stop eliminating your stressors and deal with your stress
It seems counterintuitive, but you must stop eliminating your stressors so you can start alleviating your stress. The most efficient way to do this is to move. Get physically active. That is what your body expects. So run, bike, swim, dance, practice martial arts, or whatever works for you. Twenty to sixty minutes of vigorous physical activity a day is usually enough to counteract the stress in your body. And yes, I did mean a day as in every day. After all, you experience stress most days, so you need to deal with that stress most days.
Daily activity is the best way to deal with stress, but it is not always the most appropriate means of doing so. I would love to jump up from a stressful meeting and go for a long jog, but that is not a good option if I want to keep my job. If you find yourself in the same situation, here are a few other ways to distress.
Other ways to deal with stress
- Breathing. Slow, deep breathing in through the nose and down into the belly is calming. The trick is to breathe from the diaphragm by pushing your belly button out as you inhale and pulling the belly button in on the exhale. The diaphragm muscle movement stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and digest system that counteracts the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response. Just two minutes of deep breathing can make a difference when you don’t have a lot of time but need to counteract your stress.
- Social Interaction. Spending time with people who make you feel comfortable and relaxed is a signal to your body that you are safe. So make time to spend with family and close friends. It doesn’t have to be a fancy event. Putting too much pressure on the occasion will create a new source of stress. So keep it easy and casual.
- Laughter. One of the best ways to deal with a tense situation is with a bit of humor. Believe me, I work in medicine, a field famous for its “gallows humor.” But we all need a break from the pressure we are under, and a good belly laugh can make a big difference. I have found one trick is to ask my Alexa to “tell me a joke” or to play the comedy station. A few minutes of humor can lighten my mood, especially if I share the joke with someone else and laugh together.
- Affection. Sharing warmth and tenderness with someone who makes you feel trusted and cared for can make a big difference. So go home and give your spouse a nice long kiss. Hug your kids, especially if they are teens and claim they hate it. They don’t, and it is good for them. Make time to be with the people you care about.
- Get a pet. Petting an animal has been shown to improve happiness and lower blood pressure. Also, people with pets tend to get more exercise as they walk and care for their pets. These benefits make being a pet owner a double bonus.
- Feel your emotions. One important point I have been trying to make is that our emotions have a physical effect on our bodies. We ignore that lesson at a cost. It’s helpful to feel the sensations that accompany your emotions, from the pit in your stomach to the flush on your face. Feel what you are feeling and even let loose a tear if needed.
- Creative expression. A great way to deal with pent-up feelings is to get creative. Paint, draw, write, build, or whatever works for you. Expressing your creativity is a great way to experience your feeling in a new medium. So let them out in whatever creative medium appeals to you. Just create and don’t worry about the results.
When to destress.
People have gotten so good at suppressing their feelings that they no longer recognize they are experiencing stress. But whether you realize it or not, the pressure is still there, and it can hurt you. So here are a few clues that you may be suffering from unrecognized stress and need to take action to deal with it.
- Perseverating on the same thing. If you find your thinking keeps coming back to the same thought or event, then you have unrelieved stress. If you are persevering on what you should have said in a situation or what you could have done differently, you need to destress. To get past it, you may need to step away and deal with what your body needs.
- Avoidance. If you are hiding from part of your life, you need to deal with stress, the stressor, or both. This life is your one opportunity to live, don’t waste it hiding from things that bring on anxiety.
- You have weird aches and pains. Stress can manifest in physical sensations, and unaddressed stress can manifest as chronic health problems. For years I suffered from regular headaches. All the Advil in the pharmacy could not make that pain go away. Then I started a regular exercise program and stress reduction. Now the bottle of Advil expires before I get through it. If you feel constant aches and pains, or seem to be sick more often than others, it may be your body’s way of telling you that you need to deal with your stress.
Stress is a part of life. It has been thought out human history. What has changed is the types of stressors we experience today. Our body’s response to stress has not changed, which is to prepare for fight or flight. To convince your body that you are safe, you need to speak the language it understands, the language of action. Don’t assume that because you have dealt with your stressor, you have dealt with your stress. Instead, make time to be physically active, interact with friends and family, laugh, breathe, and engage in creativity. You will find that dealing with both the stress and the stressor will make you happier and healthier.