Stress, simplified

Since the start of this month, I’ve seen the following things happen:

  • My resting heart rate dropped 7 points.
  • My breathing has started to feel easier, like a blockage has disappeared.
  • My sleep quality has improved drastically.
  • My appetite has skyrocketed (from an unwanted low period).
  • I feel motivated to head to the gym and when I’m there, I can train hard.

Why? Simple: my stress has drastically decreased since leaving my job. While I miss everyone there a TON, it was no secret that I was feeling overworked and overwhelmed since the summer. I assumed the absence of work would freak me out (and it has to a certain degree), but overall, I feel fantastic.

That’s all well and good, but not what I want to focus on right now. Let’s talk about what was happening before this blissful mini-retirement.

What is stress?

If just hearing the word “stress” puts you on edge, I feel you. It’s common to feel like stress is all bad, all the time, and we should do everything we can do avoid it. That’s a little too simplistic to be actually be true. 

Today, I want you to think about stress in two categories: acute and chronic. Both are likely familiar.

Acute stressors would include: near-missed car accidents that send your heart racing, the sense of alert you feel when you hear a weird noise in your house at night, or the panic that inevitably shows up when you look down in the store and your child has wandered off. What these stressors have in common: they’re intense, but short-lived. 

Chronic stressors include: living with a roommate who doesn’t respect your boundaries, the constant crying of your colicky newborn, or going to work everyday to a job you can’t stand. What do these have in common: they’re less intense, but that’s only because they’re ongoing. You’re learning to withstand constant, low-level pain.

Guess which one might wreak more havoc than the other? If you guessed chronic stress, you nailed it.

The (simplified) Physiology of Stress

So here’s the first unfortunate truth of the day: as far as your body is concerned, both types of stress are exactly the same. Remember that humans evolved in an environment where quickly recognizing and reacting to dangerous situations was vital for survival. This is the origin of what is popularly known as the “fight-or-flight” response*. More scientifically, we’re operating from the autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system. When stressed, we automatically shift from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic nervous system. 

When we’re in a parasympathetic state, we’re relaxed. We feel safe, we might be at play, or if at work, we’re clear-headed and able to concentrate. This is time to sleep, to eat, to process. It’s sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” state for a reason!

Alternately, when we enter a sympathetic state, we’re on edge. Our stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrin (adrenaline) chief among them, shoot up, and in response, a series of physiological changes quickly take place:

  • Breathing quickens
  • Blood glucose rises
  • Blood flow is diverted from the gut to the muscles and heart
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Senses are heightened

In the event of an emergency, these are huge positives. If you’re getting chased down by a bear (or accidentally set your kitchen on fire, definitely not speaking from personal experience), you want all the automatic help from your body you can get! They are evolved, useful responses that let us react quickly in harsh situations, and are meant to turn OFF just as quickly.

… and when the stress never ends?

We understand how the fight-or-flight response would be helpful when dealing with ACUTE stressors, but what about chronic stress? 

Again, our bodies don’t really know the difference. When something causes you stress, you involuntarily react the same way. You know that feeling you get when you’re stuck sitting next to someone who talks down to you all day at work: rapid heartbeat, spike in blood pressure? It’s your sympathetic nervous system kicking in, but since the stressor (your crappy coworker) doesn’t go away for hours, it can’t shut back down the way it’s meant to. Meaning you are in that “on edge” state for hours, days, weeks, months, even years. 

You can imagine the consequences. If your body is constantly going fight-or-flight, that means your heart rate and breathing are probably constantly elevated to a small degree. You’re not getting great blood flow to your gut regularly, which often translates to GI issues. You might be experiencing high blood pressure that now needs to be treated medically. It can manifest in headaches, or even head colds (since your immune system isn’t a top priority in times of stress). In women, chronic stress can also lead to menstrual irregularities, including painful and heavy periods or the loss of your period altogether.**

Even good stress is stress

So what about training? Or taking on new (but fun) projects at work? Or taking on homeschooling your kid like you always wanted to? These are good stressors, right?

Absolutely, but once again, it’s ALL the same to your body, even if you’re enjoying the ride. I love training and truly enjoyed (most of) my schedule leading up to running a marathon and doing a powerlifting meet in the same weekend, but I am certain that the physical stress I was putting on my body was only compounding the mental stress I was dealing with at work (and vice versa). Had I had a better handle on my job (or even a better attitude about it), I imagine my training would have been more fruitful. It’s something I’ll be toying with next time.

Hopefully now we’re all on the same page about what stress is and how it affects us. In future posts, we’ll discuss tactics for dealing with stress, both directly (removing the stressor) and indirectly (changing our minds about our situation). For now, the goal is simply awareness – what kind of stressors do you have in your life? Are you feeling the symptoms of chronic stress, or are you using your fight-or-flight response and moving on just as quickly? 

* There are some caveats to this frequently cited phenomenon. First, we tend to acknowledge that in acute stress situations, we tend to be fighters, fleers, or freezers (some of us automatically take action, some of us run, and some of us become paralyzed). There has also been some research into how this response differs between the two primary sexes, with a suggestion that a female response to acute stress is to “tend and befriend,” or take a less violent, more community-driven response to stressors. For more on this, see Christopher Ryan’s controversial book Sex at Dawn.

** Lara Briden’s Period Repair Manual is a great resource for all things related to menstruation. The most interesting part for me is when she gets into the life cycle of an egg. It takes around 100 days for an individual egg to make it’s way through its life cycle (ending in either pregnancy or a period), meaning what happens during those 100 days affects that egg… meaning the chronic stress you experienced all of December could come out again to bite you in March. Ouch.

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