• Durwood Whitten, PhD

Stress: Everyday Blocks to Wellness

This article isn't going to provide you with the answers to all your problems. It isn't going to help you resolve any emotional conflict, manage a fight, or change the way you approach your day-to-day life. However, by knowing the information in it, you may be able to begin taking steps to better understand and engage in uncomfortable experiences. This article is about stress: how bad it is for you and what happens if you do not manage your stress effectively. Here is everything you need to know about stress, where it comes from, and what it does.

What is Stress?

Stress can be described as a condition or feeling that a person experiences when demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize. Throughout our lives, the interaction between demands and resources seems neverending. Demands can come from situations, other people, and even yourself. Everyday demands include money for rent, the attention your child is seeking, and your stomach growling for food. Other demands might include a need for quiet when someone is talking in a movie theater, the need for time to complete a school assignment, or the need to work late to catch up on a backlog. Sometimes compound demands intensify the stress. Perhaps you need to work late but also have to complete a school assignment. Meeting both of these demands seems impossible and that conflict alone creates additional stress.


In some situations, the experience of stress is obvious, like if you believe you're in danger or even anticipate humiliation. Not many of us believe we would be in danger if we had to make a public speech, but the idea is still horrifying to many of us. Stress is also experienced when obstacles interfere with needed or desired objectives. Imagine that you need to sleep, but the dog barking next door is keeping you awake. Your need for sleep is being blocked by the dog's barking. There is no shortage of examples of "need" obstacles: a lack of money interferes with a need to buy food, a very talkative person sitting in the next seat on a plane interferes with a need for solitude, and of course social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic interferes with a need for social connection.


Stress is Inevitable

The simple fact is that stress cannot be avoided. Maybe some stress can, but there is no such thing as a stress-free life. As it turns out, this is a good thing. Humans were meant to experience stress. With the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a job promotion, or a new relationship, you experience stress as you readjust your life. While you may think of stress as being a negative experience, there is a positive aspect of stress. The positive influence of stress can be observed in Michael Phelps, Baltimore's hometown hero, during the 2016 Olympics.

Imagine what Michael Phelps must have experienced as he arrived at the pool area for the first time during his second trip to the Olympics. It is reasonable to expect that he would experience stress in the form of nervous excitement. Knowing that the entire world is watching him, it would be virtually impossible to not experience some sort of stress even though he put himself in the very situation causing his distress. Rather than get upset that he was stressed, Mr. Phelps most likely put the energy generated by his "nerves" into his performance. The result? He became the most awarded Olympian in history.


Positive Stress

Not all stress is bad. Getting married, having a baby, starting a new job, going back to school, entering a competition are all examples of positive stress. Positive stress adds anticipation and excitement to life, and we all thrive under a certain amount of stress. Deadlines, competitions, confrontations, and even our frustrations and sorrows add depth and enrichment to our lives.


Given the Michael Phelps example, you can see that stress does have a purpose. To really take advantage of the motivational aspects of stress, your body has to engage a special system called the Sympathetic Nervous System. The Sympathetic Nervous System prepares your body to engage with your stressors. This biological reaction is the "fight or flight" response that prepares your body to burn energy to fight a stressor or get away from it. While the Sympathetic Nervous System revs you up, the Parasympathetic Nervous System resets your body to normal.


Stress as a Perk?

Stress can help or hinder depending on how you react to it. It can be motivational. Stress can inspire you to take action and fix a problem, create a solution, or engage in an activity for which you are tempted to procrastinate. Stress can also help you gain a new awareness and perspective on your situation. For example, many people are experiencing financial stress due to circumstances created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, people are looking at their financial priorities and options in a new way, then making decisions for themselves and their families, and ultimately feeling assured and relived that a decision has been made. Their demanding financial situations have helped them prioritize the financial needs of their families. The result is likely a more reasonable budget.


Effects of Stress

While we can appreciate the positive aspects of stress, it is the negative aspects that can have a long-lasting damaging impact. These negative aspects of stress can be categorized into three groups: Behavioral, Emotional, and Physical.

Behavioral

The Behavioral aspects of stress include all the behaviors people use to cope with stress yet have a negative impact on physical or emotional well-being. The effect of these behaviors is somewhat of a paradox - the opposite of what is intended. These behaviors may be triggered by stress as a means of getting through the stressful experience, but ultimately do not help the situation and make it difficult to manage future stress. The following is just a sampling of the most common negative behaviors that are triggered by the experience of stress.

Smoking More. Now that it's 2020, no one will argue that cigarette smoking is a known carcinogen. In other words, smoking in any amount is bad for your physical health. However, during times of stress, people who smoke will frequently increase their smoking behavior which increases the risk of physical ailments such as cancer caused by cigarette smoking.

Drinking More. While alcohol consumption in a moderate amount can help people relax and aid in the management of stress, increasing your regular alcohol consumption can lead to the damaging effects of alcohol abuse. The physical impact of alcohol overuse can be extensive and in some cases fatal.

Reducing Activity. There are numerous positive benefits to being active and exercise. Yet during periods of stress, you may be tempted to reduce your activity and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle which can lead to the physical problems associated with obesity.

Eating Poorly. When stressed, many people either consume copious amounts of unhealthy (yet comforting) food or stop eating altogether. Combined with reduced activity, you can guess the result: unwanted weight gain or weight loss.

Reducing Sleep. It's not unusual for people to have difficulty going to or staying asleep when they are worried. But when under stress you may too frequently engage in behaviors that inhibit healthy sleep - avoiding stimulation before bedtime, staying out of the bed unless sleeping, avoiding caffeine well before bedtime, and adhering to a structured sleep-wake schedule.

Avoiding Primary Care Physician. It's ironic that when we're stressed we might avoid taking care of our medical and physical needs, but that's frequently what happens.

Avoiding Dentist. Any dentist will tell you that good mouth hygiene is critical to overall good health. Just as we tend to avoid seeing our medical professional when we need it, we too often fail to follow through on dental needs and for dental maintenance.

Emotional

The emotional aspects of stress are frequently out of your control. It's important to be aware of how you respond to stress from an emotional perspective so that you can understand how to address your emotional needs they arise.

Distrust. When you experience stressful events, you may be tempted to feel hopeless and believe that no one or nothing can help the situation. You may not trust those people who are able and willing to help you.

Rejection. There are a number of stressors that can leave you feeling the sting of rejection. Consider that last time you believed a person let you down or disappointed you, it is likely that feelings of rejection could persist.

Anger. One of the most common reactions to stress is anger: the power emotion. Whenever you've been placed in a position of powerlessness, anger is often the result. Recall the "fight or flight" response discussed earlier. Anger usually accompanies the drive to fight. In fact, the experience of anger can itself be stressful.

Depression. When any of the previous emotional experiences persist without resolution, depression can be the result. When a number of stressors seem to all "pile up" at the same time and you don't have the resources to manage them all, you can fall into a depression.

Physical

The physical effects of stress are the combined results of problem behavioral and emotional effects. These physical symptoms of stress can be regarded as the “wear and tear" on your body as you adjust to the changing environment caused by the various stressors that you experience. If the physical symptoms persist, serious health problems can result. Ultimately, your body bears the brunt of your unresolved and persistent stress. Some of the physical effects of stress that you need to monitor include:

  • Headaches

  • Upset stomach and Ulcers

  • Rashes

  • Insomnia

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease and Stroke

Is Everything a Stressor?

So now you may wonder how you can anticipate the experience of being stressed so you can avoid the negative impact on your physical and emotional well-being. The first step in assessing a possible stressor is called the Primary Appraisal. During the Primary Appraisal, you determine if the event is relevant to you and if so, is the event going to require something of you or is a threat to you in some way? If you decide the event isn't relevant to you, then you are not likely to experience stress. If you deem the event to be insignificant even if relevant, then you are still not likely to experience stress. If a friend asks you to pick them up at the airport, the primary appraisal you quickly determine is that the request is going to require your time and energy. If the airplane arrives when you're not busy and have plenty of time, the situational demands on you are not significant.

However, once you have determined that the situation is relevant to you and may require time, skill, or some resource of yours, then you must make the Secondary Appraisal. You now determine if you have access to the resources that the event is requiring. The resource could be time, money, attention, or a skill or talent. For example, if you are asked by your child's teacher to make cupcakes for a school event, you determine whether you have the time to make the cupcakes, the money to buy the ingredients, and the skill to bake. You also may feel pressure to comply with the request due to a personal value for being helpful. Once you've gone through your checklist for the required resources and determine, "I've got this," then you will only experience a little stress. On the other hand, if you realize you have the money and ability to bake the cupcakes but just don't have the time, you now experience stress in figuring out how to comply with the teacher's request or how to deal with the negative feelings from knowing you've disappointed someone or let them down. Like most people, you want to have as much control over your own life as possible. When this control is taken away from you, you experience stress. In this way, you can think of control of your life as a resource.

Perceived lack of control is just as threatening as an actual lack of control

One of the ways you create stress for yourself is by attempting to control things that fall in the realm of "Things I can't control but can influence." Never confuse control for influence. The difference is that you may have to accept that your influence does not produce the results you want. Some things fall in the realm of "Things I can neither control nor influence." All of the things that fall here must be accepted. The death of a loved one cannot be changed. You have no control and no influence on this tragic situation. So what can you control? You. That's all. You can only control your own behavior, thoughts, and decisions. That's why the "Things I can control" circle is the smallest. Absolutely everything else is out of your control. Learn to use your influence when you can, but accept that some things, you have no influence over.

You feel little stress when you have the time, experience and resources to manage a situation. However, when the situation requires time you don't have, experience you don't have, or resources you don't have, you feel stress and then you need to figure out how to cope with the situation. Sometimes you can avoid the situation, but if the situation is inevitable, then avoidance actually increases the feelings of stress.


It's all in Your Head. Or Is It?

Most of the time, when you encounter a stressful situation, you are probably correct to evaluate it as stressful. But sometimes you create the stress yourself. Figuring out that a situation is stressful is really a matter of perception. Perception can be influenced by many factors that have nothing to d.o with the situation itself. Mood, time of day, person/people involved, level of exhaustion, and physical health can all interfere with your accurate perception of an event. For example, if your schedule for the workday is fairly tight with little time between meetings/calls/projects, then any extra demand might seem unreasonable. Someone could simply stop you to say, "hey did you see American Idol last night?" This simple question seems absurd in the middle of a busy day and you might perceive the person asking you this question as completely inconsiderate of how difficult your day is. Even though the person has no way of knowing what kind of day you're having, your current level of distress keeps you from rationally telling your colleague, "Oh I'd like to chat, but right now I'm just swamped. I'll talk to you later."


The Stress Game

Dealing with stress in an unhealthy manner contributes to additional and more intense stress. A cycle begins to develop in which stress actually begins to perpetuate itself. Stress leads to unhealthy thinking which leads to unhealthy behavior which leads to more stress. The only way to manage the numerous significant stressors, as well as those stressors encountered in day-to-day life, is to increase your ability to cope. Our goal is not to eliminate stress but instead learn how to manage it and how to use it to help us.


The Balancing Act of Stress

As stated earlier, stress can have a positive influence. In fact, when you have an insufficient amount of stress in your life, you become bored and dejected and may experience depression. When your stress is excessive, you feel anxious and uptight. Effectively managing stress requires that you find the optimal level of stress which will motivate but not overwhelm you. When stress does occur, there are a few key points to remember:

  1. Become aware of your stressors and your emotional and physical reactions.

  2. Recognize what you can change and accept what you can't.

  3. Reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions to stress. The stress reaction is triggered by your perception of danger...physical danger and/or emotional danger.

  4. Learn to moderate your physical reactions to stress by building up a tolerance for distressful events.

  5. Build your physical reserves by eating right, getting quality sleep, and remaining active.

  6. Maintain your emotional reserves by maintaining and engaging in your wealth of coping strategies.


Complete Wellness remains ready to assist in the support of your mental health through any of our services during the COVID-19 pandemic using our Telemedicine capabilities. Relax. We're here to help.

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