Many clients I work with come in with a goal of wanting to eliminate stress and anxiety. Listing off their daily checklist of “habits for success”, including exercise, eating balanced meals, yoga, and meditation, they tell me they are seemingly doing all the “right things”, but can’t figure out why they continue to feel anxious and worried all of the time.
Others seem to feel stuck. Between juggling a high paying corporate career, parenting young children, and wanting to be more present for their spouse, they don’t see a way out, let alone make time for themselves for self care strategies.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Before we can learn to manage stress, let’s first take a closer look to understand what stress is…
Stress is not a stand-alone experience. Rather, it occurs in response to a stressor. A stressor is best described as any event, experience, or environmental stimulus that causes stress in an individual. These events or experiences are perceived as threats or challenges to the individual. These perceptions can be either physical or psychological.
We generally classify the different types of stressors into four categories:
1) Crises and catastrophes: Though rare in occurrence, this type of stressor typically causes a great deal of stress in a person's life. These include devastating natural disasters, such as major floods or earthquakes, wars, pandemics, and combat stress. After the recent pandemic in 2020, rates of mental illness increased tremendously, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicide in the United States and around the world due. This type of stress is extremely difficult to manage without support.
2) Major life events: As opposed to crises and catastrophes which are perceived as overall devastating for most, major life events can be positive or negative, however create a sense of uncertainty and fear which results in stress. Major life events can include getting married, going to college, death of a loved one, birth of a child, divorce, and moving across the country. The length of time since the event first took place, and whether or not it is a positive or negative event, are factors in whether or not it causes stress and how much stress it causes for an individual. Furthermore, chronic (long-term) events, as opposed to acute (short-term) and recent events, that occurred more than several months ago are linked to stress, illness and mood and behavioral changes.
3) Daily hassles (Micro-stressors): The most common type of stressor, micro-stressors and short, daily annoyances and minor hassles. Micro-stressors usually begin the moment we first wake up and may be activated by checking our phones, making decisions, meeting deadlines at work or school, and traffic jams. This type of stress often includes conflicts with other people and may lead to challenges and conflicts in our relationships.
4) Ambient stressors: This type of global (as opposed to individual) are considered low-grade stressors that are a part of the constant background environment and can be defined as stressors that are chronic, negatively valued, non-urgent, physically perceptible, and intractable to the efforts of individuals to change them. Examples of ambient stressors include pollution, noise, crowding, and traffic, and are often systemic in nature. Unlike the other three types of stressor, ambient stressors can (but do not necessarily have to) negatively impact stress without conscious awareness.
The common factor between these four categories is an inconsistency between expected events ("set value") and perceived events ("actual value") that cannot be resolved satisfactorily.
Now that we understand what stressors are, let’s review four types of stress.
Hypostress is a type of stress that includes boredom and anxiety about not having enough purpose, meaning, or contribution to a greater cause. We all have a need for belonging and when we aren’t challenged to create in a meaningful way, we may experience hypostress. For example, a person may have a job, but tasks feel insignificant, they now feel stressed about having nothing to do with their time.
Eustress is often referred to as “good stress”, eustress is moderate or normal psychological stress, and interpreted as beneficial. The excitement of a roller-coaster ride, a scary movie, a fun challenge, the anticipation of a first date, the first day at a new job, or other exciting firsts are examples of eustress. Eustress is a type of stress that is actually important for us to have in our lives, as it mobilizes and motivates us to stay safe and create new possibilities.
Distress is a state of adversity, extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain. This can include short-term variations of acute stress that passes quickly, and long-term chronic stress. This is generally the type of stress in response to life events, daily annoyances and micro-stressors, and leads most to day, “I’m so stressed!”
Hyperstress is perhaps the most difficult type of stress one may experience. It is a chronic state of overwhelm where burnout and fatigue occurs. Many healthcare workers, including nurses and doctors, and other first responders experience hyperstress as a result of longstanding stressors with minimal systemic support from organizations, leadership, and government agencies.
Window Of Tolerance
The ‘window of tolerance’ metaphor is particularly helpful when trying to understand how one manages stress, or why some struggle to tolerate wide ranges of emotional arousal more than others.
The window of tolerance concept was coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. In his book, The Developing Mind, Siegel proposes that everyone has a range of intensities of emotional experience which they can comfortably experience, process, and integrate. This is their ‘window of tolerance’ or zone of ‘optimum arousal’ (Ogden et al, 2006).
Some people’s window of tolerance is relatively wide. They can feel comfortable despite relatively high degrees of emotional intensity, and a broad range of emotions (from pleasant emotions such as excitement and happiness, to unpleasant emotions such as guilt or anger) may be tolerated and available to consciousness. People with a wide window of tolerance are able to think, feel, and behave flexibly and effectively despite high degrees of stress arousal.
Stress Perception Matters
Daily stressors, however, are different for each individual, as not everyone perceives a certain event as stressful. For example, most people find public speaking to be stressful, but someone who has experience with it may not.
Carolyn Aldwin, Ph.D., conducted a study at the Oregon State University that examined the perceived intensity of daily hassles on an individual's mortality. Aldwin's study concluded that there is a strong correlation between individuals who rate their hassles as very intense and a high level of mortality. One's perception of their daily stressors can have a modulating effect on the physiological impact of daily stressors.
It’s impossible to eliminate stress. In fact, you shouldn’t want to. Eustress is a necessary and incredible part of the human body.
✨Stress gives us physical and mental strength and allows us to energize and rise to challenges.
✨Stress is a HEALTHY response to our environment.
✨Our stress response system releases hormones to make us social, protect us from danger, and recover from the harmful effects of chronic stress.
But, as you’ve learned, there is a difference between good stress and bad stress. And contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not the stressor or even the stress that creates unpleasant reactions in our mind and body. Rather, it’s our perceptions and beliefs about stress that is most harmful.
If you believe stress to be harmful rather than healthy, you are more likely to experience adverse physiological conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disorders. But when you reframe your psychological and physiological responses, you become aware of how your body is rising to the occasion of safety and connection. Our brain and nervous system is designed in service of survival, which includes the famous fight or flight state in the body. Agitation, worry, fear, and nervousness mobilize us to plan and protect. But when we become overwhelmed with panic and rage, we freeze and immobilize, leading to procrastination, debilitation, emotional numbness and a cycle of shame and guilt.
When you learn to utilize and optimize your stress response, your whole life can change. You understand your body is working FOR you, not against you. This change in perception leads to better sleep, less pain, improved relationships, and increased productivity. You can easily spot solutions to nagging long-standing problems in your life. You can set healthy boundaries, including what you eat, what you listen to, and how much physical activity you get.
Strive to OPTIMIZE your stress level. Use it to your benefit.
Cognitive-behavioral strategies, including examining beliefs and challenging perceptions, have been notably beneficial for those of us working a full time career while maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including successfully managing families, relationships, and personal goals.
What has been stressing you out lately? Message me to learn more about your personal narrative and create better strategies in managing stress specific to you. I'd love to connect.
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