"Emotional competence requires the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress." ~ Addiction Expert Gabor Maté, Ph.D
What comes up for you when you think about stress? If you’re like me, I used to think about stress as a game. A “survival of the fittest” competition. I used to think, stress is experienced by the weak - so you need to build intestinal fortitude to overcome the stresses in life. I used to think I get energized by stress, and without it, I wouldn’t get anything done. I used to think people who want to de-stress are slackers, soft-willed and lack ambition.
How’s that for honesty?
I’ve come to learn that the truth is, like most things in life, nuanced. But what is undeniable is that stress in the modern world isn't like stress experienced by our ancestors, or even 50 years ago. Our physiology hasn't evolved as quickly as our lifestyles and technology to make sense and protect us from harm. In fact, chronic stress, which is the type of stress that many of us experience in the modern world is not an inconvenience, it's lethal.
So, do I still feel the same about stress as I did the past? Well, yes and no. And I’m not saying that just as a former management consultant.
Let’s crack that nut apart, shall we?
1. Stress is good for survival
YES: If we were in the wild, and came across a tiger, our reaction to that threat would impact how well we’re able to flee, attack and/or hide. Or if we were living off the land, and we had to relocate, that stressor would impact how well we’re able to stave off hunger, stay energized and motivated to seek out our next plot of land.
NO: Our body’s automatic response to threat is to produce chemicals to help us deal with short term stress with an endpoint (ex. When we’ve escaped the tiger or when we've arrived at our destination). Prolonged stress isn’t good for our body because we are not meant to bathe in the stress chemicals for long periods of time. Stress chemicals over-time break down muscles, brain tissues, bones and wreak havoc with our mental and physical health.
SO WHAT? When stress is experienced in the short-term, it can help us run faster, jump higher, dig deeper into our mental and physical energy reservoir. However, whenever stress is extended, especially one with no end in sight, it’s a quick way to remove ourselves from the proverbial gene pool, because we will get sick. It's not a matter of if, but when. Modern day stressors are often ongoing, long-term, almost with no end in sight. We’ll talk more about that later.
2. Stress is experienced by the weak
YES: If we’re defining the “weak” by someone who is lacking in ability or resources, there is some truth in this. Stress is experienced when the demand exceeds our ability or resources (perceived or real). Say, if the mob extorted me for $100M by end of the week, For sure I will be highly stressed out because I currently do not have $100M or the ability to easily acquire this money. Now, say if Jeff Bezos was extorted the same amount, his level of stress compared to mine would differ greatly because both his resources and ability, in this context, would exceed mine (for now).
Similarly, if we’re asked to solve a problem at work for which we are under-resourced, or present on a topic for which we know very little, or host a dinner party when we are not confident about our cooking, or perform on a test for which we are ill-prepared, we will experience stress. In all these examples, the person would experience less stress, if given more support and resources.
NO: However, it’s not like the top dog doesn't experience stress. Stress is an equal opportunity, non-discriminatory experience. The playing field is leveled out by the protective mechanism of our brain and body. Even if we had all the resources and abilities in the world, we still have to grapple with our evolved brains which come with an interesting feature for survival, but not very helpful for happiness. This feature is called “negative bias.”
Negative bias is our brain’s tendency to focus on the negative. Our brain evolved to routinely trick us into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (Hanson 2013). This likely served us in the past - to be vigilant of threats in the wild and fulfilling opportunities. It was more beneficial for our ancestors to regularly mistake a rock for a tiger, than to not spot the tiger in the event it's there, even if it caused some unnecessary anxiety. Fast forward to us, who have inherited these traits in the modern world. In the modern world, there are more than just tigers that can potentially harm us, and our brain is on overdrive scanning our environment for threats (virtual and IRL). You know exactly what they sound like.
So what exactly is scanning our environment? Well, there are our five senses of which we’re consciously aware (ex., a honking horn, smell of smoke, a look disdain). We also have a hardworking system interpreting our environments for threats below our level of consciousness. This system is our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and it senses and monitors our environment 24/7 - even when we are sleeping. In fact, this why we tend to not sleep as well when we are in a new location because half of our mind is assessing if our new environment is safe (Tamaki et al. 2016).
Now, take into the context of our modern living - hyper-accelerated pace of life, inability to fully disconnect from work, financial pressures, dating / relationship pressures, addictive mobile devices, negative emotions with social media usage, disrupted sleep due to late nights, blue lights and interruptions from technology on our circadian rhythm, lack of sun exposure, lack of access to nature, frequent flying and radiation exposure, lack of connection to community, exposure to pesticides, convenience of processed foods, trans fats, GMOs, and sugar at our fingertips… just to name a few.
When our ANS sends messages to our brain with potential threat to our wellness, our brain sends directives to our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is responsible for preparing us for activity related to “fight/flight/freeze.” When the SNS receives the message that we are under threat (perceived or real), it releases chemicals to help us get out of danger. The HPA axis which consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands, is the network responsible for releasing stress chemicals. As long as our brain is still receiving messages of threat, our HPA axis will keep its “foot on the gas pedal” (Seyle, 1950). Over time, this messes with our hormones and creates a downward spiral on our health. Unfortunately, in our modern world, most of our stressors are on-going because it’s now our way of life.
If you’re feeling your SNS responding to this section of the article, go ahead and take 3 deep breaths through your nose filling your belly with air, keeping your exhale a second longer than your inhale, and tell yourself you’re safe and not in danger (this will activate your parasympathetic nervous system to chill; you’re welcome).
SO WHAT? Everyone experiences stress; many will experience chronic stress especially in modern living. Some experience stress very consciously, but everyone is experiencing stress on a subconscious or unconscious level as well. If health and wellness is important to us, we must identify our contributors of stress, monitor our levels of stress throughout the day, and work on supporting our stress response system. We are most vulnerable to the ailments of stress when we think we are not impacted or don’t take efforts to de-stress. A side note about sustaining stress - according to the Hans Selye, father of stress research, our bodies respond to stress in three stages 1) Alarm 2) Resistance 3) Exhaustion. When we are in stage two, our body is pushing down the "gas pedal" of our stress chemicals to maintain our ability to escape danger. Individuals vary on the length they can sustain stage two. During this period, we might not be feeling awesome, we're getting things done, so we believe we're coping just fine. However, the gas will eventually run out and we'll dip into stage three, where we become susceptible to serious diseases. Unfortunately, many (including me) learn this lesson the hard way - when we wake up one day mentally and physically burnt out or learn that our health has been seriously compromised.
3. Stress is energizing and productive
YES: Our brain needs to be a little bit challenged and our interest piqued for us to access the creative area of our brain. Our prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the most evolved region of our brain responsible for things like decision making, expression, innovation and insight. A neuroscience perspective is that in order to access our PFC, we need to be in a sweet spot that generates eustress or "good stress" which is between being completely bored out of our minds and overwhelmed. Eustress is not determined by the type of stressor, but how one perceives the stressor, which means everyone's "sweet spot" is going to be different. When we are out of range of Eustress, we heavily rely on our basal ganglia which is the part of the brain responsible for our “working memory” - think frying an egg, driving or riding a bike, where we don’t really have to think a whole lot (Fabritius, 2018).
This means some stress is good for us. we know we're experiencing eustress when the stress (Seyle, 1974):
NO: Bad stress or distress is unrewarding and with a lot of risks attached. When our body perceives unhealthy stress, we produce a chemical called cortisol. When cortisol is released, our PFC shuts down. When we are exposed to stress, we lose our prefrontal cognitive abilities. Why? Because when our life's threatened, the priority is to get us the heck out of danger rather than play with creative concepts. The PFC is the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress. So much so that prolonged exposure to stress causes this part of your brain to shrink (Arnsten 2010).
Bad stress weakens prefrontal networks and higher cognition (Arnsten 2015). What does this mean? It means that stress can make us stupid. Stress shuts down the thinking part of the brain so that we can respond to threat instinctively and reflexively. This would have been the “smart” thing to do in the wild - when there's no time to sit and wax philosophical. However, our ancient protective mechanism doesn't help us out in the modern world when stress runs high. We are expected to think and refine and analyze and calculate and negotiate and present and produce creative, innovative, brilliant solutions to most modern-day problems.
SO WHAT? Some short-term good stress is good for us. We need to be aware of the eustress and distresses in our lives to keep check of the type of stress we are taking on. Too much stress is harmful to our cognitive ability. In fact, not only do our PFC shrink with stress, our amygdala, the part of our brain that detects danger and reacts with fear, anxiety, and aggression actually increases in size as it works overtime. So the more anxious and stressed out we are, the more anxious and stressed out we become! (Kaufer et al., 2014)
4. People who can’t handle stress lack grit and ambition
YES: Our society definitely depicts people who can’t handle stress as lacking in will or perseverance. We see this in movie characters and perhaps even some people through our lives. It begins with the child who can’t resist and wait to eat the marshmallow and will eat it immediately upon being given one. Then the teenager who struggles with the test and gives up completing it only halfway. As adults, the person who lets “that’s too difficult” become the driver their decision making. It is entirely possible that all of these individuals lack grit and ambition because they can't handle stress. But more likely, there's something else going on here.
NO: There are a few concepts that can easily get conflated with not being able to handle stress. 1. Unclear vision or goal 2. Lack of passion or purpose 3. Lack of belief or confidence. 4. Inability to delay gratification. There are many reasons why people don’t persevere, and many of them have nothing to do with the ability to cope with stress. In fact, I believe when we have a clear vision and purpose, coupled with skills to boost our confidence, we will naturally prioritize to realize our goals.
The reasons why people do not persevere and can be misunderstood as “if you can't handle stress, you lack grit and ambition.” It has been shown that when individuals are taught how to delay gratification for a more positive outcome, crystallize their vision and purpose, and increase their confidence with training or new tools, the same individuals will charge forward with new found energy and direction.
As mentioned previously, there are good stress and toxic stress. Good stress challenges us to grow, and if we do it well, we are rewarded to our satisfaction. Toxic stress is prolonged with an unclear “finish line,” where the challenges and difficulties are mostly out of our control with lack of/uncertain rewards. When we identify the toxic stress in our lives, the choice becomes clearer in terms of how we want to respond. If we continue and do nothing about our toxic stress, it’s a form of self-harm. So one can say people who opt-out, won't or "can't" handle stress (toxic stress) is practicing self-care.
SO WHAT? There are definite benefits to developing “intestinal fortitude,” “thick skin” and other strategies such as social support and presence/mindfulness techniques and other skills to make us more resilient to life’s ups and downs. However, most of us will experience at some point in our lives where inevitably stress will impacts our wellbeing. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can offer our best to the world because that's what will make us happy. We need to recognize when we are enduring something toxic without replenishing ourselves and stop the self-abuse. High-performance athletes will spend millions of dollars on self-care and performance recovery annually. Why the investment? Because they know that when they practice self-care by reducing/removing toxicity from their lives and replenish with nourishing elements for their minds and bodies, they will thrive and outperform themselves in the long run. Just ask LeBron James!
Ok, I’m stressed out. What’s the big deal?
Here are some physiological impacts of chronic stress on our bodies:
A part of me wished I’d known more about the causes and impacts of stress on personal wellness in past years. I might have reprioritized and changed many life's decisions. But then, on the other hand, I wouldn’t be in the position to share my experience today and hopefully help out someone else.
Passing on my experience with you so that you may make a more informed decision about how you want to live your life.
Do you have an experience with stress you'd like to share? Do you have an idea for a future article? Drop me a note, I'd love to hear about it!