©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
The ancestor of every action is a thought
“When I’m stressed out, I want nothing to do with food,” said Jennifer.
“And I’m just the opposite,” said her best friend. “When I’m stressed out, I scarf down everything in sight. Absolutely everything!”
Two different individuals; two different responses. And depending on which is which and who is who, one woman may end up frighteningly underweight and the other dangerously overweight. Either extreme is unhealthy. As the old saying goes, one person’s pleasure is another person’s poison.
Your brain, the first body system to recognize a stressor, reacts with split-second timing. It can trigger the stress response in a nanosecond and pour out stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin, and norepinephrine. Your brain can stimulate the stress response for up to 72 hours after a traumatic event—real or imagined—and much longer, if you keep rehearsing the event to yourself and/or to anyone who will listen.
That’s what makes the stress response such a two-edged sword. Stress is part of living. Simply being alive requires adaptive responses from both brain and body. The absence of stress is death, when your brain and body are unable to respond and adjust to requests for change. However, unmanaged stress can kill brain cells, damage body organs, increase your risk of illness or disease, and shorten longevity.
One’s stress response is designed to mobilize body defense mechanisms and temporarily shut down non-essential functions. In terms of life and death, digestion is considered non-essential so that process slows down or halts altogether. That’s one reason it is so important to aim for a pleasant and negative stress-free environment around mealtimes. When the stress response is activated and the brain and body are flooded with stress hormones, recently eaten food may sit like a lump of lead in your stomach. And your digestive system may respond with symptoms such as constipation, vomiting, or diarrhea. (Exact symptoms may differ among individuals.)
Rat studies have shown that effective stress management strategies may be even more critical for females, who have twice the risk for stress-related illnesses due to the way female brain respond to stress. If you are male, in addition to having your own effective stress-management strategies, you may be able to help the females in your life when they seem stressed. All things being equal, the male brain will likely perceive the stress as less impactful and can help the female brain keep things in perspective. However, comments such as It’s no big deal! or Just get over it! will likely be very unhelpful.
That’s not to say the male brain is home free in terms of stressors. In boys, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can increase their risk for depression, while low cortisol levels have been linked to aggressive behaviors.
And, in both genders, high levels of cortisol can damage body organs and have been associated with death of brain cells, especially in the hippocampus—your brain’s search engine located in the limbic layer.
Since every brain is different, it’s important to figure out how yours tends to respond to stress. The good news is that since stress responses are typically learned in childhood, you can learn new and healthier ways to respond, as needed. Identify your common stressors and place each in one of the following categories:
- Eustress—positive stress, that helps you learn and grow, especially when you have participated in the decision-making process, e.g., going to school, changing jobs, getting married, having a child, meeting deadlines--as long as you perceive you are successful.
- Distress—negative stress, that everyone would prefer avoiding if possible, e.g., natural disasters, unemployment, getting fired, being overworked at your job, divorce or death in the family, caregiving, war situations, abuse, recession, bankruptcy.
- Misstress—unrecognized stress that can be as deleterious over time as outright distress, e.g., long commutes, technostress, unhealthy lifestyle, arguing, addictive behaviors, worry, anxiety, lack of sleep, mismanaged emotions and feelings.
Which stressors can you prevent or minimize? Are you able to reframe distress or misstress into eustress by changing the way you view the event or situation? Epictetus, a 2nd century Greek philosopher, reportedly said, “It’s not so much what happens that matters as what you think about what happens.”
Stressors interact with the brain in a two-part equation: 20% of any negative impact is due to the stressor effect, while 80% is due to your perception--sometimes called the 20:80 Rule. While you may not be able to do much about the 20%, you can do a great deal about the 80% by choosing which thoughts to hang onto and the actions you take. Live the 20:80 Rule as an effective stress-management strategy
Ask yourself: “Will this matter in twelve months?” If the answer is probably not, avoid expending large amounts of energy and just let it go. If the answer is yes, do what you can to deal with the issue and then let it go. That’s where the Serenity Prayer can be useful: every human being needs wisdom to know which is which.
Bottom line: Stress is part of living. Know your common stressors, however, and identify them as eustress, distress, or misstress. Avoid distress and misstress when possible. If unavoidable, try converting them into eustress by using the strategy of reframing: viewing the situation in a different way, looking at it as if you were just an interested bystander. Remember: It’s what you think about what happens that matters the most!