The topic of stress management is surprisingly broad. Before exploring it more fully, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of stress. This article, not intended to be exhaustive or bogged down in complexity, covers several definitions for stress, types of stress, the stress response (our physiological response to stress), the stress emotions, as well as the health implications of chronic stress. The foundational nature of this article will prepare you for a deeper exploration of holistic approaches to managing stress.
Definitions of Stress
There are many definitions of stress which vary based on perspective. A loss of emotional control is a Western definition, whereas Eastern philosophy describes stress as the absence of inner peace. A psychological definition from Richard Lazarus is a state of anxiety produced when events and responsibilities exceed one’s coping abilities. From a physiological perspective, stress is defined as the rate of wear and tear on the body. Hans Selye, a scientist revered as the “father of stress” for his groundbreaking work, defined stress as the non specific response of the body to any demand placed upon it to adapt, whether that demand produces pleasure or pain.
While all of these definitions are valid, you’ll notice that some of these definitions focus on physical aspects, while others focus on mental, emotional or spiritual aspects. A holistic approach to managing stress would address all of these aspects – mind, body, spirit and emotion – recognizing that these parts of the human experience make up the whole person and are intertwined and interdependent. A more comprehensive definition is attributed to holistic specialists Deepak Chopra and Larry Dossey, and is well suited for the purpose of holistic stress management. They define stress as:
the inability to cope with a perceived (real or imagined) threat to one’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptations.”
Types of Stress
It’s important to note that while the word stress has a negative connotation, not all stress is bad. There are different types of stress including eustress, neustress, and distress. Eustress, sometimes referred to as “good stress”, is any stress that is motivating or inspiring. Some examples include falling in love or receiving a promotion at work. Neustress is any sensory stimulation perceived as unimportant or inconsequential. Distress is the negative interpretation of an event to be threatening that promotes feelings of fear or anger. There are two types of distress – acute and chronic. Acute stress is intense and disappears quickly while chronic stress is less intense but more prolonged.
There are two interesting things I want you to know about distress. First, notice I said that distress is the result of an interpretation. This is important because while it’s not possible to stop certain things from happening, it’s possible to change your interpretation of those things. By doing so, you control whether you experience distress or not. Second, the term stress and distress are used interchangeably. When someone says they are experiencing stress, they mean they are experiencing distress. But as I shared above, there is such a thing as good stress. Also, the stress response, which I cover next, is sometimes a very good thing. As you travel on your journey to better stress management, it’s important to remember that not all stress is bad.
The Stress Response
Much of what we know about stress today started over a hundred years ago with a physiologist named Walter Cannon. Cannon coined the term the fight or flight response, a physiological process triggered by the sympathetic nervous system that prepares us to either defend or escape a physical threat. During the fight or flight response, the body stays in a state of arousal until the threat is over. The body returns to homeostasis, a state of physiological calmness, once the threat is gone. Through his studies Cannon believed that the fight response was triggered in response to anger, while the flight response was induced by fear. Today, anger and fear are described as the stress emotions, along with joy (remember, not all stress is bad). We’ll come back to the stress emotions later in the article.
The stress response occurs during the fight or flight response and involves the release of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine to prepare various organs and tissues for either fight or flight. This results in a wide range of physiological effects including: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, extra oxygen in the brain, increased alertness, and sharpening of the senses. Blood sugar and fats are released from temporary storage sites through the bloodstream to supply energy to all parts of the body. After this initial surge, additional physiological processes step in to release cortisol from the adrenal glands. This keeps us on high alert until the threat passes. Once the threat is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to essentially reverse these effects and bring us back to the relaxed state of homeostasis.
All of this internal wiring is there to save our bacon when we’re in danger. In this regard, the stress response is a good thing. But there is another side of the stress response that is troublesome, discussed below.
Modern Times and Chronic Stress
Scientists theorize that the fight or flight response is an outdated response, and that as times and humans have evolved, the response to threats has not evolved at the same pace. The fight or flight response was designed to help us survive physical threats, however most modern day humans aren’t being chased by hungry animals. As a result, the stress response is activated in all kinds of threats, not just those involving physical intimidations. The stress response that kicks in when we’re approached by a large human in a dark parking garage while we fumble for our keys, is the same stress response that kicks in when a difficult coworker creates a challenging work environment. In the former situation, the stress response is a very good thing, as it will prepare us to either fight or flee from the physical threat. The problem with the latter situation is that if we continue to allow our coworker to get under our skin, we remain in an aroused state unable to return to homeostasis. If this continues long enough, we experience chronic stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), chronic stress is the type of stress associated with disease because the body is perpetually activated for a threat. The AIS goes on to estimate that 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects due to stress and that 80% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints or disorders. Stress has been linked to leading causes of death in the United States including heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis and suicide.
When we take a closer look at modern life, we can see how chronic stress has become so prevalent. Traffic jams, work pressure, financial concerns, and family demands – all part of a normal existence – can collectively keep us in a perpetual state of distress. And many of us simply try to adapt to this way of being, rather than learn how to better cope with these demands and how to naturally return to homeostasis. That is until we reach a point of exhaustion, disease or both.
The Stress Emotions
Emotions also play a role in stress and there are three emotions associated with stress: joy, anger, and fear. Joy is the emotion associated with eustress (“good stress”). The field of positive psychology has raised awareness about the importance of joy in achieving wellbeing. Thankfully, experts believe that humans have the ability to nurture joy within ourselves, and research in this area is booming now.
Earlier, I defined distress as the negative interpretation of an event to be threatening that promotes feelings of fear or anger. These emotions are central to the stress response. Anger in its most basic form is a survival emotion common to all animals producing the urge to fight a threat. While within the normal range of emotions, anger can be unhealthy when suppressed or improperly expressed, as it often is in modern times. From road rage to desk rage and bullying, we can see a wide range of unhealthy expressions of anger that have become commonplace in our society. It is therefore important to our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health to learn to express and vent anger in healthy ways.
Fear is also a survival emotion, setting off a physical reaction to flee from a threat. It is a learned response that develops after direct or indirect exposure to a painful event. Once this exposure happens, fear can be manufactured by our imaginations, and this imagined fear can elicit the same feeling as a real confrontation. Fears are categorized in two ways: rational and irrational. Rational fears are considered useful because they are associated with a real threat requiring a survival response. Irrational fears are based on imagined or exaggerated threats and can lead to crippling negativity.
Anger is most often related to past events while fear is often related to worrying about future events. This is one reason certain holistic methods such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga are recommended, as they each encourage us to live in the present moment rather than the past or future.
We see then, the important role our emotions play with the stress response. It’s not just what’s happening in our lives that affects our stress level, but how we react to these events emotionally. Managing our emotions is critical in returning to homeostasis and avoiding the prolonged periods of distress that lead to chronic stress, and ultimately health problems.
Holistic Stress Management
Knowing all of this should lead us to examine how we are handling everyday life from a stress management perspective. Remember earlier when I said that distress, or what we usually refer to as stress, is the result of a negative interpretation that leads to feelings of anger or fear? Let’s face it – we can’t stop traffic jams, we can’t avoid annoying coworkers or bosses, and we can’t expect harmony in all of our relationships. The key to managing stress with everyday life events is in how we interpret them and in better managing our emotions around these events. It’s also important to take care of ourselves – mind, body, emotions, and spirit – so that we have the resilience and energy to meet the demands that our modern lives place on us. This is where holistic stress management comes in to play a powerful part in improving our ability to live a more enjoyable life.
This foundational article will serve as background as you continue on your journey with holistic stress management – the healthy management of stress that embraces the whole person – mind, body, emotions and spirit. The cornerstones of holistic stress management are building resilience and better coping mechanisms, learning relaxation techniques and how to naturally achieve the relaxation response, managing emotions – especially anger and fear – in productive ways, and learning to be fully engaged in the present moment by practicing mindfulness.
Other articles on my website will cover these techniques and how they can be applied to everyday life. My goal is to make these methods accessible, easy to understand, and enjoyable to apply and practice. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email via my contact page.
Photo credit: Death to the Stock Photo