Did you know that stress is mental? No, I’m not suggesting you’re “mental” if you experience stress. But there is so much we don’t understand about stress and when we miss the mark, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
It’s time we got a 10,000 foot view of what stress really is, what it’s not, and how much control we can have over it so it doesn’t lead us to burn out.
Stress is Mental
You hear it everywhere you turn: “I’m stressed out.” But what does that really mean?
It turns out that stress is our mental perception or interpretation of what is happening around us.
Let’s assume you are stuck in traffic. There are several options in terms of how to think about this circumstance.
- If you think, “Oh, no! I’m going to be late” you will feel anxious.
- You might feel angry if you find someone to blame for the traffic, like the driver in front of you who isn’t going fast enough.
- You might even feel guilty for being late to your appointment because you didn’t give yourself enough time to get there in the event of traffic.
All this is to say that your thoughts determine how stressed you feel.
Traffic is your stressor. Your thoughts are what cause you to feel stressed.
The Effects of Stress on the Body
Stress manifests not only in your mind, but also in your body. When you are faced with a stressor which you perceive as dangerous, you activate the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. It doesn’t matter whether you are in actual danger or not. Your brain treats your perceptions as reality and gets activated just the same.
When you are in Fight or Flight mode, your body is preparing you to physically tackle the danger or run as quickly as possible. In ancient times, this came in handy when our lives were threatened by animals with sharp claws and teeth who wanted to eat us for lunch.
Nowadays, we rarely encounter such stressors. Although we feel stressed because we worry about what others will think of us, our brain hasn’t evolved enough to distinguish between worried thoughts and saber tooth tigers. Our heart rate ramps up and sends more blood flows to the essential parts for survival and away from non-essential areas. This ensures we have more oxygen and energy where it’s needed most. Your pupils dilate to allow more light into the eyes so you can more effectively scan the environment for dangers. You are reduced to your animal instincts.
Freeze mode is where you become immobile physically. You remain alert to the danger, but are unable to move or do anything about it.
I experienced freeze mode one day when I was crossing the street. Mid-crosswalk, a driver was making a turn onto the street I was crossing. I could clearly see her coming, but I didn’t run to the sidewalk. I didn’t yell out, “Stop!” I just stood there in shock.
Each of us has different reactions to stress. These depend on how we’re wired in part, but also on our stress threshold. Knowing how you react to stress is the first step to mastering your response to it.
How Much Stress Can You Tolerate?
Your stress threshold is the amount of stress you can endure without going over the edge into breakdown mode. Each person’s threshold is therefore different depending on their resilience, mental toughness, and how much they engage in self-care to create a protective cushion from stress.
Regena Rose Celeste shared this on my podcast, Decode Your Burnout:
“We all have a threshold. And if we don’t know what our threshold is, we’re going to keep piling crap on top of it and on top of it and on top of it, and then, you know, for parents, right? If your kid asks you for help, you’re screaming at them because you’re stressed out about a contract you have at work.
And the kid has nothing to do with it. The kid just happened to ask you, ‘Hey mommy, can we go get ice cream?’ or ‘Can you help me with my homework? And you’re over here upset because you have a contract. So it’s understanding the responsibilities and the obligations that we take on. And sometimes it’s really about simplifying our lives and saying no…or I’ve learned, say not yet.”
I like to call this threshold your Stress Bucket. Imagine that you have a bucket that absorbs stress. You become stressed out because of your work, the traffic, your kids, the fact that the grocery store ran out of your favorite item, or that you can’t find parking close to the store.
If you don’t have a way of releasing some of that stress, your bucket will overflow.
So what can you do?
Increase the size of your bucket and install a release valve to lower the stress that’s in there.
Increase Your Stress Threshold
Stress is going to pile into your bucket no matter how well you can manage your thoughts. What you need to focus on is how to make that bucket bigger so you can absorb more without it feeling overwhelming.
So how can you increase your stress threshold? By putting yourself in physically stressful situations while mentally staying calm.
Here are three ways we do this for health reasons:
1. Intermittent Fasting: We create a boundary around our eating schedule in order to give our body time to rest and digest. This is a form of stress on the body that can show up as hunger at first, but your body will adapt. In so doing, you are increasing your stress threshold as it relates to your appetite.
2. Exercise: We push our bodies through physical activity. While this is stressing our bodies, we build muscle and endurance so that over time we are able to take on increased challenges without them feeling quite as stressful.
3. Cold showers: Exposure to cold waters is a form of stress. As cold water hits your skin, it constricts circulation on the surface of the body and sends blood flow to deep tissues to maintain your ideal temperature. Over time, this practice gives you more energy and can even heal you from autoimmune diseases.
When we engage in these behaviors, we do so intentionally. There is a sense of control in our decision to engage in this way which helps us be able to tolerate more physical stress.
The same is true for mentally stressful situations. Exposure therapy has taught us that when we expose ourselves to things we find stressful, over time, they lose their sting. You can start by thinking about the stressful circumstance in your mind or visualize the event while keeping yourself calm. This is where breathing is helpful but you can use any of your senses to help you as well.
5 Ways to De-Stress
There are no two ways about it. When you are stressed, your bucket is filling up. You need to install a stress relief valve to release some of the pressure. This is where self-care comes in.
Science has shown that regardless of the source of your stress, what helps all of us humans feel calmer is the production of oxytocin. You can use any of your five senses to raise your oxytocin levels.
Physical touch can be soothing when your friend hugs you after a rough day or when you are intimate with your partner. Research shows that getting a massage can help stabilize your mood.
Have you ever noticed that certain smells and sounds are calming to your nervous system? Think back to when you were at a spa. They tend to diffuse lavender and play slow and relaxing music to help you relax. You can do the same in your own home as needed.
Lights and colors also impact the brain. When you want to relax, dim the lights to reduce arousal. There are studies that point to green light as a color that can promote sleep.
What You Should Focus on To Recover from Stress
The best way to avoid the accumulation of stress which can burn you out is through regular recovery strategies that recharge your energy. But when you’re in a stressful situation, knowing how to craft your recovery strategy based on your stress response is key.
When you are in Fight or Flight, you’re highly activated and this is what leads to the breakdown. What you need most in those situations is to calm yourself down.
What helps you destress? Look to what is stressing you out to find the answer.
Loneliness is how we feel when we lack connection to other people, which can certainly increase our stress levels. To combat this, you need to activate the love hormone.
Oxytocin gets activated when we feel connected emotionally and physically to others around us. When you are stressed, although you might want to isolate yourself, that’s just the opposite of what you need to do. So reach out to others for support. Cry on someone’s shoulder. Play with your pet. These activities reduce your sense of loneliness, build a sense of connection, and help you release your stress.
Change can be interpreted as stressful because you don’t know what to expect. Monitor your thoughts around what you’re making the change mean. Remember, just because you don’t know how to predict the future doesn’t mean it will turn out badly. Think of times when you went through a change and it turned out better than before. This can help you settle your mind.
Problems outside of your control like an illness, a pending storm, or a presidential election can feel stressful and create other negative emotions. To get out of victim mode, you want to focus on what you can control. Even when there is seemingly nothing you can do, you can refocus your mind on accepting the facts and managing your emotions around the outcome and being grateful for what is going well.
In her now famous TED talk, Kelley McGonigal talks about how to make stress your friend. The truth is that stress isn’t always bad. In fact, there is a term we can use to refer to good stress: Eustress.
When it comes to your emotions, there is always a purpose there. Stress is no different. We experience stress to motivate us to do something. It is the worry about being late to work that gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s the worry about failure that leads us to putting our best work into a task. And it’s the worry about gaining weight that can make exercise feel rewarding.
Stress, it turns out, increases our arousal which means we are more alert, focused, and motivated. All of this translates into higher performance. To a point.
The breakdown happens when arousal levels are too high for too long. We reach a point just past our comfort zone where fatigue starts to set in. As arousal levels continue to climb, we start to experience exhaustion and ill health, both of which are evident in burnout.
So how can we maximize the benefits of stress while minimizing the downsides?
It boils down to managing your stress to shorten its duration and intensity and recovering from stress so it doesn’t accumulate past your threshold.
Turn Your Stress Around
We experience stress when we interpret stressors as negative. The good news is that if our thoughts can lead us to feel stressed, they can also lead us to feel just the opposite.
Picture yourself in traffic. You’re in your car and you don’t want to get worked up. You recognize that no matter how stressed you will feel, the traffic is outside of your control. You make a conscious decision to stay calm and think to yourself, “This is a great exercise in patience building” or “Here’s my opportunity to catch up with my friend Suzie” whom you then call. Perhaps you whip out your favorite podcast and listen to the latest episode.
At the end of the day, it’s about the choices you make including in the interpretations you make in your mind. You can only make good choices when you see what power you have over your decisions and how those decisions directly lead you to feel stressed or otherwise.
Stress has gotten a bad rap for too long. The truth is that stress is not all bad. Without it, we would not have survived as a species. Even in these modern times, it continues to serve us by alerting us to the fact that something is worrisome, that we need to pay extra attention, and as a result of this focus we can achieve more.
When you understand both the upside and downside of stress, how to manage it, and how to increase your threshold to it, you transform what was once overwhelming into something manageable.
Chronic stress can turn into burnout. To find out whether you’ve crossed the line from stress into burnout, download the Burnout Checklist: www.drsharongrossman.com/burnoutchecklist