What is Stress?
Stress is the human equivalent of computer Overclocking. If you’re not a computer geek, let me briefly explain. Every computer processor works at a certain Clock Speed (2.6Ghz for example). But this speed is not a hard limit, and by tweaking things just a bit, the clock speed can be increased. Causing a 2.6Ghz processor to work just as hard as a 3.2Ghz without spending an extra dime! So why doesn’t everybody do it you ask? There is slight downside – stress it too hard, or for too long, and the processor will overheat, start glitching, and eventually crash or even burn.
Such is stress. It fires up the sympathetic system and overclocks our bodies. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and the body is pushed to its limit. In the beginning, it feels great. You’re in the zone. Your senses are heightened, all unwanted thoughts dissipate, your entire being is concentrated on the task at hand and you are as focused as a Kung-Fu master. Making stress to be a great tool for increasing concentration, productivity, and our overall performance level. This doesn’t come without a price though. Just like overclocking, if pushed too hard, or for too long, you will crash.
This article will take a deeper look into one of the most common challenges of modern life – stress. Exploring the uses and misuses of stress, the disorders associated with it, and revealing the special trick which will allow you to control it.
Why Do We Get Stressed?
Stress gives us an extra boost and increases our performance. When encountering a challenge that seems too difficult for us to overcome a certain thought pattern is initiated. Something like, “I need to be more; I am not enough. Not strong enough, not quick enough, not smart enough, and I might not make it.” This feeling that we might not be capable enough is the trigger for the stress response.
When feeling that you’re not enough, the body immediately prepares itself to give out more and overclock itself. The autonomic nervous system shifts the balance toward the sympathetic side. Adrenaline starts pumping, heart races, blood vessels dilate, lungs expand, and the digestion system goes to standby mode. Performance cranked up to the max and everything comes into perfect focus. The body and mind are now ready to face the coming challenge. Fighting a lion or getting to work on time, whatever it might be, you will give it your best.
First Obstacle – Acute Stress
As it turns out, this increased state of awareness isn’t always the best response. In certain situations, stress can end up being more of an obstacle than assistance. For example, when dealing with tasks that require intuitive thinking, creativity, extreme precision, or social skills. In such situations, the arousal of stress works against us, and the mechanism which was meant to help us ends up hurting us.
When needing to reduce stress, the best thing to do is to take a break. Step outside, breathe some fresh air (or cigarette smoke), calm down a little and get back to what you were doing before. But at some situations, when things are too important and a break is not an option, stress related anxiety sets in.
When trying to push through the negative effects of heightened stress, a mental feedback loop is created. As the only option remaining is to increase effort, and as the increase of effort entails and increase of stress, very quickly stress levels goes through the roof.
Stress rises without any conscious control – the adrenal glands squeeze dry, muscles tense, hands shake, body temperature rises, and sweat starts pouring out. It can last for a few seconds, minutes, and for the more experienced maybe hours. Then, just like overclocking, the body and mind crash. The after effects feel much like a hangover: fatigue, weakness, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and last but not least, the feeling that you’ve just got about 3 years older.
This is the acute version of stress, and to make sure that doesn’t happen to you, try to avoid pushing through stress. If you need to reduce your stress levels, try not to fight stress, but instead, act to increase calmness.
Second Obstacle – The Chronic Stress Disorder
Now, let’s say that you manage to make your way around the acute stress reaction, as most people do. You don’t fight your stress, or perhaps even appreciate it. Does that mean you are in the clear?
Not quite. Even if you handle stress well, it can still get out of hand. Sometimes these things we stress about just keep on coming. Living from deadline to deadline, having more and more of those urgent tasks competing for your attention, without any breaks for relief.
Just like overclocking, exhausting the system for too long causes glitches. As internal pressure rises, the chronically stressed person becomes cranky, experiences random expressions of anger and occasionally a short burst of rage. When remaining in heightened performance for long periods of time, an occasional blowout is inevitable. A little break for sadness or perhaps a small depression episode, and you bounce right back for another round. Something is always coming, and coming, and coming… Perceived danger always seems to be lurking around the corner, never safe, never able to just kick back and relax. This constant state of high alert takes its toll.
This can go on for months and even years, but eventually, something’s got to give. After being in a heightened state of constant alertness for too long, the body begins to deteriorate. Sleeping becomes difficult, blood pressure rises, and the immune system weakens. Without an occasional relief and a period of relaxation, a heart attack or stroke are more than likely. But after living with stress for so long, the person no longer remembers how to relax. Stress has become a way of life, and this chronic form of stress can even kill.
When dealing with stress, a balance has to be maintained. Periods of relaxation and unwinding are not only pleasurable, but they are necessary.
Relief – The Trick for Immediately Reducing Stress
If the thought that triggers stress is “I’m not enough” then the thought which disarms it is “I got this!” This is what your body is waiting to hear, that everything’s OK, that you are capable of achieving your goal, and that it is all under control.
Remember, stress is not something that happens to you, it is an internal bodily reaction to something that you do. A certain thought pattern, an insecurity or self-doubt which your body interprets as a request. Once you ask for a boost, the body will keep giving it to you for as long as you say that you need it. Until it will hear you say, “I Got This!” This is what your body is waiting for, knowing that all this effort paid off and now you’re safe again. That you achieved your goal and it is finally time to rest.
Stress is a powerful tool, and just other powerful tools, it should be used with caution. As our society worships productivity, stress is a tool which we cherish dearly and use frequently. We intentionally incorporate stress into our daily lives and give ourselves just a little scare every now and then to make sure we’re not lagging behind. A little stress makes us work better, concentrate harder, and be more productive, but when it gets out of hand it hurts us badly.
So when working with stress, it is up to you to manage your stress responsibly. Keep an eye out and make sure things won’t get out of hand. Make sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard, or for too long. Give yourself the proper relief periods that you need, and pay attention to your body and mind.
And when things start to get overwhelming, remind yourself that there are no lions chasing you and there are no bears lurking in the bushes. You are not in danger, you’re safe, and you are enough. You Got This!
How stress affects your body by Ted Ed