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What is Stress? Part 2

What is Stress Part 2

Stress Impacts Mind & Body

There are many different forms of stress — physiological stress, psychological stress, relational stress, financial stress, etc. While stress can rear its ugly head in many forms, there is one thing all forms of stress have in common — there are psychophysiological underpinnings. Wait… hold on a second… did I lose you there? Let me put this simply and then we’ll unpack it. Stress, at its core, will ALWAYS manifest in both the mind and body. We refer to this as a bidirectional relationship, or that the effects of stress are mind-body interconnected. 

Why is this important? The primary reason this is important is because the mind-body connection is not some foreign, esoteric, woo-woo, hippy notion anymore. Indeed it is quite the opposite, as it is deeply rooted in scientific understanding based on years of discovery.

The mind-body connection is bidirectional — it is a distinctive two-way stress-road. How so? First, what affects the body will also affect the mind. Take experience of pain as the deleterious example. When someone experiences pain, especially chronic pain, this can significantly impair cognitive functioning (Moriarty, McGuire, & Finn, 2011) and result in emotional disturbance such as experience of anxiety, depression, etc. (Lumley et al., 2011). This is the example of the body-to-mind connection. Second, what affects to mind will affect the body. Take the experience of significant stress and anxiety and how this can increase heart rate, decrease heart rate variability, increase muscular contraction, and lead to chronic headaches — and this is just the short list. The point here is that we have to look at stress as multifaceted and multidirectional. We also have to know about how we experience stress personally. This leads us to the first foundational component of the Hanu Health
Stress Resiliency Model — Self-awareness.

Stress is bidirectional

 

Self-Awareness

Here is where things get a more personalized. You are likely a human reading this article (unless we have gotten to the point where AI finds these types of articles useful, or animals have become so personified that they have evolved to read comprehensively). Anyway, if you still have a heartbeat, you experience stress, both the “good” and “not so helpful” kinds. But, are you aware that you are experiencing stress? Are you aware of how stress is impacting your physical and mental well-being? Are you aware of what is causing stress — what we call the trigger or precipitant? Really think about your answers here, because humans are pretty good at lying to and tricking themselves. It is so incredibly easy, and at times protective, to convince ourselves that everything is great, rainbows and butterflies, when, in fact, things are not so great. If we convince ourselves everything is okay, might this be a disservice? I get it, at times it’s helpful to tell ourselves that we are okay so we can bulldoze through the day in an effort just to get by. I do this, you do this, we all do this. But, when does this become detrimental? Stress researchers believe that this is problematic when it becomes chronic, less of a state response and more of a trait response. Check out this awesome article published in Scientific Reports about how trait and state anxiety are mapped differently in the brain!

Trait Anxiety v State Anxiety

Quick psychology primer on “trait” vs. “state” anxiety: trait anxiety refers to a more deeply ingrained aspect of one’s personality. Ever met anyone that appears to have a deeply intrinsic, steady state of worry and anxiety? They are likely to have higher trait anxiety. Whereas state anxiety refers more to how certain events or situations can trigger a stress response, both physiological and psychological. This is something everyone experiences. So, the next questions is, can continuous experience of state anxiety eventually lead to trait anxiety? Short answer, YES!

Does this mean we are all bound on the first train home to a life of heightened trait anxiety? No, not at all. My guess is you are thinking, “Then what is the answer? What can I possibly do to have this not happen?” This is something that I am asked about daily. How do I better manage my response to stress in order to build fortitude? The very first place to start is… self-awareness.

At Hanu Health, our first goal is to teach people to become more self-aware of when they are experiencing stress. You need to ask yourself these questions in order to assess:

How stress manifests in the body

Please note, this is another short list but may give you a place to start. Remember, this is your opportunity to assess your experience and increase your level of self-awareness. So, be true to yourself. Enough lying. Enough convincing. Enough trying to impress yourself. You are doing yourself a disservice if you are not honest with yourself. How is stress impacting you? The only way we self-regulate stress is to become self-aware of stress.

One thing we do know…for most people, it is not the event itself that results in significant stress, it is the anticipation of this event. We refer to this as worry.

Worry/Anticipation

One of the greatest quotes on worry comes from the seminal book on stress, Why Zebras Get Ulcers, by Dr. Robert Sapolsky (2004). Dr. Sapolsky writes, “Thus, the stress-response can be mobilized not only in response to physical or psychological insults, but also in expectation of them. It is this generality of the stress-response that is most surprising — a physiological system activated not only by all sorts of physiological disasters, but by just thinking about them, as well” (p. 7). Woah… that’s powerful. Just the sheer thought of stress can be the most powerful influence of activating the human stress response. Again, we call this worry.

Here is a scary fact: chronic, heavy stress/worry significantly reduces life expectancy. How much, you ask? 2.8 years. Compare this with smoking (6.6 years) and diabetes (6.5 years). That is serious. You can essentially reduce your life by 3 years through worrying. Not good. Not good at all. One more crazy statistic, lack of exercise (for men in this particular study) is said to shorten your life expectancy by 2.4 years. What’s the take home here? Stress and worry will SIGNIFICANTLY reduce longevity—even more than lack of exercise? Are you ready to take this seriously?

Okay, more stats. According to researchers at Penn State University, only about 8% of the things that we worry and anxiously anticipate come to fruition. Even less is the percentage of severity or duration of stress events. In other words, most of the things we conjure up in our minds that result in high worry, anxiety and anticipation, either do not occur, or are way less significant than we predicted. All the while we are losing years on our life. Worth it? At Hanu, we don’t think so.

Practical Implication

stress reduces life expectancy by 2.8 years

Okay, we get it. Worry is mostly bad. It is mostly bad for mental, physical, spiritual, relational, and cognitive health. It takes years off our lives. But, what we can we actually do about it? Answer… more than you think! Indeed, we may exponentially have more control over our reaction and interaction with stress than we could ever imagine — the great thing is, we are learning each and every day of how we can strengthen this control. While there are many strategies that we will outline in our podcasts, videos and articles, there has to be a foundation. Yes, we have mentioned it numerous times in this article, but it bears repeating. The first step, something that is actionable for you to work on today,
is self-awareness.

This starts with honesty and conviction. If you are not going to be honest with yourself about what creates stress for you, how stress manifests in your mind and body, or even the fact that you experience stress at all, this is going to be a large uphill battle. For many, they identify it and become self-aware far too late. This may look like a heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, severe anxiety or depression, chronic pain, malaise, obesity, etc. This is why it is imperative for you to be true and honest with yourself and identify what is causing stress, how it is manifesting, and then turn your attention to mitigating that problem.

Tips for Self-Awareness

 
  1. Train Better Interoception, but not too much…
    1. Interoception is your ability to perceive changes in sensation throughout the body. These include heartbeat, respiration (breathing), satiety, etc. An alert level of interoception is good, but overly focusing on sensations in the body may lead to heightened anxiety and worry. Balance is key.
  2. Check in Once an Hour
    1. For the last 60 seconds of every hour, subjectively check in with your stress load.
    2. Rank is from 0-10 (0 being no evidence of stress; 10 being a panic-attack-level of stress).
  3. Journaling
    1. Take time to write down the How, What/Where, and Why of stress (noted above)
  4. Ask Others
    1. Those who are close to you may be more objective about when you are stressed and what makes you stressed. Ask them to be honest.
  5. Be Honest with Yourself
    1. Self-awareness starts with realization and honesty. The more you convince yourself that you are not stressed, the more disservice you give yourself. Remember, the end result is years taken off your life!
  6. Leverage Hanu
    1. Do you want to create better interoception and awareness of stress? That is where we come in!
Methods to overcome stress

Conclusion

There you have it. The key to training better stress resiliency starts with better self-awareness. You might even call it self-honesty. Whatever you refer to it as, we know now that the research is clear… it is the first step to longevity and living a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. Sounds pretty good, huh?

Next article: What is Stress Part 1…

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