The Anatomy of Stress

(Originally published for The Dragontree)

I was recently geeking out with the Google Ngram tool. You enter a word and it produces a graph showing the prevalence of the word in print over the past few hundred years. Many of the words that have recently spiked in popularity represent modern innovations that simply didn’t exist before, such as miniskirt, internet, and skateboard. But others have been around for perhaps centuries, only they just caught on due to a change in our standards or awareness.

Plotting the word condom, for instance, I found that even though it was coined in the early 1700s, it was barely used until the mid-1980s, when it suddenly took off – which happened to coincide with the soaring prevalence of a new term: HIV. Another late bloomer was stress, which was coined around 1300, but remained almost nonexistent until about 1930, when it began a steady climb upward. Before then, it was mostly used in a mechanical sense, to describe the force exerted by one thing upon another. But this new usage came about through a growing understanding that it is very much a biological reality as well.

For several reasons, it’s a really good thing that we’re learning this. First, it’s important that we recognize that stress is a factor in virtually all illness. It contributes to our susceptibility to disease and it hinders our recovery. Whereas certain other factors, like genetics, are out of our control, this one is something we can modify.

Second, understanding how stress works has expanded our sense of connection to our environment. Health isn’t guaranteed simply by taking our vitamins. We’re increasingly aware of how much we’re affected by the people, politics, and pollution we invite into our lives – both for better and worse.

Third, our recognition of the workings of stress has contributed to a wider acceptance of the body-mind connection and a willingness to examine our thoughts and emotions. While medical science has in many ways contributed to a reductive or “small picture” view of health, research into stress has provided valuable contrast to this trend, pushing us to broaden our perspective.

A big reason for the increased prevalence of the word stress in the second half of the 20th century was the work of a scientist named Hans Selye. Selye explained stress as any force that threatens our homeostasis – our fundamental state of balance and stability. It doesn’t matter whether we’re worried about it or not; if a condition demands something extra from us, it acts as a stressor. Stressors include environmental factors like weather (cold, heat, dryness, etc.), noise, pollution, and radiation; psycho-social factors like finances, relationships, school and work performance; physiological factors like aging, illness, trauma, sleep deprivation, and nutritional deficiency; and biological invaders such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.

Selye developed a model for explaining the impact of stress on us over time, called the General Adaptation Syndrome. It consists of three phases. When we are first exposed to a new stressor, we enter the alarm phase. Distress signals activate survival mechanisms. The reasoning part of the brain relinquishes control to the animalistic “fight or flight” response as our best bet for not dying.

Next, if the stress persists, we move into the resistance phase. Our system attempts to adapt to the stressor since it’s not going away. We may need to raise blood pressure, change metabolic rate, shift resources toward certain organs and away from others, etc. In this phase, we may appear to be successfully managing the stressor, but it’s a very demanding state to maintain.

Finally, if we don’t succeed at eliminating the stressor and returning to homeostasis, we eventually move into the third phase: exhaustion. Selye stated that we have a limited amount of “adaptation energy” and we simply can’t maintain aroused stress mechanisms indefinitely. When these mechanisms give out, we’re left depleted and out of balance. In this state, we may experience depression, anxiety, poor immune function, fatigue, insomnia, pain, poor concentration, skin problems, digestive upset, or other symptoms.

Many of us are frequently or perpetually in some phase of this syndrome, and it degrades our quality of life. When we find ourselves always craving stimulants, like caffeine, sugar, and media, it may be because we’ve taxed our adaptation resources.

Rest assured, there’s much that can be done to favorably intervene in this cycle. I’ll discuss this in detail in my next article. But let me leave you with this: while there are supplements and procedures that can relax us and restore our energy, the most valuable interventions are ones that target our perception. Selye said, “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one,” and I believe that we can often go even further, converting a negative stress into a non-stress.

Next time a potentially stressful situation arises, try taking a step back in your mind, and tell yourself, “It’s not worth getting stressed about this and dumping unnecessary energy into it. I choose to conserve my energy and to find the path of least resistance to managing this.” We can be light or heavy about whatever comes up – the choice is always available.

Continue on with 28 Keys to Managing Stress.


All material copyright 2015 by Peter Borten.