Our bodies are amazing things. When working as intended, we don’t notice our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and our digestive system transforming food into nutrients. However, sometimes our bodies don’t work as well as we would like. One common reason for not feeling optimally healthy (both mentally and physically) is stress.
Just as society has evolved over time, so have the stresses that we experience. While we no longer have to wrestle a saber-toothed tiger for dinner, we do have to work our way through traffic jams to the grocery store on the way home from work, before heading off to an evening activity. Unfortunately, our physiological systems haven’t changed—leading to a host of negative physical and emotional results.
Types of Stress
While we talk about ‘being stressed’, not all stress is bad for us. Stress is sometimes an indication that we are growing (making a speech, asking someone out on a first date, learning to ski). We feel excited–our blood is pumping, our breathing is shallow and we have ‘butterflies’ in our stomach. This is called acute stress, and is similar to our ancestors hunting the tiger for dinner—short-term with a (hopefully) good result—and our bodies return to normal shortly after the activity. Our health is not adversely affected.
The next type of stress is called episodic acute stress, and is where we start getting into trouble. You can think of this stress as that experienced by people described as “Type A” personalities. These individuals frequently undergo acute stress, but it has stopped being exciting, or once-in-a-while events. People suffering from episodic acute stress often appear short-tempered, angry and irritable, have sleep and digestive problems and may overuse food, alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. People who regularly fall into this category are prime candidates for heart disease. Not only “Type A” personalities can experience episodic acute stress, but also people who chronically worry—often ruminating about all the negative things that could happen.
The final, and most unhealthy, type of stress is chronic stress. This is stress that is experienced over months or years. It often has its start in childhood trauma, if we learn that we are powerless and the world is a very scary place. When we suffer from this grinding type of stress, we may feel that we are unable to leave unsatisfactory relationships or toxic employment situations. Life can feel like drudgery as we try to make it through the days and cope with a host physical and mental health challenges. Chronic stress can prove to be deadly due to its wear and tear our bodies and mental health (physiological changes that can lead to chronic and acute disease, suicide). Chronic stress is also a key factor in the development of anxiety and depression.
There Are Ways to Cope
While living with episodic and chronic stress is challenging, there are activities that have been scientifically proven to help you to cope with the negative results of stress. Regular physical exercise and relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga and tiachi) have been shown to be beneficial.
Talking with a therapist can be useful as a way, to not only have an accountability partner as you make healthy lifestyle changes, but also explore the underlying issues that could be causing you to experience both episodic and chronic stress. If you think that you are negatively suffering from stress and could benefit from therapy, feel free to contact me and we can explore how I can help.