I often ask the people I work with in my clinical office the following question: “What stresses you out?” Their responses tend to sound like this: “My work stresses me out!” “My boss is the most stressful person you will ever meet!” “You’ve never seen crazier kids than mine…they STRESS ME OUT!” My question is a set-up. All of these may be triggers to stress, but stress is actually the body’s reaction to situations such as these. Stress is the fight-or-flight response in the body, which is driven by adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that are released when we perceive a situation as stressful. When we start to “feel” stressed-out, we are actually tuning into some physical changes that happen in our body as a result of the stress hormones, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing, muscle tension, dilated pupils, dry mouth and increased blood sugar. By definition, stress is the state of increased physical arousal necessary for an organism to defend itself in time of danger.
Now let me give you a practical example of this increased physical arousal in the real world. I grew up in a rural area on Merritt Island, Florida. Since our house was surrounded by wooded areas and orange groves, I had many run-ins with a multitude of wild animals. One day when I was about 10 years old I was riding my motorbike through the groves and I came upon the biggest wild hog you have ever seen. I slammed on my brakes and froze. Terrified. I knew that thing could open up a can on me if I wasn’t careful, so I slowly started to turn my bike around. In an instant, that hog started running toward me like I was its next meal. I was sure I was going to be the only kid at Lewis Carroll Elementary who had ever been eaten alive by a pig. As fortitude welled up on my 10 year old gut, I laid on the throttle of that Yamaha dirt bike like I never had before. I outran the wild hog that evening, but I also learned a valuable lesson. You never corner a wild animal. Ever. Because if you corner a wild animal, the fight-or-flight response will cause them to rear up and get ready for a fight. Funny thing is, the pig and I had a very similar process going on neurologically. We both had adrenalin and cortisol being pumped out by our brain and we were both experiencing stress in our body.
The relevance of my experience growing up on Merritt Island is that you are just like a wild animal. When you engage an environment that you perceive as threatening or overwhelming, a tremendous amount of energy is released in your body by the stress hormones. The stress reaction is in our mind and our body, not “out there.” Stress is all about the way we perceive or interpret the events in our life. Accordingly, Dr. Philip Eichling offers this definition of stress: “Stress is the mind’s interpretation of an event in a way that causes characteristic physical effects.” Basically, stress is the body’s response to situations that we perceive or interpret as stressful, dangerous, overwhelming, or “impossible.” Just like those wild animals out on Merritt Island, our body’s stress response provides us with the strength and energy to either engage the fight or run away from danger.
The one problem is that it is rarely appropriate for us to unleash all the strength and energy these stress hormones release in our body. Think about it: we just can’t run out of the room and down the hall when we are asked a tough question during the morning staff meeting. The result is that our bodies go into a state of high energy when we perceive we are in a stressful or threatening environment, but there is usually no place for that energy to go. I’ve worked with many patients struggling to manage their stress whose bodies stay in a state of arousal for hours or even days at a time.
Here’s the beauty part in all of this. We can eliminate the stress response in our body with some very simple strategies. Check back next week to learn how you can crush stress in your body and create a relaxation response more peaceful than sleep.