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Blog Short #137: What Stress Does to You

Photo by mixetto, Courtesy of iStockPhoto

This week’s subject comes from twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, who authored the book Burnout. The issue is stress, and today we will delve into how stress is felt and what it does to your body and mind.

Next week we’ll talk about how to manage stress. I’ll also give you a handout with additional instructions for using some relaxation techniques.

Let’s dive in.

Stress versus the Stressor

This concept was eye-opening for me. It’s not something I don’t know on some level, but something I rarely think about or recognize. I’m guessing the same applies to you.

Here’s the basic idea provided by Emily and Amelia in their book:

Dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with the things that cause your stress. To deal with your stress, you have to complete the cycle.

One initiates the stress; this is the stressor that activates a stress response in your body.

The other is the fallout: this is the “neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter” a stressor or threat.

The distinction between the stressor and the stress itself is crucial because what often happens is that you focus on reducing stressors but forget that experiencing them leads to residual effects in your body and psyche that continue long after the stressor has been removed.

And, if you’re facing chronic ongoing stressors, your body doesn’t catch up. It just keeps piling on, which results in all kinds of physical distress and sometimes disease processes. Your mind also doesn’t recover but gets embroiled in chronic reactivity as you try to manage things.

I doubt anyone doesn’t experience chronic stress from time to time, and for many, it’s a daily experience.

Now let’s look at what happens when confronted with a stressor.

The Body’s Response to Stress

You know a lot of this already, but you may not know the particulars, and those are important to understanding how to manage stress.

Stress is caused by a threat, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive. Something feels dangerous, and your brain accommodates that feeling with an automatic call to arms. It’s like the red alert on the Enterprise (if you’re familiar with Star Trek). The alarm sounds, and everyone gets in their place to ready themselves for battle.

Your heart rate increases, blood pumps fast and pushes into your muscles, you breathe harder and faster, your sensitivity to pain decreases, your muscles tense up, your attention narrows, your senses are heightened, and you’re hypervigilant.

Imagine hearing someone fiddle with the doorknob on your front porch in the middle of the night. You can hear a pin drop, and you can barely breathe.

Those are the obvious feelings; most everyone knows them because we’ve all experienced them. What you might not know is that other shifts are occurring in your body and brain.

Your brain narrows your focus to previous experiences and knowledge relative to what’s happening right now. It’s like opening only the windows on your computer that are relevant to the current situation and closing all the others. Your body slows down organ systems that aren’t considered necessary for battle. These include digestion, immune function, musculoskeletal, and reproduction.

Your entire mind and body revise activities to focus on the perceived threat and suspend normal functions to facilitate a response.

If the stressor is a single incident, you will likely be more successful at managing the stress once the threat is past. But if you experience chronic stress, those organ systems take a hit daily and cannot function optimally. Diseases like IBS, ulcerative colitis, heart disease, infertility, and many others are fed by chronic stress, as reduced or overactive immune responses hamper your body’s ability to fight against them.

Your Mind’s Response to Stress

As your body revs up its army, your brain narrows in on responding to the stressor. It helps you decide whether to stay and fight, take flight and run, or freeze and play dead. You quickly assess which is most likely to keep you safe and which is possible. If the threat’s right on top of you and there’s no way out, you either fight or play dead. You may decide to flee if you’ve got a little room to think and a way to escape.

All this is done in your head while your body goes through the shifts we just described. Your emotions supply the energy that surges through your body as the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released. They ready you for action.

“Freeze” is another story.

Freeze is different from fight or flight. When you’re involved in fight or flight, you’re active. You have a direction to take. These two avenues involve the sympathetic nervous system, which gives you a “go” signal. Sympathetic means “with emotion.”

When you freeze, the opposite occurs. You suspend all activity. This avenue involves the parasympathetic nervous system. Parasympathetic means “beyond emotion.” When you freeze, you may feel removed from yourself, disengaged, numb, and sluggish. You can’t think or make sense of anything.

Fight or flight is like applying metal to the pedal, whereas freezing slams on the brakes.

Now stop and imagine for a minute a situation you’ve been in where you felt one of these responses. If you can, imagine three of them where you had the experience of each response.

Now think about experiencing any or all of them regularly.

With chronic stress, the experience of tension or anxiety isn’t acute, like if someone’s breaking into your home in the middle of the night. It’s muted, so you forget it’s happening sometimes. It rears its head here and there, then settles back down to just below your conscious awareness, but it’s still active.

Here’s the big problem: Your body never forgets.

Complete the Cycle

Complete the cycle means that once you’ve dealt with a stressor and the conscious danger is past, your body still needs additional help to move out of the stress cycle. You might know that the stressor is gone and feel some relief, but your body hasn’t yet gotten the signal that all’s clear and all systems can go back to their normal functions. It’s as though the ship’s captain knows the threat’s been averted, but he hasn’t told his team that they can turn off the alarm and return to their usual stations and duties.

You have to give your body that signal. You have to provide a method to release the stress that’s been accumulated in responding to the stressor and send the message that it’s safe.

Just knowing you’re safe from the stressor doesn’t automatically do that. And if you’re chronically stressed, your body accumulates stress and never feels safe.

What are the signs that you haven’t completed the cycle?

  • Excessive fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Negative, obsessive, or overthinking
  • Racing mind, difficulty concentrating
  • Worry and foreboding
  • Lack of motivation, not taking care of things
  • Numbness, apathy
  • Anger, unexpected emotional eruptions, panic attacks
  • Self-destructive behavior and habits
  • Over or under-eating, poor diet, craving junk food and carbs
  • Body picking
  • Chronic illness, aches and pains, asthma, infections

Great. What’s next?

That’s what we’re going to address next week. I’ll review the best methods of “completing the cycle” and helping your body and mind release stress.

In the meantime, you can think about what your stress load is. You may be unaware of just how much stress you handle daily. That can easily happen when you’re immersed in it. It’s good to take an objective view. Then you can start to unravel it.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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