Normal stress and toxic stress
Stress is the normal response of human beings to pressures, challenges, or a sense of threat. When we feel threatened, high stress mobilizes our bodies to fight or flee to keep us safe. Moderate stress helps us rise to challenges and develop ourselves as we find ways to adapt to pressure and change. We would not have survived as a species without the stress response.
Overriding our need to recover
However, after a state of high stress, or prolonged moderate stress, the body and mind need a cooling-down period to come back to equilibrium. Most of us don’t get a cooling-down period, or even see it as necessary. Our fast-paced culture and economy do not recognize that regular cooling-down periods are as important for our health and well-being as exercise, good diet, and getting enough sleep. Given our powerful brains and willpower, we choose often to override signals that say it’s time to recover. That is a big problem for almost everyone.
Burnout, fatigue, and hopelessness
Too much stress, constant stress, or recurring stress – being “stressed out” – points to the near universal experience of overload and overburden. Too much stress – experienced as burnout, fatigue, or even hopelessness – is common to so many of us that some scientists are calling it “Public Enemy Number One”.
So how do we get a handle on stress?
Can the science of stress help us live better lives?
An astonishing 80% of primary care doctor visits involve stress-related symptoms, according to the AMA. Prolonged, or chronic, stress has been linked to deteriorating health and shorter life spans – compromising the immune system and affecting the proper functioning of every major system of the body.
Stress is not a state of mind…it’s measurable and dangerous, and humans can’t seem to find their off-switch.”
—Robert Sapolsky, author and neurobiologist, from the documentary Stress, Portrait of a Killer
What happens to the body under stress
Under stress, especially high stress, the body is automatically flooded with hormones that signal our organ systems and limbs, readying the body and mind for emergency action. Effects include increased blood pressure, muscle tension, and the digestive slow-down known as “butterflies in the stomach”. Higher reasoning centers virtually shut down and executive functions crash – we are now on red alert. This is the fight-flight reaction, which is automatically triggered when our brains perceive a threat.
Reacting to perceived threat
Perceived threats to our survival and well-being may be real or imagined, external or internal, and may be related to conflict in relationships or an actual survival threat like an oncoming car. The challenges and pressures that have the potential to energize us can also trigger the threat response. Automatic stress reactions may form in relationship to a difficult boss, feelings of helplessness at work, worrying about losing one’s job, lack of sleep due to worrying, and the anger that erupts in us when we least expect it.
When fight-flight becomes chronic
No matter its cause, when the fight-flight reaction is repeatedly triggered without return to a rest-and-digest state, stress in the system becomes chronic. The effects of chronic stress include stroke, heart failure, hypertension, inflammation, bowel disease, migraine, and propensity towards illness of all kinds – and can also lead to physical pain, anxiety and panic.
Stress is dis-regulation
MBSR views stress primarily as a problem of dis-regulation. Dis-regulation occurs when we cannot find the off-switch for stress – when automatic stress reactions repeatedly override the body’s natural systems of rest and self-repair. Pressures lead to stress, which lead to the automatic stress reactions that lead to dis-regulation and dis-ease.
Loss of health and well-being
This is the recipe for loss of health and well-being unless we can become more aware of the stress cycle as it is happening – and learn how to activate a fundamentally new response to the pressure. This is the “off-switch” that is comprised of a series of behaviors that allow our bodies to recover, and heal, and which lays the groundwork for more positive control, agency, and meaning as we recover our ability to live in balance.
How does mindfulness help?
There is a way to stop the dominance or the cycling of automatic stress reactions. It is called the mindfulness response and it can be learned in an 8-week MBSR program. The mindfulness response is an intentional, conscious, non-reactive response to the pressures and demands that tend to trigger the fight-flight system. In fight-flight, the body mobilizes automatically. Emotions and thoughts may add to stress and prevent restoration of equilibrium. As soon as one remembers to engage mindfully, the stress reaction is interrupted. The brain signals the body to begin restoring equilibrium. There is recovery from fight and flight. The body-mind recovers from high alert. Higher order thinking is restored.
The freedom to respond rather than react
Having mindfulness as a reference point is like a safe haven for the mind. Mindfulness interrupts the stress cycle by introducing conscious responding rather than automatic reacting. Recovery from chronic stress becomes possible and achievable for anyone willing to learn the art of mindfulness.