Updated: Mar 20, 2018
Last entry we talked about acute stress. In a super short recap, our central nervous systems receive notice of a thing in the environment that demands a response from us and our bodies prepare for the doing of a thing to meet the demand placed upon us. This can be an uncomfortable experience associated with changes in heart rate, mental focus, and even muscular tension. But things look different when stress becomes chronic. Chances are this is what most of us are thinking about when we think about stress.
Stress becomes chronic when we are unable to get away from the stimulus or sufficiently adapt, we are unable to switch to a recover-digest-relax state, or acute stressors seem to keep piling on at every turn in the road. In this state we can suffer from altered appetite, poor sleep and dysregulated immunity. Our digestive system may not work very well, inhibited from properly breaking down and absorbing food leaving us vulnerable to digestive distress or poor nutrition. As our immune system dysregulates it's normal function it can swing from being unresponsive to infection and illness to hyperactive activating the possibility of developing an autoimmune disease. Loss of sleep makes all of this worse as sleep is the time in which we do the ultimate work for repairing our bodies and sorting our thoughts and minds out. When sleep is interrupted or delayed, those reparative processes have less time to work with. Our ability to recall, organize our thoughts and manage our emotions becomes impaired. Emotionally, we are pretty messy, swinging between anxiety and depression. And unfortunately, the chronicity of these conditions actually become stressors in themselves. The system becomes a negative feedback loop, perpetuating itself. Eventually, exhaustion sets in and we reach the end range of what we can adapt to and begin to fall.
This is about where I found myself between 2012 and 2014. Leading up to this time, I'd been living on my own for several years, had put myself through college and begun a business, working towards being a solo-preneur and was in my first major romantic relationship, was working out 4-5 times a week, plus family/social pressures and a tenuous grip on my mental health. My cup was constantly brimming and my body and mind were pushing as hard as possible to keep up with the growing strain. As the line between managing growth and falling apart got thinner and thinner, my ability to maintain everything began to falter.
My mental health had been slowly corroding, vacillating between anxiousness, anger and depression. I was so caught in reactive survival mode for so many years of my life (most of them, to be honest) that it was close to impossible to develop a plan that looked any further ahead than the next pay cheque, never mind act on it and stick to it. Reasoning and strategic planning were just not options available to me when I was constantly scrambling to pay my bills and buy groceries. I became more susceptible to digestive problems with awful bouts of constipation and colic (which is excruciating) and at times found myself dependent on substances to numb my distress.
Eventually my relationship came to a crushing end and very shortly after, my one woman show came to an end too. I had to let go of my solo practice and return to working for someone else. I moved in with a friend so I could make ends meet and recover from my heart break. In the aftermath I lost about 15lbs in six weeks because I simply could not eat. Complete lethargy and fatigue took over, depression and anxiety cruel rulers of my heart. I remember showing up at my osteopath's office one day; I'd had to take a cab because I was too ashamed to call and cancel. I was wearing the same pajamas I'd put on 2 days ago and my face was puffy from crying. I felt like raw flesh left out in the cold. I had not showered in days. I had reached the end of my ability to adapt to the demands of my life and had to empty out the cup, so to speak, and refocus on the basics; care for my mental health, care for my body, make some money to pay my bills, and lay low so I could rest. At times the shame of these failures was almost unbearable.
There were many many lessons packed into those years of collapse and recovery, but the most useful one was my ability to work at those thin edges and adapt. Though the stress was immense and the tolls it took on my body and mind were substantial, I actually did come out of it much stronger and much clearer. Stress is the process of growing. It's awful, but also exhilarating and informative. I now know that I have a reserve of strength I can call on. I have seen it demonstrated that I can do very hard things, and even come out of it successfully (or at the very least, in tact). And I learned something about stress I never would have imagined. It's usually when we find ourselves at the bottom of our darkest nights, looking up at the stars with tear stained cheeks, that we admit the exhaustion and find the absolute limit of what we can endure. Frustratingly, it is at this point that caring for ourselves becomes both almost impossible and exceedingly necessary. The climb back from this place is slow, painful and necessitates helping hands from those around us. And hopefully we have not forgotten how to reach for those hands and hold them tight.
It is entirely possible, though, to not end up in such a difficult spot. On my way back from this place, I was coming to a very important lesson. I began to consider the notion that perhaps Befriending Stress was the way to managing it. We often hear about stress management in this context of escaping (spa days, a fishing trip, going shopping, or a night of drinking with friends) but I would like to put forward a different picture. Perhaps befriending stress means paying attention to the cues our bodies give us when something in our world is not right. These uncomfortable, interrupting sensations serve a purpose. Imagine yourself as captain of the Star Trek Enterprise, your body the sleek ship you are in command of. Suddenly your sensors detect a thing and a computer chirps at you there is something that requires your attention and a response. This is exactly the same as the stress response; an alert has been sent to the brain for further inspection and identification. By using our hairs, our ears, our eyes to pick up the information we need, we can make more informed choices about our response. By taking a few steadying breaths we can reclaim our brains, even for a moment or two and ask, what's going on here? With that consideration, we can perhaps begin to see the things in our lives that are troubling us and formulate a way to change them. By using the stress response, the glorious system of communication our bodies have with us, we can tune in to the vast intelligence our they have to better understand our environments and respond to them more effectively.
For some, this looks like setting boundaries around how we expect to be treated by others. It can often look like saying no. For some it will look like going to the doctor when we are sick, seeing a psychologist to talk things through, or visiting a body worker when we have pain that isn't going away on it's own. For some it will look like a mani-pedi or going on a trip to spend time in nature because we never give ourselves opportunities to have pleasure. Maybe it will look like making sure we leave ourselves 4 hours on Sunday (or maybe the WHOLE DAY) unscheduled so we can just lay down and relax on the couch. We can befriend our stress system to cultivate greater responsibility in ourselves so that our lives work a little bit better for ourselves, so we can respond to the world around us rather than react.
Stress is the fabulous program our bodies have to keep us safe and promote our growth. In a nutshell, that's what it is, that's what it's for. It feels sufficiently unpleasant to provoke a response from us. If stress felt comfortable, it wouldn't be a call for change. When we go to the gym and work our bodies out, we are stressing them to change and grow. When we learn a new task or skill, we are stressing our brains and nervous systems to develop new neuronal connections and perform at a higher level. and when life throws us curve balls, we have an opportunity to step up and learn how to adapt and manage well. The discomfort is the discomfort of change. A major responsibility we have is to get really good at being with this kind of uncomfortable because on the other side of it is a whole new level of capacity in which you can accomplish new things. Next time you are finding yourself grinding your teeth or notice your heart pounding in your throat, try and take stock of the situation; what is your body trying to tell you? What is needing your attention? Get curious and befriend stress.
Jeffery M. Lating, George S. Everly. Jr. (2013) A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response 3rd Ed.; New York, NY: Springer
Want to learn more? Check out these great YouTube videos by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a well known and researched expert in human endocrinology, neuroscience and present day expert on human stress.
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers – Lecture for Beckman Institute, June 2017