We are in a fatigue epidemic and stress has earned itself a bad reputation as one of the key culprits. Stress, especially the chronic type of stress that eats away at you slowly but surely, is one of the main causes of fatigue, exhaustion and burnout. And who doesn’t know someone who is struggling with feeling tired all the time?
The truth is that stress is hard to avoid. So how do we handle it? How can we work with it, so it works for us, and not against us?
Welcome to this 2 part blog series, where I will walk you through the basics of stress. This is your chance to get ahead of the game, get super clear about the different types of stress, how to make stress work for you and not against you, and how to spot when stress becomes a problem and what to do about it.
The Stress Illusion
First I want to make a case for ‘good stress’! Yes, really, because we think of stress as ‘bad’ and something that we want to eliminate from our life. We long for long days of ease and relaxation and to escape from the struggles and worries of everyday life.
But before you wish it all away, we just need to acknowledge something very important: which is this:
“Stress is really good for you”
Especially the short sharp ‘acute’ kind of stress because it keeps you alive, keeps you on your toes, keeps you sharp and has your body and your mind functioning at a really high level.
Let’s Break That Down A Bit
Now that I have set the cat amongst the pigeons, let’s unpack this a little.
The acute stress response is your ‘fight flight response’ It is triggered by your sympathetic nervous system, which pumps out tonnes of a chemical called adrenaline every time it is triggered.
It’s the adrenaline that makes your heart race, your breathing speed up, puts your whole system into a state of high alert, sets all your senses razor sharp, and makes your muscles tense, ready for action.
Thousands of years ago this fight-flight state would have been essential for our very survival: it would have been your acute stress response that helped you run away from danger, get through a fight or navigate a life-threatening situation.
Your acute stress response is vital for your life!
In today’s world, the challenges that trigger our fight-flight response are somewhat different!! But we still experience that same acute, adrenaline fuelled, stress response. Think of situations like this:
⭐ Going for an interview
⭐ The first day of a new job
⭐ Getting ready to give an important presentation
⭐ Having to hold a conversation with someone who you find challenging
⭐ Waiting for the result of a health test
⭐ Doing an exam
⭐ Having an argument
⭐ Opening a red letter
……and any number of other scenarios. These are all times when we want to sharpen our senses, be on high alert and up our game.
So stress of and by itself is not a bad thing. In fact, without it we would not do very well at all. It’s the acute stress response that allows us to up our game, be sharp, bright and alert, face the fear and do it anyway, and if necessary, survive!!
Where Do Things Go Wrong?
The acute stress response is only designed for SHORT sharp bursts of activity. So things are fine, as long as the stress trigger doesn’t go on for too long.
There is another important piece here, which is that after the acute stress has been and gone, we need to go into the opposite of the ‘sympathetic’ state which is the parasympathetic state.
The parasympathetic state is where we experience ease, rest and relaxation. Remember that?! It is also the state in which our digestive tract works best. This is why the parasymp is also known as the ‘rest and digest, heal and repair phase’
In other words it is the BALANCE to the sympathetic state.
This is why a cheetah can go for the chase, kill its prey and eat, but then it likes to lie down under a tree for several hours. It’s easy to see the balance here.
Where Did Our Parasympathetic Go?
And this is how things go wrong for us in our lives: we stay in the acute stress response for far longer than it is designed to do AND we have a weak parasympathetic system.
We are often sympathetic, but rarely parasympathetic.
We go into the high energy state, the acute stress response multiple times every day. Sometimes we even stay there most of the day. But then we don’t relax multiple times a day!!
In fact, in modern life it is much more usual to find we go from one stressful situation to another. And there is very little ‘rest’ or restoration in between.
We have lost the balance big time!!
So what happens then? Does the body have a back up plan, a plan B?
The Chronic Stress Response
The body is not really designed to keep mounting an acute stress response over and over again, all day long, and so it switches gear to a slower more sustained way of responding to the stress. This compensatory mechanism is called the chronic stress response. This is the body’s back up plan! Its plan B.
The chronic stress response is driven by a hormone called cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol lasts much longer in your body – several hours – compared to adrenalin which is gone within a few seconds.
So we can think of the acute stress response as a 100m sprinter and the chronic stress response as a long distance endurance athlete. Both are pretty impressive but they work in slightly different ways!
So when we are repeatedly stressed, the body switches from the acute to the chronic stress response. It’s like changing gear, but both still have you performing at the top of your game.Think of it as your body’s way of coping and of keeping you safe. It’s also more efficient and more sustainable.
That said, the chronic stress response is also only really designed for short term use: hours or days.
Back To Balance
So we have to come back to the idea of BALANCE. Your body is brilliant at getting you through acute stress AND chronic stress. It can change gear and keep you functioning and performing and delivering on everything that you are doing in your life.
fundamentally our body is designed for balance. Which means that after a period of sustained stress (acute or chronic), it needs a period of rest or restorative activity. It needs parasympathetic time! Your body needs this balance to stay healthy and well and this is where things get tricky, because modern day life has very little rest, relaxation, or ease built into it.
Getting Into Action
Now that you understand how the acute stress response shows up, and what triggers it, for the next 7 days start noticing what triggers your stress response.
What are the things, people, situations expectations that drive your stress response?
In part 2 of this blog, we will take a good look at what happens to your health and energy levels when we let the chronic stress response and cortisol run the show and we will also take your learning and observations from this week and show you how to start managing your stress with ease and grace.