If you were to think of stress as binary, there would be a good and bad kind of stress. The good kind of stress is called eustress, as termed by endocrinologist Hans Selye. The bad kind of stress is called distress, of which was further studied by psychologist Richard Lazarus.
Stress is defined as the body’s response to external stimuli. External stimuli happens outside of the body, such as finding a crisp one-hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk, or your credit card not being returned after a cashier used it. The body’s response is a result of this external stimuli, joy for finding the one hundred bill, or anger and confusion for not getting the credit card back.
Eustress takes the form of different kinds of activities. Exercise, winning the lottery, or eating a delicious meal could be forms of eustress. Distress could be seeing someone else eat your meal, or not being able to exercise for reasons outside of the body’s control. For the purposes of this article, we will use the term ‘stress’ to refer to the bad version of it, distress.
Identifying External Stimuli, or Stressors
A stressor is also known as an external stimulus, causing the body to have a stress reaction. Understanding how your body responds to stressors is important. A common high stress reaction is the flooding of adrenaline through the body. Often called the ‘fight or flight’ response, your ad-renal glands release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to help the body be able to respond to stressors at a moments’ notice. While good in a short term response, long term repeat-ed exposure to these hormones can actually be damaging, weakening adrenals and metabolism.
Becoming aware of a stressful reaction allows you to identify what external stimuli are stressors. What kinds of events cause you to have your heart race instantly? What kinds of events make you feel suspicious, nervous, or instantly wary? Are there certain situations in which you have a general feeling of uncomfortableness, especially when you were feeling comfortable a moment before? Awareness of your general mood and feeling can help you look at the chain of events that happened previously. This could help you identify possible stressors.
Take, for example, a politician’s heart rate increases dramatically. Let’s look at the chain of events that occurred for that politician to notice their racing heart. The politician might have just stood up to a podium to do their first round of public speaking, a common fear perceived to be scarier than the thought of death. Was it the walking up to the podium, or the sudden realization that they are speaking to hundreds of people on top of a stage, the stressor which caused the politicians’ heartbeat to increase? It was most likely, the public speaking.
Identifying stressors means noticing changes in your body and how your body feels. Analyze the series of events that led up to the change in your body. Chances are you will have an idea of what external stimuli caused it.
This identification is important because there are ways to prepare, prevent, or avoid exposure to the stressor. Predicting when a stressor will occur can help a person cope with the possibility of it happening. For instance, the politician can either avoid speaking publicly, they can prepare a speech and practice it frequently in order to present as fluidly as possible, or have another col-league speak publicly in place of themselves.
Stress Upon Stress
Sometimes the buildup of stress can create more stress, like a double decker sandwich. When your body releases the stress hormone, cortisol, it has short term benefits. However, constantly being in a stressful environment means that a lot more cortisol will be released. This results in a slower metabolism, more fat storage, interrupted sleep patterns, and more. All of these results can have a snowball effect on the body, putting more physiological stress on the body, and forcing the body to fail in some way.
Wait… stress causes weight gain?
Cortisol causes the body to store more fat because the body is attempting to save as much energy as possible for later use. This happens because the body thinks it is in a crisis mode, operating in such a manner that long term stressors such as famine, might be possible. The fat storage is a way for the body to store the necessary energy needed for a long term lack of available food.
Although fat is a good way to store energy, it also means that that physique you were trying to get for the beach might be a bit more out of reach. Cue the cultural stress of wanting to look good, the lack of self-confidence that comes from it, and the chain of events that leads to even more stress.
This chain of events starts at a point of stress, but they can build when you add in pressures from society and culture. Looking a certain way, as opposed to feeling a certain way, can be one kind of extra stressor. Talk to your doctor to figure out ways to feel better, so that when you look in the mirror, you look better, too.