Before it took over your life, stress had a completely different meaning.
What Is Stress?
In the past, stress has been used as merely a physics and biological term. Back in 1936, stress was defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change¹.” In other words, stress was what happened in the body when some kind of change was forced on it — in a physiological sense.
And “stress” has been used as a physics term for much, much longer via Hooke’s Law of 1658: “the magnitude of an external force, or stress, produces a proportional amount of deformation, or strain, in a malleable metal¹.”
Somewhere along the line, stress acquired a negative connotation. Instead of being a neutral and scientific word, it actually took on the meaning of “distress.” The word stress became the basket for all-things-unpleasant in the human condition: headaches, anxiety, rapid heart rate, fear, sweaty palms, and so on.
The term “stress” existed for centuries with a fairly indifferent role. But the modernization of humanity proved to have consequences, and we needed a word to categorize our abundant, modern woes. Thus our modern conception of stress was born.
But because stress has become such a catch-all term, it’s strange to pinpoint the definition of it… What would you say you stress is? How would you define it?
You might say something like, “My stress is the feeling that I’m out of control in my life. I can’t pay my bills and my relationship is falling apart, and I’m so tired.” But that’s a lot of pressure on a little word.
So here we dive into the question of, what is stress, a bit deeper.
Why? Because in order to understand how to overcome stress, we must understand its fundamental nature. As it stands, the “stress” word is just a scapegoat, and we’re a bit confused about it.
Here’s what stress is not… Stress is not this little villain running around, wreaking havoc on our lives. It is not a cause. It does not spring up and cause problems sporadically.
Stress is just a bucket that we throw all of our discomfort into. And more than anything, stress is a response.
Stress is our response to events and circumstances in life that we don’t like. (Even if we don’t like these things for good reasons.)
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Stress Meets Nervous System
More specifically, stress is a response of our sympathetic nervous system. And at this point, we’ve likely heard this phrase before. Stress is what we call the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, “fight or flight.”
When we are faced with a survival threat, we need that sympathetic nervous system wide awake. But once the threat is over, the nervous system is designed to calm back down to the parasympathetic state (“rest and digest” or “stay and play”).
This is how the nervous system has been intelligently designed, but it’s not how we use it as modern beings. Our overstimulated and busy lifestyles have, as we all know, made stress of some kind an everyday norm.
The problem is not that we’re constantly in extreme stress. The problem is that we’re living in a moderate level of stress, all the time. The stress level is low enough to dismiss, and high enough to harm our health.
There are various statistics on the subject, but studies have shown that 60-80% of doctors visits can be traced back to stress. And it’s only likely that this will increase over time.
It seems that we’ve convinced ourselves that low levels of stress are okay and “normal.” But if this were the case, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in the doctor’s office. For reasons of health — and the enjoyment of life — it’s time to move beyond stress as a lifestyle.
Your Stress Lifestyle Isn’t Normal
If we want to overcome stress, then our first step is really debunking the story that stress is normal.
Continuous stress (aka “chronic stress”) is actually far from normal, and it’s immensely unnatural on a physiological level. Majority of the harm comes from the hormone released by a stressed out nervous system: cortisol.
When your body releases cortisol, sugars increase in your bloodstream; your immune system is altered; and your digestive system is suppressed. Your emotions go haywire with the flux of hormones and baseline experience of fear. Stress creates a huge chemical shift in your body, meaning everything is affected in some way.
Cortisol is meant to be a circumstantial hormone — it’s not meant to pump through the body around the clock. Your “low levels” of stress aren’t harmless — they’re actually incredibly destructive. Prolonged release of cortisol has a range of health consequences, from anxiety to heart disease to poor digestion.
If you thoroughly understood that the stress from forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning, or stress about too many pairs of shoes by the door, was grinding on your health — would you still let the stress in? Is any work deadline worth health problems?
Because we’ve normalized stress, small levels of it seem harmless. A day with just a little stress might even feel like a win… But this is the false and dangerous story in our heads that we need to correct.
Stress has consequences on our wellbeing, by the mere fact of what is happening to our nervous system. It’s time for stress to be readdressed.
Getting Stressed Out
With this baseline understanding of stress, we look at one of our favorite sayings: “I’m so stressed out.”
How do you “get stressed” in the first place? How does the nervous system go from stressless to a stress-mess?
In most cases, stress finds us in the midst of scenarios or circumstances that we don’t like. We find ourselves in the middle of a situation that opposes what we want or feel is right.
Correct? Stress doesn’t happen in the middle of the best-day-ever. It happens because something unfolds in a way that opposes what we have in our heads of how it should, could, or would be.
Here’s my take on the process of stress:
- Stimulus: Something happens. A person says or does something. Something in the environment changes. A new circumstance arises.
- Response: We respond. (Or react.) We take in the stimulus, and our mind has its way with it. The “something” moves through the process of evaluation, and we decide if it’s right/wrong or good/bad. In the case of stress, we have decided that this new stimulus is bad.
- Thought: Once we decide something is bad, our mind thinks in that direction. Through thought, we begin listing out all of the reasons why the stimulus is wrong, how much we don’t like it, why it’s harmful to us. We start thinking about all the ways life could’ve been better, if only said stimulus hadn’t arrived. Thoughts stack upon thoughts, which cue the process of emotion. We have an emotional response to our thoughts. Enough negative thoughts and emotions pile up — and we find ourselves with stress.
*This is a basic assessment of the stress process intended to inspire awareness. I acknowledge that it becomes more complex when we consider hormone imbalances, mental illness, trauma, environmental stressors, and the like.
Most often, stress is simply thoughts that have gotten out of control; thoughts and emotions that have carried us away from our sense of balance and stability.
The most important part of this stress process is step two: response. As we know, we can’t change the fact that life changes. Stimuli find us all over the place, when we least expect it and when we don’t want it… When it rains, it pours.
Life will always provide a stimulus, and that is frankly none of our business. What is our business, is our response. In fact, that’s the only thing we can truly control. And this is where the popular practice of “mindfulness” steps in.
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of thoughts and the present moment. Through this awareness, we allow ourselves to choose how we respond to a certain stimulus, instead of reacting with thought/emotional patterns.
One Harvard study reports, “mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation though changing neurobiological responses associated with our ability to remember that a stimulus is no longer threatening.”
Mindfulness ultimately teaches us how to stop stress before it could even begin.
If stress occurs from thought patterns that have gone haywire, then changing the thought will change the stress.
Cue the question that is often and ironically on our minds: How do we change our thoughts? Mindfulness and meditation practices have worked with this subject matter for centuries and beyond.
The general status of the modern mind is that the mind and all of its thoughts are in complete control. Most of us realize this as soon as we try to slow down.
When most of us try to meditate, or sit quietly without deliberately doing anything, we realize it’s quite challenging. The body might find stillness, but as soon as it does, the mind almost gets busier. We notice that our mind is spinning in circles, and rarely are those thought patterns pleasant.
For most of us, the thought that we could actually control our minds feels like a far-off fantasy. But we need to acknowledge that it’s possible and well within reach to control not only the frequency of thought, but the subject matter.
Sadly, this is not something we can simply order online. We don’t get to just wait for it to land on our doorstep, and stress nevermore.
Learning how to cope with the mind and its incessant patterns of thinking is a practice. No different than how you would get your physical body into shape at the gym — overcoming stress takes a discipline practice. And also the true desire for change.
Mindfulness and meditation are on the rise, and that’s because these are incredible effective ways to create sustainable and lasting peace of mind. Within these trends, there are tons of subcategories and practices that you could try.
But to speak very generally, it all comes down to awareness of thought through some form of practice. These practices place you (the practitioner) as an observer of the content which moves through the space of your mind (aka, a thought).
When you are stressed out, you aren’t an observer of thought. You are a servant of thought. And in this servitude, you’ve lost your true identity to the fleeting, unstable, and judgmental nature of the mind. You will jump to all sorts of highs and lows of false self-understanding, which is a recipe for nervous system breakdown.
When you’re mindful, or aware, you are an observer of thought. Thoughts will happen regardless, pleasant thoughts and unpleasant thoughts, but they will have no effect on who/what you are. The thoughts cannot touch your well being because your wellbeing is not dependent upon them.
Circling Back: Where To Start
We started this discussion by defining stress; by zooming in on it and understand the brevity of the term. We reached the understanding that stress is a status of the nervous system, and something that can be overcome with practice.
The first step to overcome stress is to realize that you, at your nature, are greater than it. Stress is just a circumstance, no different than the weather. And all weather is good weather if you have the right gear for it.
Our mindfulness or meditation practice is the gear. As mentioned, there are so many paths to choose. What’s important is that you choose the path that’s inherently interesting to you. That speaks your language. Some styles of this practice will pique your curiosity more than others.
Not only must you find a practice, but the practice needs to be disciplined. Whichever path you choose, show up to it fully. If you set a goal to win a marathon, training is imperative, and it’s the same with cultivating awareness. The way we show up to our practice tends to indicate how serious we are about overcoming stress.
As you pick a mindfulness/meditation practice, have compassion for the journey. It would be convenient if it was easy, but it’s simply not. At this point, stress is what’s easy. Getting stressed is the easy way out, but only because it’s a habit we’ve formed.
The practice of overcoming stress is essentially making awareness your new habit. It’s about shifting the grooves in your mind, so that your “response” to a stressful stimulus can be less harmful on your wellbeing. This shift takes patience and compassion — because there are bumps along the way.
Inside each of us is the intuition that the stress we experience isn’t natural, and it’s certainly not sustainable. The time to act on this intuition is always now, so that we don’t have to spend another day wrestling the many symptoms of stress.
As you move forward in your stress journey, remember that you are something far greater than stress. You are worthy and capable of living a stress-free life.
For more information on stress, anxiety, mindfulness, meditation, and the like — stay tuned! Follow us on Instagram to stay up to date on our newest content.