Fundamentals of Stress and Acute Stress Responses
You have just rear-ended the car in front of you on the way to work, making you an hour late – only to miss an important meeting, then later you lose your keys somewhere on your commute.
But what about when you get a promotion at the office, or become engaged to the love of your life? Or, when you finally get the marriage proposal you have been waiting for? What about when you have allergies, or move your residence? Is it stressful to graduate from college, or start an exercise program, or binge on pizza? You know it is.
Let’s begin by defining stress. The clients you eventually come to serve or coach will have all the stress mentioned in the opening words, and often, more!
What’s so stressful about indulging with pizza? Nothing, if you eat two slices once in a while as part of a well-balanced diet. But if we intentionally deprive ourselves of desserts for a month, then eat an entire bag of double fudge chocolate chunk cookies, we aren’t used to all of that at once. Our body isn’t used to all that sugar. That’s stressful. Not stressful like totaling your car – or getting transferred to the North Pole, but stressful nonetheless.
According to the American Institute of Stress, 43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects due to stress, and 75 percent to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints or disorders.
In the same way, anything out of the ordinary that happens to us is stressful on our body. Some of that stress feels good. Even great. Without any stress at all, life would be a big bore. Stress isn’t, by definition, something bad, but it certainly isn’t always good, either. In fact, it can cause dramatic health problems if it happens to us too much and for too long.
Stress isn’t just out-of-the-ordinary stuff, however. Stress can also be hidden and deeply embedded in our lives. Even Stress Management Coaches experience stress.
What if you can’t stand your job in middle management but continue to go there every day because you’re afraid of starting your own business and giving up the regular paycheck? What if your family has serious communication problems, or if you live in a place where you don’t feel safe? Maybe everything seems just fine, but nevertheless you feel deeply unhappy. Even when you are accustomed to certain things in your life — dirty dishes in the sink, family members that don’t help you out, twelve-hour days at the office — those things can be stressful. You might even get stressed out when something goes right.
Maybe someone is nice to you, and you become suspicious, or you feel uncomfortable if your house is too clean. So, we are so used to things being difficult and we don’t always know how to adjust. Stress is a strange and highly individual phenomenon.
Unless you live in a cave without a television (actually, not a bad way to eliminate stress in your life), you’ve probably heard quite a bit about stress in the media, around the coffee machine at work, or in the magazines and newspapers you read.
Most people have a preconceived notion of what stress is in general, as well as what stress is to them. As a coach, what does stress mean to you?
These things cause people stress and are mostly conditions rooted in stress.
But, what is stress itself?
Stress is such a broad term, and there are so many kinds of stress affecting so many people in so many different ways that the word stress may seem to defy definition. What is stressful to one person might be exhilarating to another. So, what exactly is stress?
Stress comes in several forms, some more obvious than others. Some stress is acute, some is episodic, and some is chronic. Let’s take a closer look at each kind of stress and how it affects you.
Acute stress is the most obvious kind of stress, and it’s pretty easy to spot if you associate it with one thing:
Acute stress = change
Essentially, that’s all it is. Change. Stuff you’re not used to. And that can include anything, from a change in diet to a change in exercise habits to a change in one’s job to a change in the people involved in our lives, whether you’ve lost them or gained them. And the one thing about change that unites you and your colleagues? It is enhanced with great coaching. Lack of sleep affects acute stress levels.
In other words, acute stress is something that disturbs our body’s equilibrium.
We get used to things being a certain way, physically, mentally, emotionally, even chemically. Our body clock is set to sleep at certain times, our energy rises and falls at certain times, and our blood sugar changes in response to the meals we eat at certain times each day. As you go about our merry way in life, entrenched in our routines and habits and “normal” way of living, our body and our mind know pretty much what to expect.
All of the following are stressful to our mind and body: serious illness (either our own or a loved one), divorce, bankruptcy, too much overtime at work, a promotion, the loss of a job, marriage, college graduation, and a winning lottery ticket.
But when something happens to change our existence, whether that something is a physical change (like a cold virus or a sprained ankle), a chemical change (like the side effects of a medication or the hormonal fluctuations following childbirth), or an emotional change (like a marriage, a child leaving the nest, or the death of a loved one), our equilibrium is altered. Our life changes. Our bodies and minds are thrown out of the routine they’ve come to expect. We’ve experienced change, and with that comes stress. Real, coachable stress.
Acute stress is hard on our bodies and our minds because people tend to be creatures of habit. Even the most spontaneous and schedule resistant among us have from a change in your diet to a change in your exercise habits to a change in your job to a change in the people involved in your life, whether you’ve lost them or gained them.
In other words, acute stress is something that disturbs your body’s equilibrium.
You get used to things being a certain way, physically, mentally, emotionally, even chemically. Your body clock is set to sleep at certain times, your energy rises and falls at certain times, and your blood sugar changes in response to the meals you eat at certain times each day. As you go along your merry way in life, entrenched in your routines and habits and “normal” way of living, your body and your mind know pretty much what to expect.
Take yourself as an example. Let’s say you get up and go to work five days each week, rising at 6:00 A.M., downing a bagel and a cup of coffee, then getting on the freeway. Once a year, you go on vacation, and, for two weeks, you sleep until 11:00 A.M., then wake up and eat a staggering brunch. That’s stressful, too, because you’ve changed your habits.
You probably enjoy it, and in some ways, a vacation can mediate the chronic stress of sleep deprivation. But if you are suddenly sleeping different hours and eating different things than usual, your body clock will have to readjust, your blood chemistry will have to readjust, and just when you’ve readjusted, you’ll probably have to go back to waking up at 6:00 A.M. and foregoing the daily bacon and cheese omelets for that good old bagel, again.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t go on vacation. You certainly shouldn’t avoid all change. Without change, life wouldn’t be much fun. Humans desire and need a certain degree of change. Change makes life exciting and memorable.
Change can be fun . . . up to a point.
Here’s the tricky part: How much change we can stand before the changes start to have a negative effect on us is a completely individual issue. A certain amount of stress is good, but too much will start to become unhealthy, unsettling, and unbalancing. No single formula will calculate what “too much stress” is for everyone because the level of acute stress we can stand is likely to be completely different than the level of stress your friends and relatives can stand (although a low level of stress tolerance does appear to be inheritable).
Pushing yourself to work too hard, staying up too late, eating too much (or too little), or worrying constantly is not only stressful on your mind but also stressful on your body. Many medical professionals believe that stress can contribute to heart disease, cancer, and an increased chance of accidents.
Look for more fiuture articles on the topic of stress management. If you are interested in pursuing this specialization as a career, learn more about our Stress Management Coach Certification.