The Key to Experiencing and Handling Stress in a Healthy Way
How a raincoat and towel make the difference between healthy and harmful stress
Posted Aug 07, 2015
In 1994, Oscar-winning actor, Jack Nicholson jumped out of his car at a red light in a Los Angeles suburb and, after accusing a man of cutting him off, proceeded to use his 2-iron golf club to bash in the windshield of the man’s Mercedes-Benz. Misdemeanor charges of assault and vandalism were filed against Nicholson. Nicholson later expressed regret about the incident, explaining that a close friend had recently died in addition to Nicholson being under a good deal of stress during the shooting of his most recent movie.
Maybe you can relate to Nicholson.
Maybe you have never acted impulsively with uncontrolled “road rage” like Nicholson, but getting behind the wheel is often the perfect recipe for stress. Especially when you are stuck in traffic, running late or if you were experiencing stress before you got in the car, like Nicholson.
As it turns out, driving is rated one of the most salient sources for everyday stress. A number of studies report time spent driving everyday correlates with poorer health outcomes, increased risk for cardiovascular disease and major depression (1, 2). However, driving is only a minor contributor to everyday psychosocial stress next to factors like job pressure, money, health and relationships.
In 2014, research conducted by the American Psychological Association and American Institute of Stress found that 77 percent of people in the United States regularly experience physical symptoms (e.g., fatigue, headache, upset stomach, muscle tension, etc.) caused by stress (3). These perceived stressors are now increasingly viewed as catalysts of systemic inflammation, cellular aging, cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease and psychopathology (5, 6, 7). In general, people appear to recognize that stress can impact health and well-being, but they do not necessarily take action to prevent stress or manage it well.
But what about you? Are you vulnerable or resilient to everyday stress, stress-related disease or dysfunction? I hope to provide you with two tools that will help you determine the answer.
What is stress exactly?
The term stress was borrowed from the field of physics by one of the founding fathers of stress research, Hans Selye. In physics, stress describes the force that produces strain on a physical body. For example, the act of putting pressure on something until it breaks. That pressure is known as stress.
But Selye began using the term stress when he noticed medical patients all suffered from severe, prolonged mental or physical strain on the body (8). It is commonly referred to in our daily lives as an event that produces tension, anxiety and is generally aversive, such that any individual experiencing a high level of “stress” would voluntarily avoid or attenuate the stressor if given the choice.
Selye also coined the term “eustress” to characterize more adaptive forms of stress that can be beneficial for intellectual, emotional and physical growth. Eustress is associated with positive events (e.g., birth, marriage, new job, etc.) that have an interpretation of “meaning,” “hope,” “joy” or “courage” and are associated with novelty, reward, optimum performance/achievement and development. One critical difference between eustress and distress is one’s perception of the condition. In this manner, perception of control can make the critical difference between healthy and harmful forms of stress. If we perceive a stressor as a challenge, rather than threat, a sense of control prevents the stressor from being overwhelming and helps prepare us to confront the stressor even more effectively the next time it is confronted.
Stress is typically defined in biological systems as any internal or external condition that significantly perturbs the resting, physiological homeostasis of an individual organism or is interpreted as threatening and results in a “stress response.” A stress response involves a cascade of automatic (e.g., stress hormone release) and behavioral (e.g., fight, flight, or freezing) and/or emotional responses (e.g., fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness) (5, 9).
There are benefits to the stress response in the context of an external condition that is truly threatening, like facing a hungry grizzly bear in the woods, getting out of a burning building or coping with physical trauma or violence. Your immediate response is built in – fast and automatic – something you do not have to think about. After the immediate fight, flight or freeze response, there comes a moment in which we can appraise the environment for the existence of threat or not. If we determine that all is safe, we can then regain our homeostasis, rest and recuperate.
When stress responses happen at high levels too frequently and are not terminated rapidly, they are no longer adaptive and can lead to fatigue or exhaustion. And, at this point, they can have wear and tear across brain and bodily systems. Internal conditions, like perceived (real or imagined) physical, psychosocial or emotional stress, can also engage the same automatic response—fight, flee or freeze. One maladaptive tendency our mind has is to catastrophize real or imagined threat. This means, we magnify an external condition as a larger problem than it really is, ruminate over and over about what happened in the past, which makes the stressful event longer than necessary, or makes us feel helpless about our situation.
For example, if your boss does not respond to an email, you may believe you did something wrong and you will ultimately lose your job. In reality, it may only be a temporary issue, and there are things you can do to change the situation or interpret it in a more realistic fashion: your boss is likely not available or the email slipped off his/her radar. This tendency to make things worse and exacerbate the threat is associated with continuous physiological changes that put prolonged pressure on bodily systems.
Raincoat and the towel: Tools for successful management of life stress
How we deal with physical and/or emotional stress is a highly individualized experience because every person handles stress differently. Two critical factors in dealing with stress effectively are protection and recovery. Protection refers to the resources that protect you from experiencing something as stressful, while recovery reflects how well you can cope with the onset of a stressor. How well you are able to protect yourself from stress and how rapidly you can recover determine the extent to which stress contributes to stress-mediated disease states like cardiovascular disease and psychopathology.
I like to think about protection and recovery in two metaphors: the raincoat and the towel. If it rains (stressor), what will be the outcome? Will your raincoat protect you from getting wet? Whether or not you experience the rain as stressful depends on if you wear a raincoat, the “type” of raincoat you were given at birth and how effective that type of raincoat is. Would you rather get caught in the rain with full GoreTex gear or a makeshift raincoat made of a garbage bag? Furthermore, if you get wet from the rain and experience a stress response from being wet, how quickly do you use a towel to dry off and regain homeostasis across brain and bodily systems?
Your stress can therefore be managed in an adaptive or maladaptive way. If you prepare for rain by wearing a raincoat and carrying a towel, that is considered an adaptive response. You proactively avoid getting wet and experience rain as eustress – with confidence, courage, joy and a feeling of control. You know that your raincoat will provide the support and resources needed to effectively deal with potential rain. Even better, you know if your GoreTex raincoat fails by some slim chance, you also have a super absorbent towel to dry yourself off quickly. A maladaptive response could involve failing to wear a raincoat or failing to use your towel. Getting wet could then lead to frustration, anger, sadness and feelings of helplessness, let alone a feeling of being cold and wet. Furthermore, just believing your raincoat or towel are not adequate to deal with the potential rain is sufficient to also engage a stress response without there even being a forecast of rain.
To put it simply, the perceived stress of rain or potential rain can be managed in good, tolerable or toxic ways depending on how well your raincoat and towel perform and how much confidence you have in the ability of your raincoat and towel to be sufficient to handle the rain. Similarly, with the appropriate stress-management skills and resources, you can effectively manage everyday life stress with a sense of control and confidence.
Now, if Nicholson had built up his raincoat and towel and approached the Mercedes-Benz that cut him off with equanimity (to experience an even-minded mental state) instead of aggression, it is more likely Nicholson would not have been phased by the event, but rather he would have flashed his charismatic smile and let it go as he drove on to his destination.
Are you stuck with the rain gear you are given at birth?
At birth, we are given a range of stress management skills and dispositional traits that dictate how resilient and vulnerable we are to life stress. Some people are naturally good at managing stress and recovering from traumatic events, while others may not have received many skills and are more vulnerable to having chronic stress responses and are at higher risk for developing associated disease states.
Fortunately, stress management skills can be learned and some evidence even suggests biological set points for vulnerability can be shifted towards more adaptive response behavior. Revisiting the raincoat and towel metaphors, we are all handed different raincoats and towels. Some of us get GoreTex gear and others get garbage bags that barely do much to protect you. Some of us get decent raingear, but do not get very absorbent towels. The main idea here is that your stress management skills not only depend on what you were given at birth, but also on your ability to adapt and learn new skills. Trade in that garbage bag for a better coat and pick up a towel while you are at it!
Assembling your tools: How to build your raincoat, find a good towel and perceive stress as a challenge over threat
One step towards changing perception and appraisal of environmental stressors in a more adaptive way would involve developing awareness of your mental habits (meta-awareness) and enhance skills like equanimity towards your environment.
As mentioned in the article “Brain’s Response to Meditation: How much meditation does it take to change your brain and relieve stress?” one potential tool for developing such skills is meditation, which may leave you wondering how to use meditation and where to start.
There are a number of different potential ways to get started in meditation. One easy way to begin practicing meditation is through guided practices on a user-friendly app such as DeStressify, Headspace, Mindfulness, Buddhify, or Calm. Many of the apps integrate daily reminders to notify you when it is time to practice meditation. There are many other apps on the market now and I encourage you to check them out as well as their reviews. Additionally, visit contemplativeneurosciences.com for some personal reflections on starting a meditation practice and some resources.
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Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 39(3), 292-304. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.08.002