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Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Caught in a Stress Cycle

When self-help tips aren’t nearly enough

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

We may not be the most stressed generation ever but we are certainly the generation that talks the most about how stressed we are. We are constantly bombarded with messages that play on this theme: “You need to take a holiday,” “Pamper yourself,” “Buy this miracle product.” But despite all the attention that stress receives, we are seeing more and more stress-related problems. A contagion of anxiety affecting all ages.

To deal with this challenge we need a deeper and more methodical response than just helpful tips for managing stress. For there comes a point where the tips just don’t work no matter how seriously you follow them, and we need to know what to do when this happens. For that matter, we need to know why it’s happened so that we can prevent a repeat.

The answer lies in self-regulation. That is, in understanding stress in all its many facets and managing our energy. These, as it happens, are really two sides of the same coin.

This basic precept in the science of stress is not widely understood. We tend to see stress as anything that makes us feel pressured, harried, ill at ease: the stress of work, having too many things to do, seeing the bills pile up. All stressors of course. But stress is even more ubiquitous, as much a part of life as the air we breathe. (And in many cities the air itself is a major stressor that the body must cope with!)

In scientific terms, a stressor is anything that requires us to burn energy in order to keep internal systems running smoothly. In Cannon and Selye’s classic treatment, the cold temperature that trips a thermostat to turn on the heat is a paradigm example of stress: the furnace has to burn fuel to stay within its set temperature range. Stress can be positive or negative, overt or hidden, physiological or psychological, internal or external, self-imposed or forced upon us.

The first step to managing stress is to recognize when you are becoming over-stressed. This is not nearly as straightforward as it might sound. We tend to see a racing mind or excessive worrying as the source of the problem, the reason for the stress overload, when in fact it is the stress overload that feeds fixations in the way that oxygen feeds a fire. Or we may think that our child is being oppositional and impulsive, that he’s choosing to be wayward or untruthful, when really there is very little conscious deliberation and choice going on.

Once we recognize these troubling states or behaviors as common signs of being overstressed, the even bigger challenge is knowing why this has happened. The problem is that, even though stress is such a major concern, we still have only a rudimentary understanding of the different kinds of stressors that assail us. But to manage stress, whether our own or our child’s, we need to know what all the factors are that are contributing to an overstressed state.

Stressors of all kinds are constantly impinging on our autonomic nervous system. Too much noise, visual stimulus, crowds, refined sugar, commuting, waiting to get served, pollutants, the news, are just some of the stressors that we must cope with every day. Our endocrine system, heart rate and breathing all speed up; we sweat or shiver; our pancreas goes into overdrive. Then, to promote recovery, the hypothalamus triggers a slow-down in digestion, the immune system, cellular repair and growth, and, what is perhaps most surprising of all, in the “thinking” part of our brain, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). But we remain largely unaware that our body and brain are responding these ways, except, of course, when things start to go awry.

Science fiction writers like to speculate about what a perfect self-regulating mechanism might look like but, in many ways, we are – or at least can be – that perfect mechanism, thanks to our PFC. It is our ability to be aware of our physical and mental states, to avoid a noxious stimulus, slow ourselves down or speed ourselves up as needed, and most of all, learn what we find stressful and what we find restorative, that enables us to marshal the energy needed to tackle the positive stresses in life that drive growth in all its many guises. That same PFC whose functions become attenuated when we are overstressed.

When we notice that our stress is getting too high we might decide to sleep a little longer, eat more carefully, bump up the exercise, do some yoga or meditation. All things considered we have a remarkable ability to deal with life’s quotidian stresses. To a point. But push the stress-system a little too hard for a little too long and you start to experience signs that you are not getting back to baseline: that your restorative mechanisms are losing their resilience.

For example, you start to find it hard to fall asleep, or stay asleep, or simply get a refreshing night’s sleep. The odd night of this is no big deal, but when this starts to become chronic it’s a sure sign that your stress-recovery system is compromised.

Or you notice that you are becoming much more irritable. Things that you can usually take in stride send you into a tail-spin.

Or you find it hard to stay focused. Or to remember things. Or solve simple problems.

Or your energy is lagging. It’s hard to get moving in the morning or to do chores that you usually breeze through.

Or you have powerful cravings. Constant worries. Intrusive thoughts. Emotional jags.

Or the pleasure that you normally take in simple things starts to wane.

We can ignore these sorts of signs for only so long. There are countless ways to override the Basic Rest and Activity Cycle (BRAC) with an endless assortment of stimulants, or products and experiences designed to keep the dopamine flowing. A treat laden with salt, sugar and fat, a rousing movie, a trip to Margaritaville: all are ways to help us feel energized and more upbeat. But persist in ignoring the signs and you can find yourself caught in a very different type of cycle, a Stress Cycle. Now the dopamine-inducers are no longer a special treat but the sole agent for keeping you going. Pleasure shifts to need. The sources of relief become stressors in their own right. And no amount of vacation or pampering or anti-stress miracle products seems to help.

It is absolutely critical in the kind of high-stress environment we are living in today that we understand the difference between merely feeling stressed and being caught in a stress cycle. Self-help tips are great for working through those periods when we’re under a lot of stress. But stress cycles are impervious to run-of-the-mill calming strategies. Like “Devil’s snare” in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the more you struggle to get free of one the harder it seems to grab you.

There are several reasons why it’s so difficult to break out of a stress cycle. You are much more reactive to stimuli that you can easily tolerate, even enjoy, when well rested. A noisy restaurant is pleasantly energizing when you feel refreshed but overwhelming when you’re overstressed. Stressors from different domains start pinging off each other, with a multiplying effect. For example, the more anxious you are the more sensitive to auditory and visual noise: and vice versa. Your threshold for going into fight-or-flight drops, rendering you constantly primed to charge or flee. You become hyper-vigilant, scanning your environment for potential threats and seeing them where none exist. Your limbic system becomes hyper-aroused, while the capacity of your PFC to moderate this effect is reduced. The drive to practice adaptive coping strategies weakens, and you find yourself drawn to ever more stimulating experiences. You are gripped by a negative bias, seeing yourself or those around you in the worst possible light, beset by dark scenarios for the future. Your desire and very capacity to experience empathy and social communion are seriously compromised.

When this happens you have gone from self-regulating to self-dysregulating: over-reactive to stresses, internal as well as external, in a way that ensures that you will stay stressed. There isn’t one single factor causing this state but rather, an interlocking web of factors rendering it difficult to cope with those daily stresses that you can normally take in your stride. Strong impulses surge: anger and aggression or fear and panic, often jumbled together in feelings of rancor and resentment. The PFC, meanwhile, is consigned to the subsidiary role of grappling with these impulses emanating from ancient neural systems. All too often it becomes like the caboose that thinks it’s driving the train, reassuring us that our strong emotions are warranted and it will find the reasons why – even if it has to invent them!

Stay stuck in a stress cycle for too long and you can find yourself dealing with one of the serious mental or physical health disorders that result from a dysregulated stress system: e.g., chronic anxiety, depression, hypertension, metabolic syndrome. We are fortunate that we live in a time of pharmacological advances to help us break out of serious stress cycles. There are powerful anti-depressants and anxiolytics to help get sleep and mood disorders back on track; statins to lower cholesterol; beta-blockers for hypertension; metformin to treat diabetes. But these medicinal agents can only be a part of a full recovery; they need to be embedded within a framework that gets the PFC back to its pivotal role in self-regulation.

By no means do I mean to downplay the importance of sleep, diet, exercise, and restorative activities; on the contrary, these are essential aspects of self-regulation. But to break out of a stress cycle we need to restore the full rational and reflective power of our PFC. In my next blog I will look at how Self-Reg provides a step-by-step method for accomplishing this feat, by targeting stress-awareness and energy management across five domains: biological, emotion, cognitive, social and prosocial. For without a fully functional PFC we will remain at a loss to understand why things seem to be spinning out of control. And what will be particularly interesting will be to see how this argument applies, not just to our children or ourselves, but to our friends and relatives, and indeed, our society at large.

About the Author
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg and Calm, Alert and Learning.

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