What is stress?

It could be that feeling you get when joyously acting on a project that is dear to you.  You have a surge in energy and vitality in the moment.  Your body quickly returns to baseline when you want to relax.


Imagine you are driving to work. Suddenly someone from the lane next to you swerves close to your car.   As you take action, your foot hits the brake, your heart rate speeds up, your blood pressure goes up and your pupils dilate without your thinking.  Your adrenal hormones release cortisol and your blood sugar rises to supply your brain and muscles.  You are prepared to act quickly for survival.   While avoiding disaster,  you may notice a shaky feeling in your body and a nagging feeling of distress. Both are aftereffects of the “adrenaline surge” that prepared you to react to danger. This is an acute stress response, but what happens in chronic stress?

Our brain is busy classifying and labeling everything that happens in our day.  By the same token, it connects current activities with remembered events or emotions.  Those connections may be both positive and negative, and they are intended to keep us safe.  Unfortunately some of those negative connections are very unhelpful in that they can trigger an unwanted stress response.  Basically, our brain cannot tell the difference between a actual threat and an imagined threat.

Over time, the stress response continues to encourage the release of adrenal hormones which have effects on just about every area of the body.  People who have high chronic stress levels often report:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • accidents
  • headaches
  • stomach disturbances
  • body aches
  • anxiousness
  • depressed mood
  • viral illnesses

and when chronic stress goes on for years it can be associated with more serious conditions such as:

  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • challenges with the immune system
  • chronic pain

Although we may understand how stress affects us, feeling better is not simple.  Instead, the journey to balancing stress involves many different parts of our lives. Learning resilience requires enhancing our daily awareness of tension, making intentional choices, developing a sense of self-compassion,  and practicing stress response reduction techniques.  Fortunately, we can choose to create new brain habits!  Likewise, our brains can learn new ways of responding through repetition.  Thus, over time, we can promote a healthy immune system by learning to respond to stress with self compassion and mindful activities.