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Stress is like a nagging sister. Disclaimer: not saying I have one of these or anything.
She pulls our hair, pokes us when we’re concentrating, and to reflect a bit, embarrassed us when we brought a new “date” home in high school.
The effects stress has on you both mentally and physically is killing you.
A day in the not so distant past, I was a part of the re-stocking initiative (sound fancy?) to replace the wheels and brakes for an A320. This project was a little shy of $100,000 and had several risky obstacles to stay on budget.
One of these obstacles was dealing with a new third party to handle repairs. If you know me, any “new” third party makes me sweat. With no history, we had no true knowledge of how they did things. It was a gamble.
2 weeks pass with several updates along the way. On the 14th day of the second week we called to check up on things, you know, the nosy in your face check up. They claimed that our account manager was fired and they never received our purchase order.
I about blew a gasket.
They went on to tell our Director of Operations to just cancel the order.
Now 2 weeks in with a 2 week deadline, we were in trouble.
I began to feel nauseous, slept poor and was craving some crazy foods. I think I may have even put on 5 pounds. Or maybe it was just the mirror. Let’s go with that.
Stress has a crazy effect on our body but most of us can’t even define it. We can quickly claim we're stressed in a broad term but so what.
You need to know what it is.
So, what is stress?
I define stress as demands put onto the body but then again, that’s vague and I’m not a doctor.
A respected psychologist, Richard Lazarus defines stress as “...any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax the adaptive resources of an individual...”
Stress affects your body's ability to control its inner environment. It’s a disturbance of homeostasis. If you've seen the movie Biodome you’ll know exactly what a homeostasis disturbance is.
Your adrenals are two glands that sit on top of your kidneys. Picture a walnut if you need a visual.
They’re the pilots of your hormones. They secrete cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine that regulate stress response. For this reason, the adrenals are what determine our tolerance to stress. They’re the system of our bodies most affected by stress.
Picture a pilot out partying the night before with a 12 hour transcontinental flight the next morning. Your adrenals are the pilot when burdened with stress. Out of whack.
Different types of stress
There are 3 kinds of stress worth explaining as we often times define stress in a general term.
Acute stress is the most common form of stress. In small doses, acute stress can be thrilling but over time it can be exhausting. A challenging workout in the morning can be beneficial and invigorating.
But if you did the same workout three times a day you might find yourself less energized. You’ll feel tired and groggy. Performing activities beyond your limits can lead to injuries.
The good news is acute stress symptoms are recognized by most people. It can be a deadline you’re looking to meet, the car door being slammed into the wall, or the loss of a large contract.
Because acute stress happens in the short term it’s less likely to manifest into extensive damage that occurs during long-term stress.
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress are for those who encounter acute stress on a regular basis. They live their lives in chaos. They’re the ones who rush out the door, stub their toe, drop their coffee and are always late. They're in a rush to be late.
They can’t seem to organize their life and everything is out of order. Sound like you?
Individuals who are overwhelmed with episodic acute stress can be over aroused, short-tempered, irritable, anxious and tense. They describe themselves as constantly having nervous energy. The “Type A” personality often times falls into this stress category.
Another form of episodic acute stress is in the form of ceaseless worry, or better known as worry warts. Everything's an issue and disaster is lurking around every corner.
Chronic stress is the killer. While acute stress can be thrilling, chronic stress is far from. This is the type of stress that beats on you day after day, year after year. It destroys your mind, body and soul. According to American Psychological Association:
It's the stress of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a despised job or career. It's the stress that the never-ending "troubles.”
Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a miserable situation. It's the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time. With no hope, the individual gives up searching for solutions.
The worst part about chronic stress is most people just get use to it. They live with it and forget about its presence. “People are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; they ignore chronic stress because it is old, familiar, and sometimes, almost comfortable.”
Natural occurrence of stress
Unbelievably, stress can be well intended.
You're probably familiar the term “fight or flight.” It’s your body’s natural response to stress.
When presented with a stressful situation, we either get aggressive, or run away as fast as we can in the opposite direction.
Just picture a grizzly bear with cubs and without cubs. With cubs, she’ll tear into anything presenting danger to her children. Without cubs a loud noise could make her run in the other direction. Or for you aviation folks, a Cessna may try to fight with a Cessna, but when challenged by a B747, she's off in the other direction.
Your natural “fight or flight” response is incredibly efficient at energy preservation. It’s what helps you survive. You begin to sweat, your muscles tense, and your hearing sharpens. You are now incredibly alert. Concentration and awareness on anything else is avoided. The nervous system gets a flood of adrenaline (epinephrine). Your adrenal cortex pumps out 30 different types hormones to help compensate for the stressful situation. Your immune system temporarily shuts down so your body can efficiently use its resources to combat the potential threat.
Our body is a magnificent feat of science. When used properly we can turn a stressful situation into a way for us to hear better, jump higher and run faster. We will either outrun or out live a potential threat. Or that's the main objective at least.
Sadly, we now do most of this from an office chair.
Modern day captivity
Today our bodies are subjected to lifestyles that create an enormous amount of sedentary stress. We didn't evolve to deal with a daily barrage of stressful situations.
Persistent low-level stress turns into chronic stress over time. Maybe you sit in your office getting yelled at by the engineering department for 8 hours a day or you get stuck in traffic... every day. These are persistent low-level stressors.
Your body interprets this as a “natural” threat and your adrenals pump accordingly. Cortisol releases glycogen stores for immediate energy. The problem is with persistent cortisol release, it requires other important mechanisms to shut down. Some of these mechanisms are immunity, digestion, endocrine function, and the list goes on. This is why the link between elevated cortisol levels and weight gain have been established.
In the natural world stress is your super human ally, while in the office world it is your greatest nemesis. It’s your killer, your achilles tendon, your greatest foe.
To understand stress is to effectively define it. In the next blog post we’ll discuss how to identify it and symptoms you should be aware of.