Wednesday, October 20, 2021

What is Stress, Really?




Welcome to my new, Stress Less, Live More column. In this first issue we are going to explore what stress really is, and how to manage it.

That’s right, manage it.

Unfortunately, you can’t eliminate stress because unexpected stressful events that are beyond your control crop up all the time. Even in a paradise such as Marco Island, unexpected events ranging from getting stuck in traffic on your way to work, to losing your lanai to Hurricane Irma happen almost every day.

Since you can’t completely control unexpected events and other stressors, the best you can do is learn how to manage them. To do this you need to know what stress really is.



Stress is a combination of three things; (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you about it (your self-talk) and (3) a stress response that kicks in if your mind tells you that you can’t cope.

A potential stressor is anything that threatens you or has already caused you harm or loss. If something doesn’t cause you to feel threat, harm, or loss, it isn’t a potential stressor.

Every day you face countless demands on your time and energy that are annoying, tedious, or difficult such as getting your kids up and off to school, waiting in line in the supermarket, doing the wash, and going to work. These tasks are not necessarily stressors. They are normal demands and responsibilities associated with living an active and productive life.

Remember: to become potential stressors, these, and other demands have to cause you to feel threat, harm, or loss.

A threat is something that hasn’t happened yet. For example, imagine that you just got a letter from your homeowner’s insurance company telling you that they are only going to reimburse you 50% of the cost to replace your roof. You will have to pay the roofer the other 50% if you want to get your roof replaced. This event hasn’t happened yet but it threatens you because you don’t think you are going to be able to come up with the rest of the money.

Harm or loss involve things that have already happened and have hurt you in some way. Using the same example, imagine that you went ahead and replaced your roof thinking that you were getting reimbursed for the entire amount. Instead, you get an unexpected bill from your roofer explaining that the insurance company only paid him for half of what he is owed. This forces you to use all of your emergency savings and a loan from your family to pay the roofer.

Paying the roofer with your savings and a family loan creates a financial and emotional loss that causes you harm.

What your mind tells you (your selftalk) about your ability to cope with this financial and emotional loss determines whether or not your brain triggers a stress response related to it.

In other words, it isn’t the potential stressor (the unexpected bill) that automatically triggers the stress response. Your self-talk about the bill and your ability to cope with it is the trigger.

This is a very important distinction because what your mind tells you about threat, harm, or loss, and your ability to cope with it isn’t always accurate, rational, or helpful. For example:

The other day I was talking to a woman I know about Hurricane Irma and how my wife and I felt blessed that our losses were so minimal while some folks lost everything.

She went on and on about how stressed she has been because she had to pay $20,000 for a new lanai that wasn’t covered by her homeowner’s insurance.

This is a woman who lives in a mortgage free, million dollar house on a canal on Marco Island and drives a brand new $60,000 Mercedes. She has an annual income that more than adequately allows her to pay her bills, travel, and live a very comfortable life. She can easily write a check for $20,000 without thinking twice about it, yet is obsessed with her loss.

While I understand that taking an unexpected $20,000 financial hit is stressful for anyone, it need not continue to threaten my friend three months later. Perhaps what her mind is telling her about her continued financial and emotional loss is not completely accurate, logical, or helpful and the stress she is creating with her self-talk three months later doesn’t have to be there.

A stress response releases powerful hormones, salts, and sugars that jack up your blood pressure, get your heart racing, tense-up all of your major muscles and give you energy to fight or flee.

Once your mind says, “this is threatening and I can’t cope with it,” your brain instantly triggers the fight or flight response. This is a life-saving response to threat and it has been with all humans since the dawn of civilization. This response can save your life by literally fighting or fleeing from an imminent threat (like a mugger or a car swerving into your lane on the highway).

However, being exposed to chronic stressors that result in the continual triggering of the stress response can cause serious physical and mental health problems. Unfortunately, many of us are exposed to chronic stressors such as failing relationships, financial pressures, contentious work relationships, and caring for aging parents.

Now for the bad and good news about taking a three dimensional view of stress.

The bad news is that inaccurate, illogi- cal, and unhelpful thinking creates a lot of unnecessary stress in your life. It also keeps your stress response alive long after the threat, harm, and loss has occurred as my friend’s thoughts about her lanai demonstrate.

The good news is that you can learn how to change the way you think about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them. Changing the way you think about potential stressors, and your ability to cope with them can stop a lot of your stress dead in its tracks.

You can also learn how to use relaxation and other strategies to stop the stress response once it kicks in and stop it from continuing to cause destructive physical and mental health problems. As you learn new coping skills your thinking about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them changes. You no longer feel like a victim, helpless to the effects of stress. You feel empowered and less threatened.

In my next column I’ll show you how to change the way you think about stress and improve your ability to cope. I’ll share with you several different ways to minimize the amount of stress in your life and manage the rest.

Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more.

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