The Secret to Understanding Stress

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could recharge our brain the same way be plug in our devices?  There really are ways for us to recharge our brain after a stressful experience. But it’s not quite as simple as plugging in a power cord. I have found that my clients don’t use stress management techniques until they understand a bit about the nature of stress.

To make things more confusing, chronic stress leads to other problems like anger issues, relationship conflict, chronic insomnia, chronic headaches, and the list goes on.  These problems are often the results of stress, even though they can also be the causes of more stress in a situation.

For example, an angry outburst that is out of character for you may be caused by chronic stress and burnout.  If you focus only on anger management you will be running down a rabbit trail. If you are suffering from stress-induced burnout, focusing on how to control anger won’t get you as far as focusing on how to manage stress.

But if you know how to manage stress, you will probably have much less anger to deal with. Turn off the water (stress) and reduce the flooding (anger).

So, let’s start with the basics and look at the nature of stress. If we are clear about what it is, we will do better at learning how to manage stress, how to relieve stress, and how to prevent burnout.

There is an enormous misunderstanding about what stress is. This confusion makes stress relief more difficult. The simple secret that many don’t understand is this:

All stress is physical

Stress is a physiological response to perceived threats. When you feel stressed, it’s because something is happening in the organs of the body, including the brain.

When people say, “Work is so stressful right now.” They are really speaking of a set of conditions that create a type of strain. The strain comes from an outside source. But stress is always physiological as a reaction to strain or danger.

Getting a lay-off notice from your company produces the same kind of physiological changes that happen when a wolf is chasing you. It’s all stress and it’s physical.

When we understand that stress is physical, we are in a better position to know how to manage stress.  Stress management techniques make more sense. Sometimes, that extra knowledge gives us just enough patience to practice the techniques.

That’s when things start to change.

Three Key Concepts

Let’s break this down a little further. There are three key concepts to understand about the physiological nature of stress.

First, the stressed-out brain connects to internal organs.

The brain connects to the internal organs. When we perceive that we are in danger or we are pushing too hard for too long, the brain sends signals to our internal organs to create an adrenalin rush.   This rush is really stress hormones being dumped into the blood stream to bring changes to any part of the body that has blood. In other words, it changes the whole body–all your internal organs–including the brain itself.

Second, stress changes the body in specific ways.

Stress initiates a series of changes that rapidly add up to a very uncomfortable feeling. How does it do this? It does it by means of a specific mechanism tucked inside our nervous system. It’s called the autonomic nervous system (ANS).The chart above shows the major changes to the body caused by the autonomic nervous system.

The ANS itself has two main branches. If you look at the chart here, you will find the stress branch on the right (the sympathetic system). On the left is the relaxation branch of the autonomic nervous system. These two branches are in competition. They rarely get activated at the same time. Imagine a light switch that turns one light on in a room and simultaneously turns a different light off.

So, here is a key stress management principle: when the relaxation branch is activated, the stress branch is deactivated.  Do you see what this means? It means that if we knew of a way to activate the relaxation branch, we could reduce our stress much more quickly and reliably. One switch turns the light on in the relaxation room while turning the light off in the stress room.  The question of how to manage stress becomes easier: calm the body.  By calming your body, you leverage your nervous system to turn off the hose of your adrenaline rush.

Third, most stress is only harmful to us if it is constant over time.

I say, “most stress” because traumatic stress that causes PTSD can be harmful even when stress is not constant. But here we are talking about the stress of living: the stress of anger, of conflict, of too many hours of work, etc. These everyday stresses grind us down.

But here is the interesting thing. Stress over time does not damage us if it is punctuated by periods of adequate rest or rejuvenation. The brain and the body can handle a lot of stress as long it has the right mix of relaxation mixed in at certain intervals.

Your Brain is Talking to You!

What happens when the brain gets no relief? What happens when you just work seven days a week? What happens when you have other things that make you constantly angry and stressed?

The answer is that the brain shuts down. This shutting down is sometimes called burnout.

Burnout is a clinical condition resulting from prolonged, relentless stress over weeks or months (or years!).

To simplify a complex process, burnout grabs hold of us in three stages as depicted by the thee brain cartoons below.

Stage 1 Warning Signs

Your feeling tired a lot. Your sleep isn’t good and doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Your eating has changed. You are starting to notice some slipping in your concentration and focus.This is your brain talking to you. It’s saying, “I need a rest!”

Stage 2 Flashing, Red Emergency Lights

You are starting to become numb. You perform more and more tasks on autopilot. Pleasurable moments are muted and less frequent. It’s like you are walking in a blizzard, trying to survive. You just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. You may drink more alcohol. Or you smoke more marijuana.  You may have some real outbursts of anger at work. All of this is your brain telling you that something needs to change immediately.

But you keep going.  You don’t listen to what your brain is telling you.

Stage 3 Shutdown

This is when a clinical depression sets in. It’s a specific type of depression induced by prolonged, unrelenting stress.

Your brain says, ͞Because you wouldn’t stop, I’m going to make you stop. You won’t be able to function very well at all. You will feel like you are walking across a wide river of molasses.  Your brain is not punishing you.  Your brain is a physical organ.  When the brain takes you into burnout, it’s simply saying, “I just can’t do this anymore.”  

Smart, gifted, and strong people have hit this wall called burnout. Sometimes people even end up with a physical illness that is related to the condition of burnout.

Think of your stomach as a physical organ.  If you subject your stomach to unhealthy extremes, you will vomit.  The stomach is a physical organ. Your brain is a physical organ.  Burnout is your brain’s equivalent of vomiting.  When we vomit, we usually listen to the message and change something.  Why don’t we listen to the brain when it’s screaming for change?

Contact Me to See How Therapy Can De-Stress Your Life

If you find yourself in one of these stages of chronic stress, contact me. Let’s talk about what therapy can do to find the shortest route to feeling good. Learn the steps for getting out of burnout now. Get the tools to learn how to manage stress so that you can prevent burnout in the future.

A Podcast Episode About Stress and Burnout

If you want to learn more about how chronic stress causes burnout, here is an episode of my podcast, “Steps and Tools for Emotional Intelligence.”