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Stress, what is it really?

We all talk about stress and being stressed but how often do we think about what that actually is/means?The ways we usually talk about stress might make it hard to believe, but one way of defining stress is as our internal (mental/emotional) reaction to external events.

Man overwhelmed by post-it note demands

A stressor is an input to our life: an external event around us, a workout, food with negative impacts, heat and cold. A stressor can be sudden and short-term (acute) or it can be ongoing, lower-grade background demands on your time/energy/mental bandwidth (chronic).

Stress is our reaction to the stressors - an event might be stressful but that doesn’t mean we have to be stressed by it.

What we eat, how we sleep and how we exercise can all cause physiological stress responses within our bodies but our mental and emotional reactions can also trigger this physical stress response. Knowing since my previous blog post at the end of September 2020 that I wanted to get on to writing this one has been a cause of stress for me!

The physical stress of resistance training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) tells our bodies to repair and build stronger muscles and/or improve cardiovascular capacity but these are short-term stressors that come to an end, allowing repair and recovery. The foods and beverages we consume can provide the nutrition our bodies need or be another source of stress as the body tries to break down toxins (e.g. alcohol) or manage a sudden change in one variable (e.g. blood sugar).

In contrast to these physical stressors, an argument with another household member or a workplace situation can see us ruminating on issues late in to the night, experiencing a feeling of tension throughout the body when we want to be sleeping. In this situation, the body perceives a threat – such as a predator – so shuts down digestion and repair, producing cortisol to elevate blood sugar so we can be ready to fight or flee at a moment’s notice.

Our bodies haven’t evolved to perceive the stresses of modern life – the ones that have developed in the past 250 years - as different to those we experienced during the previous 10,000. The demands of our everyday lives are still perceived as the threat of a predator (eg. being chased by a lion). As a result, we can be in a constant ‘fight-or-flight' state all day and every day.

I’ll follow up with a post about how stress impacts us but, in the meantime, remember that while we can’t control the world around us but we can control how we respond to it.

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