Stress doesn’t come from the outside world. We construct it in the same way that we construct emotion: On the spot from the incoming stimulus that is filtered through our own unique brain. Consequently, we have more control over stress than we think. Just like for emotion, making sure that we eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get adequate sleep is critical for managing stress. Rather than using the word “stress,” we could use more specific words like irritated, annoyed, or frustrated and this will change our experience of the event. Stress is not always bad: In fact, stress can facilitate performance, promote active coping, and protect against damaging effects of catabolic hormones. And it builds resilience.
Scenario: Something happens, or you have a thought, and your gut becomes queasy, you have difficulty focusing, your shoulders tense up … and you experience stress.
We keep being told that stress is bad, and the vast majority of advice we’re given to cope with stress focuses on reducing the frequency or severity of stressors. So we’ve been told to meditate, to relax, to take a walk, and even to do a sudoku or watch a funny movie! While this may make you feel better now, it doesn’t solve the problem of long-term stress relief. In addition, it’s often not possible to avoid stressors. In fact, avoiding or minimizing stress may not be the best option because it can lead to missed opportunities for developing resilience. According to Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist from Northeastern University who’s been studying emotion for over 30 years, stress doesn’t come from the outside world; we construct it. We construct stress in the same way that we construct emotion, from incoming sensations from both outside of us, such as the event itself, and inside the body (e.g., our heart rate, our breath). These sensations are then filtered through our unique brain to create emotion or stress. This happens in an instant, outside of our conscious awareness. Each brain is unique because it evolved from our lifetime of experience starting in the womb. What this means is that your brain has learned that a certain combination of internal sensations that follow certain events or thoughts means stress, and it has now become your default response when you experience this combination of sensations and events.
But Dr. Feldman Barrett suggests that there are other ways of looking at stress.
Your body budget may be unbalanced. The purpose of the brain is not to make us happy, or make rational decisions, but to ensure that we grow, survive and reproduce. Every thought and emotion we have is in service of ensuring this. A useful metaphor for this process is the body budget - how your brain budgets the energy in your body to keep you alive and well. This is why we need to look at the brain and body as one. You may be eating an unhealthy diet, perhaps you’re not getting enough exercise, or getting too little sleep. Recent research has uncovered that even 2 hours of sleep loss can make us grumpier the next day. And the evidence for the effect of diet and exercise for psychological health is now overwhelming.
When your body budget is out of balance, your emotions will be more intense, even exaggerated. So your justified anger would be even more intense, and could turn into rage. A stressful event, such as a tight deadline, the thought of an unpleasant meeting with a staff member, or an argument at home, could make you even more stressed. Rather than mitigating stress, an unbalanced body budget could intensify stress. It could make you more, rather than less, defensive. Just when you need it most, stress weakens the function of the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that regulates flexible, goal-directed behavior, inhibits inappropriate impulses, regulates attention, and is involved in reality testing, and insight about our own actions and the actions of others. The primary and quickest way to restore your body budget is through diet, exercise, and sleep. Did you know that it takes only 100 ms for signals from the gut to reach the brain? That’s because the structures often assumed to be emotion regions (i.e. amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, etc.) are also involved in regulating your body budget. So having a well-balanced body budget is the most basic thing you can do to relieve stress.
Your definition of stress may be too broad. The sole function of the brain is to ensure that we grow, survive and reproduce, and it does this by predicting what our body needs in the moment. Prediction has been evolutionarily crucial. When you see a bear in the distance on your morning run, your brain will get you out of there quickly. You don’t want your brain to wait until it has all the information before it makes a prediction: Is it really a bear? Perhaps I imagined it. Has the bear seen me? Perhaps it hasn’t. No. You just want to get the heck out of there. Prediction is the normal state of the brain, and it keeps us alive by anticipating what our body needs. Without prediction, we could die, as in the bear example. Your brain doesn’t differentiate between life-threatening and perceived danger. Most of what we feel threatened by is not life-threatening. A tight deadline is not life-threatening. Thinking about that unpleasant conversation with a staff member is not life-threatening. But your brain can’t tell the difference.
Whether the threat is real or perceived, your brain will predict that mobilizing the stress response is needed. When you experience a queasy gut, difficulty focusing, or tensed shoulders, and your brain has been wired from past experience to perceive this as stress, your brain will predict stress. But you could redefine this combination of sensations to mean something else. Is this really stress or just a lot of work? Is this really stress, or am I just irritated, annoyed, aggravated, or frustrated? Or perhaps even embarrassed, hurt, or tense? There is evidence that people who effectively categorize their internal sensations as emotions may be better protected against the chronic inflammatory processes that lead to poor health
You’re using the wrong words. The American Psychological Association defines stress as "demands placed on you — such as work, school or relationships — [that] exceed your ability to cope." But people apply the word "stress" to simple annoyances and irritants. We call the sound of the train passing by stressful, coming down with a cold is stressful, a traffic jam is stressful, having a lot of work is stressful. But the truth is, when we label something as stressful, it becomes stressful. We've become frivolous regarding our use of the word "stress," using it anytime we feel the least bit uncomfortable. Stress has even become a badge of honor: When we're asked "How are you?" we reply "I'm stressed," or "I'm crazy busy (stressed in disguise)." Labeling mundane, negative experiences as stressful is like shooting a mouse with an elephant gun: We've taken an everyday experience, such as the sound of the passing train, and labelled it with the elephant gun of stress. When we label mundane experiences as stressful, we make the stress personal, pervasive, and permanent (or at least long term). Personal means that it's about us. Pervasive means that it applies to all areas of our life. Permanent means that we think it will last forever. This is how we create chronic stress, with all its negative health consequences.
Under chronic stress, the brain mis-predicts that your body needs more energy. This increases pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are normally healing but with a chronic unbalanced body budget, predictions can cause your body to release cortisol more often and in greater amounts than you need. This increase in cortisol release increases inflammation, causing a vicious cycle. And pro-inflammatory cytokines can cross the blood-brain barrier. The brain also has its own inflammatory system. Inflammation in the brain causes changes in brain structure, interferes with neural communication, and kills neurons. Inflammation in the brain affects your predictions and sends your mind-body system into overdrive. Your brain starts treating your body as if it were sick or damaged, and chronic inflammation sets in. Chronic inflammation can make it harder for you to pay attention and remember things. You can become consumed with fatigue and unpleasant feelings. And, a chronically unbalanced body budget acts like a fertilizer for disease. But we could use words other than "stress" to describe negative events. The sound of the passing train could become annoying rather than stressful; a cold could become unpleasant; being cut off in traffic could be irritating; having a lot of work could be being busy; having that unpleasant conversation could be difficult.
Using different words to label an experience changes our emotional reaction to the triggering event. We've taken it from the personal, pervasive and permanent to the impersonal, limited, and temporary. Do you see how the words "annoying," "unpleasant," "irritating, "regrettable," "disappointing," and "busy" have less of an emotional charge than the word "stressful?" Labeling every negative experience as stressful wears us down, leaving us with little energy to address the really stressful things.
Stress Is not Always Bad. It can build resilience. According to Psychology Today, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. Being resilient doesn’t mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. Stress is not wholly negative or something to be avoided at all costs. Stress can facilitate performance, promote active coping, and protect against damaging effects of catabolic hormones. Contrary to what you might think, research shows that experiencing some adversity builds resilience, helping us to manage well in the face of future potentially stressful situations. Let’s go back to our scenario: Your brain took the event, together with your inner sensations (queasy gut, difficulty focusing, tense shoulders), ran them through your past experience via your unique brain, and called the combination of sensations “stress”. That’s because, many times in the past, beginning in childhood, this combination of sensations meant that you were in danger and has now formed part of your past experience. But, you could reinterpret this combination of sensations as simply annoyance, or irritation, or frustration, and you’d respond differently.
KEY TAKEAWAYS :
1. Stress doesn’t come from the outside world. We construct stress in the same way that we construct emotion: on the spot from the incoming stimulus that is filtered through our own unique brain.
2. We are a mind-body system and an unbalanced body-budget can intensify our feelings of stress. This is why it’s important to eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get adequate sleep.
3. The words we use color our experience of stress. Labelling everyday experiences as stressful makes them personal, pervasive, and permanent.
4. Using different, more specific words, like irritated, frustrated, busy, or even embarrassed or hurt, changes our experience of and reaction to the event.
5. Stress is not always bad: It can facilitate performance, promote active coping, and protect against damaging effects of catabolic hormones. And it can help us build resilience.