Recently the American Institute of Stress published its newsletter containing an article from a stress management coach about how “tweaking” our lifestyle plays a part in managing stress. Although I wholeheartedly agree that lifestyle tweaks do have a positive effect on our stress management; I would like to offer an alternative and deeper perspective from someone who struggled with a debilitating stress-related illness or autoimmune disease.
From the vantage point of both my personal experience and of those high-achieving women I serve, the physical impacts of stress are a symptom of a deeper problem. In most cases, the strong, intelligent, and capable women that I know and coach, think they can handle the stress on their own. And oftentimes they are looking for tools to do more with less time or resources until the symptoms that were once manageable have now become an illness or a major health crisis. These types of health crises arise after prolonged periods of chronic stress, burnout, and or living in a state of constant fight or flight.
So what’s the difference between stress, burnout, and fight or flight?
Stress by definition is “a complicated cascade of physical and biochemical responses to powerful emotional stimuli”, meaning that stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances; for instance:
- Threats to survival
- Certain vs uncertain circumstances
- A constant state of change
- Unfinished business
- Unachieved goals or unrealized passions
Constant stress is often considered a risk factor for such diverse conditions as colds, insomnia, migraines, infertility, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and even heart disease.
The fight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response), refers to a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is mentally or physically terrifying. It is characterized by an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, elevation of glucose levels in the blood, and redistribution of blood from the digestive tract to the muscles. Fight-or-flight is our unconscious and automatic way to prepare our bodies to either fight or run from the perceived stressor, based on our prior learning of how to handle terrifying or stressful events.
Stress is a natural part of life and how we choose to respond to our stressor(s) is based on our subconscious responses. We are walking & talking habits & patterns constantly assigning meaning, based on prior experiences, and learned behaviors, formed by limiting beliefs and “programming” OR conditioning. We are unaware that we are constantly looking for threats and addressing problems or concerns, in order to achieve duplicatable results or to create certainty.
When most people think of burnout they think of their job or dead-end career. Interestingly enough, even before the pandemic, workplace stress was a 190 Billion Dollar industry affecting companies, large or small, financially and with their largest resource… their employees. Even with those astonishing numbers, the World Health Organization (WHO) called burnout “An Occupational Phenomenon; a syndrome and not a medical condition”. Depending upon your level of burnout, the impact on your mental health may include:
- Limited tolerance (shorter temper)
- Increased stress levels
- Feelings of isolation
- Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
I’m not sure why burnout is not considered a medical condition but I think that needs to be reevaluated. Why? Because chronic stress and burnout left unmanaged are linked to six leading causes of death:
- Heart disease
- Lung ailments
- Cirrhosis of liver
Stay with me as I nerd out and explain how stress transmutes into illness. As previously mentioned stress is “a complicated cascade of physical and biochemical responses to powerful emotional stimuli”. Physiologically, emotions are themselves electrical, chemical, and hormonal discharges of the human nervous system. Think Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Cortisol. Emotions influence--and are influenced by--the functioning of our major organs, the integrity of our immune system, and the workings of the many circulating biological substances that help govern the body’s states. When emotions are repressed, as a self-defense mechanism in childhood for security, this inhibition disarms the body’s defenses against illness. Repression--dissociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm--disorganizes and confuses our physiological defenses so that in some people these defenses go awry, becoming the destroyer of health rather than its protectors or simply an immune system disorder.
Our senses send more information to the brain than we can process--our mindset is the filter that determines how we interpret and REACT to that information. Our current frame of mind plays a VERY important role in every process. It is difficult to be open to meaningful change with sustainable transformation if you are feeling stressed, burnt out, or in a “fight or flight” state. Heck, studies show that cognitive function decreases during times of stress, and making even the smallest of decisions becomes challenging. Confusion, forgetfulness, and brain fog are common symptoms of prolonged states of chronic stress and burnout because our brain has automatically immobilized resources to other areas of our bodies, to run from that perceived terrifying “tiger”.
It is in states of prolonged chronic pressure, exhaustion, brain fog, impaired digestion, depression, etc that we have a health crisis that brings us to our knees and invites us to reevaluate our lives, relationships, and careers because something has got to give. It is usually in these moments we have a breakdown to a breakthrough period of our lives, as pain is the biggest catalyst to change.
It is a sensitive matter to raise the possibility that the way people have been conditioned to live their lives may contribute to their illness. In healing, every bit of information, every piece of the truth, may be crucial. If a link exists between emotions and physiology, not informing people of this link deprives them of a powerful tool.
So the question is if 90% of our thinking, feeling, judging, and acting is driven by our automatic responses or processes; what are the lifestyle tweaks you and ARE willing to make that would have a serious and beneficial effect on your health, energy, and vitality?
To me, chronic stress, burnout, and a prolonged state of fight or flight are indicators that the survival mechanisms you learned and kept you alive (or productive and achieving in the workplace) have now become toxic.
Your health crisis is an opportunity to evaluate and illuminate the factors in your life that are contributing to and draining you of your precious and valuable energy or life force.
While we all dread being blamed, we all would wish to be more responsible--that is, to have the ability to respond with awareness to the circumstances of our lives rather than just reacting. We want to be the authoritative person in our own lives: in charge, able to make authentic decisions that affect us. There is no true responsibility without awareness.