An Alternate View of Stress

Is stress permeating through every aspect of your life? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of work, home and social life? Is stress getting in the way of living the life you want? Perhaps you’re not alone.

Feeling stressed is an automatic human response to an external threat. When our brain senses danger, the amygdala kicks into gear and stimulates the production of hormones to carry oxygen to our extremities. This process is commonly called the fight, flight or freeze response. It was this autonomic response that helped our ancestors survive the threats of sabre tooth tigers and the marauding clan approaching from over the hill by preparing them physically to run fast, fight ferociously or hide with great creativity. There are stories of extraordinary physical feats in response to an imminent threat such as the single-handed lifting of a car off an accident victim.

The stress response also benefits cognitive processing by efficiently delivering oxygen to the brain. This helps to find clarity under duress and assists with efficient decision-making in the face of a threat.

So stress can be like a performance enhancer to bring about greater physical and cognitive functioning in response to a threat. Professional athletes have been harnessing this autonomic response for decades with the assistance of sports psychologists.

But prolonged exposure to stress leaves our bodies flooded with adrenalin and cortisol which is harmful and debilitating. When pushed too far or endured for too long, stress decreases performance along with our mood, energy levels and our capacity for compassion.

The paradox of stress being both helpful and debilitating is lost in modern parlance. We automatically assume that all stress is bad. But as much as we’d like to live in a state of enduring serenity, it is difficult to do so in modern society. Stress keeps visiting our lives through a demanding boss, unachievable deadlines, multi-tasking through conflicting demands on our time and energy.

So how can we maintain our response to stress at a level that enhances our performance rather than debilitates us?

There are a number of evidence-based approaches to do this. Some approaches are external to ourselves and involve removing or reducing the stress stimuli. This may include changing jobs, reducing debt, distancing ourselves from toxic people or better managing our diaries. Others are internal approaches which may include changing our expectations of the world around us, changing the way we think, and drawing strength by identifying and drawing on our innate capabilities.

My own research showed an important and significant contributor to coping with stress which is rarely discussed. I studied a cohort of managers working in financial services who all led large teams, were responsible for multi-million dollar budgets and were navigating volatile times in their industry. Alongside in-depth interviews about their lifestyle and responses to stress, I also used a validated scale to measure symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. The behaviours they used to counter stress varied from extreme levels of physical activity such as running marathons and swimming every lunchtime, through daily practices of yoga and meditation, to relying on a cocktail of cocaine and alcohol to get through the day and wind down at night.

The results of my research were counter-intuitive yet stunningly simple. While all participants had elevated levels of stress, their symptoms of depression and anxiety varied greatly. It was no surprise that those self-medicating with drugs and alcohol had extreme symptoms of depression and anxiety. The exercise fanatics had mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression. The stand-out participants were two individuals whose levels of depression and anxiety did not register on the scale. Ironically, they were both mothers of young children who were also responsible for school drop-off and pick-ups, overseeing homework, buying groceries and doing most of the cooking. It was counter-intuitive to me that their symptomology was so much healthier than the rest of the cohort. But on further exploration it became evident that they were not motivated by power or wealth but by an intrinsic sense of meaning and purpose. This gave them a grounding that assisted them to confront stress with increased resilience.

These findings aligned with the premise of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy which he outlined in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). Frankl proposed that meaning-making is necessary for a rich life. Other Existentialists have expanded on this over time and encourage us to tap into an aliveness that goes beyond making a living and putting the bins out – to make something of our existence.

Approaches to countering stress will differ from person to person. Some clients benefit from tools they can use to limit stress from consuming them. With others we have explored finding more meaning and purpose to counter life’s stressors. With others we have explored the causes of their anxieties only to realise that their stress is almost entirely self-induced. What is consistent is that by talking through their stressors clients have found alternate ways to encounter and respond to stress.

Will Bonney



Category : Addictions & Blog & Depression & Featured & Mood & Parenting & Stress Reduction & Workplace

Comments are closed.