Perfect Stress is not an Amount (Part 1)

In a PsychologyToday article entitled “The Perfect Amount of Stress” the author, Thea Singer, contemplates “when do we have too little stress and when do we have too much stress?” A good question, but likely an over-simplified one.

A better question might be: “When have we been overly programmed by stress and when do the costs of that adaptation outweigh the benefits?”

“Our goal isn’t a life without stress,” Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky says. “The idea is to have the right amount of stress.” That means stressors that are short-lived and manageable.

While it is often true that the goal is to have short-lived stresses that are manageable. It is also true that a short-lived stress or an acute stress can be just as, if not more, damaging. For example, a short stress can adapt a system inappropriately. Either making that system hyper-reactive or using resources like energy and nutrients ineffectively. A short term stress early in life can also make other stressors occurring later in life more stressful than we’d typically expect.

A stress is ultimately something that elicits activation of the body and brain to tell us that something in our environment needs our attention.  However, stress is not just immediate dangers like tigers, bears and sharks.  Stress is also the plain and mundane. Stress keeps us alert, awake, active, adapting and reacting properly to all sorts of rewards and threats.

Our Daily Stress

In linear science where one finds a single cause and a single cure, stress is represented by cortisol levels. A linear approach looks at cause and effect in a straight line. A single cause, stress, creates a single reaction, cortisol.  So the traditional way of seeing stress has always been an increase in cortisol.  Cortisol is “Enemy #1” says traditional approaches to mainstream medicine.  However, we are just beginning to realize that this relationship is much more complex.  Cortisol sort of pings into a major stress axis of the brain called the HPA axis which pings with another axis called the HPG axis and then goes off in many different directions affecting many different neural, chemical and genetic pathways. It does this attempting to maintain balance, or what is called in scientific terms, homeostasis. And this depends on many factors within each person. This is why stress is personal and we can say “stress is different for everyone”. However, stress also follows very distinct patterns, rules and trade-offs. So when we talk about stress we are talking about a type of science with complex rules to follow to understand how and why those differences occur.

Cortisol is a very simple way to see the first action that stress takes on our body. Cortisol is an extremely important part of our everyday experience. We need cortisol, or stress. Some of us wake up because of rising cortisol levels, some drink coffee to raise their cortisol levels. Cortisol alerts our brains to ‘wake up’ to the world.

Bruce McEwen, stress expert states in the article:

Yet there is no uniform right amount of stress. Each of us has a different stress threshold—that is, the degree of stress needed to benefit or harm us—depending on our history and even our genetic makeup. For sure, there are events that are universally rated high stress: you lose your job or a loved one, a tropical storm floods your basement. But what matters most regarding health and even longevity is not the event itself but how you respond to it. And how you respond—emotionally and physiologically—depends on how you perceive it.

There seems to be a desire to make how we respond to stress purely a conscious choice; attitude, perception, grit. While we certainly have a lot of power in how and when we perceive stress, stress perception can be just as much unconscious as it is conscious. How we perceive it may depend on our physiological internal state.

Choice and attitude is a single piece in the stress perception pie.  Just one slice deeply interactive with all the other slices and aspects of our stress physiology. As anyone on very little sleep can attest, their “attitude” becomes highly susceptible to sensory assaults or social triggers.  When in a more rested states those triggers and aggravations would not bother them at all.  When we are in a more heightened stress state and “fight or flight” hits you, you are going to want to fight or flight. Your options of choice have become limited. When your brain gets hit by adrenaline and cortisol, it gets flooded with these chemicals that can create adverse over-excitation. To calm that excitation, you need an outlet, a way to control and calm those feelings. Without some kind of reaction to depress this activity, the brain chemistry in these overwhelmed states could create actual damage to the brain.

Knowledge of social support such as having friends, family community, cognitive reframing or a change in self-talk, meditation, relaxation or being in an enriched environments of activity and purpose are all part countering social stress with social resources.

Our ability to counter and recover those stress emergencies depends on our social resources, but also such things as our mineral supplies, our fatty acid balances, our symbiotic bacteria and our hormone messengers.  It also depends on our ability to oscillate.   If a stressor impairs our ability to go into proper and timely “healing responses” then this can begin to degrade the system. Stress becomes more stressful.  Even if we have “constant stress”, if we have the proper resources to make that stress useful and are able to go into rhythms of recovery and healing phases, then constantly stressing or challenging our systems can be good for us.

A reaction stress is mandatory or the brain may become damaged (or overly adaptative).  One such example of something that “soothes” these chemical, besides social attitude or perception is high sugar-fat foods. High caloric energy after a dreadful event can calm the chemicals.   This protects the neurons from damage, it tells the brain its safe to calm down because it has extra energy to get the job done.

However, as we also know, high sugar/fat diets are bad for us.  They are bad for us because while they calm the brain, they stress the body even more. Too much sugar and fat together create the same impact as early life stress. sugar-fat diets can create major problems in development or stress reactivity programming later on in life.  This is because excessive energy in the form low quality and early life excessive and chronic sugar and/or fat exposures can have the same impact as early life stress, programming the brain/body for later life disorders and illnesses.

Our thought process or attitude toward challenges is part of that perception, however so is our biology, immune, neurobiological, nutritional status and our current load of other stresses.  As well as our current level of thresholds and our biological coping patterns of the past which is reflected in the science of adaptation and epigenetics.

So in much this way stress is not about how long or short it is, but what kind of genetic history, recovery, adaptations, trade-offs and resources we have.

To Be Continued…

PART 2: The Resilient and The Vulnerable: Do Personalities reflect Stress Sensititivity?

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