A whole new way to think about stress

Like the rising waters during a flood, the baseline level of stress has gone up a few notches around the world this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced stressors into our lives that we could not have imagined. This extended elevated level of stress is called chronic stress. It is known to lower the function of our body and brain and drain the immune system, is linked to most common diseases, and muffles our enjoyment of life. Given these facts, it’s safe to say that reducing chronic stress is as important as reducing the spread of the virus. 

In this two-part article, we take a fresh look at stress and the why we need to rethink exercise in order to cure chronic of chronic stress. I’ll talk about the ways we make exercise stress-producing, and how to transform exercise into a stress-reducing solution. Finally, I’ll show you the five key steps to using exercise to complete your stress solution and health promotion. 

The key facts to know about stress 

1. Stress is not a switch, it’s a sliding scale

We tend to think of stress as a switch: you are either stressed or relaxed. It is more like a continuum with varying degrees of stress from mildly annoyed to full-blown freak-out. Although the severe stress states are more obviously detrimental to health,  the mild to moderate stress responses are more likely to cause the health-draining state of chronic stress. They hang around in the backdrop of our lives, keeping us in a stress response as we go about our daily lives

2. Misunderstanding stress keeps us stuck

There are two common ways we misunderstand stress that keeps us stuck in a chronic state of stress. 

First, stress is not one state, it comes in two shades. One is where you feel overwhelmed, tense, and anxious. These are high energy forms and there is no denying when you are in them.  The other shade of stress is when you feel bored, lonely, or depressed. You might not think of these emotions as stress, but studies show these low-energy emotions trigger a stress response just like the high-energy feelings of stress. These low level ones can hang out in the background in our daily lives, without recognizing them as stress, they are less likely to trigger a response that leads to getting out of the stressed state.  Many of our responses to these low level stressors only distract from, rather than resolve this stressed state.  

Second is when we rely on the high-energy state to be motivated, and believe that being calm and relaxed will lead to being lazy and unproductive.  Research shows its quite the opposite that is true.  Staying in this state drains our resources both physically and mentally. 

3. Stress is helpful, in the short term

Stress is not a problem. A stress response is there to help keep you safe, contented, and connected. Without it, you would not jump out of the way when a car was heading for you, look for food when you were starving, or seek a tribe of people you can count on for support. A stress response sets off a cascade of changes in the body and the brain that actually improves immune function, heightens awareness and focus, and increases energy. Acute stress is there to keep you healthy and well; however, it is designed to be a temporary state. Chronic stress, on the other hand, leads to disease. Check out how acute stress, left unchecked, drains the systems in the body and leads to disease in the chart below. 


4. The sensations of stress are your body begging you to move

Look at all the things that happen in the acute stress response. Nearly all of them are to prepare you to move, to fight or flee the problem. Notice how you feel them in your body when you feel stressed. When we rethink stress as the body preparing to move, actually making that connection between the feeling and the need to move, we reframe the feeling of stress as a helpful nudge to exercise. When you know how to move in the ways that are helpful, not straining for your body, exercise becomes a resource for leaving the state of chronic stress so your body can heal and repair and your brain can function at its best. 

5. The opposite of stress is not relaxation, it’s being well

When you know that the opposite of being stressed is not just a deep state of relaxation on a yoga mat, but also those times when you have enough energy, clarity and focus to do what you enjoy and enjoy what you are doing, you have more opportunities to use exercise to get out of chronic stress. The state that is the opposite of stressed is called ‘being well’. It is like “home base” for your whole person, it’s where it wants to be for as many moments of each day as possible. When you know what ‘well’ feels like for you, you are better able to know when exercise is working its magic to move you from stressed to well. 

This image is based on the stress performance curve. Often, the far left is thought of as too little stress but now we know this puts the body in a stress response as well.

The well state is achieved when both your body and brain sense you are:

  • Safe: physically free from threat of harm, mentally have enough information to protect you from harm, and spiritually safe to be yourself. 
  • Contented: physically comfortable with enough food, water, and shelter, mentally content with the right amount of mental stimulus to learn and grow, and spiritually content with the value of who you are as a person. 
  • Connection: physically connected through touch and presence of others who you trust, mentally connected through engaging conversation and learning, spiritually connected to something greater than yourself. 

Bottom Line about Rethinking Stress

Stress is part of life. Without it, we would not have survived all these millennia. It’s when we spend most of our time in a stressed state that our productivity, health, and enjoyment of life are threatened.  The low-level stressors of isolation, boredom, and depression as well as the reliance on stress to be motivated are keeping us in a stressed state for too many moments of our day. We function and feel our best when we are in a state of being well. Movement is what our body is begging for when it moves into a stressed state. When we associate the sensation of stress with the need to move, we are more likely to spend time in a state where we can feel and function our best and enjoy life to the fullest, even during a pandemic. 

In part two, we look at why all movement is not the solution. Exercise, when it is done in a way that does not add to stress, is the specific antidote to moving from stressed to well in more moments of your day.