At almost every moment of our lives, we are affected by stress. Whether enjoying a sense of thrill – one end of the stress spectrum – or struggling with burnout or trauma symptoms at the other end, managing stress is central to the experience of being human.
This post, drawn from my recent study on the topic, reviews aspects of stress that I think are particularly important to consider in understanding stress and how to manage it.
In Moderation, Stress is Helpful
Hans Selye first recognized and began studying a set of symptoms known today as stress. Selye coined the word eustress (1976) to describe stress levels that are helpful. Eustress is a moderate, routine kind of stress that elevates our attention and functioning and at times even contributes to a sense of excitement and joy in life.
However, beyond a certain point, helpful stress becomes too much and we experience it as distress (Selye, 1976).
The Tipping Point
The tipping point at which we begin to experience eustress as distress varies widely. A few people, thanks to genetics, family history, personal disciplines, etc., are able to tolerate quite high levels of stress before becoming distressed. Others feel distressed at the slightest disruption of routines.
As I’ve pointed out in previous post those with a life history of trauma tend to have lower tolerance for stress than others. Stress symptoms feel a lot like trauma symptoms, which means that as stress levels rise, it is normal for people with a history of trauma to experience what feels like old trauma symptoms as they approach their tipping point of distress.
Understanding this fact may help to reduce anxiety about the sudden appearance of symptoms we thought were history.
Regardless of where our tipping point is located in the spectrum of stress, the more we know about it – the signs that it is near and the factors likely to move us in one direction or the other – the better we are able to cope.
Distress and Accumulative Stress
In light of insights from trauma-related brain research, I define distress as caused by a sense of real or implied threat that activates instinctual response mechanisms that originally evolved to enable survival.
These responses – for example, elevated heart, breathing, and alertness levels – function at an autonomic level not readily controlled by rational thought. This situation makes management of our stress responses complex.
Distress is easier to cope with when it comes in short episodes followed by return to “normal.” This occurrence allows for restoration of the resources consumed by high alert. Prolonged or chronic distress is a different matter – a state of constant arousal and alert creates fatigue. For individuals who are exposed to frequent traumatizing experiences, human service practitioners or populations experiencing trauma on an ongoing basis, stress accumulates.
The cumulative nature of stress can create unexpected dynamics. Many small stresses together add up to create a large, generalized or continuous feeling of emotional distress. Think of it as many small weights adding up to a staggering load and eventually it doesn’t take a heavy additional “straw” to “break the camel’s back.”
The movement from to a chronic sense of distress to a paralyzing state of burnout and trauma-like symptoms can be quite fast. It may not even be obvious which stressor caused the shift.
When there are many sources of stress, a new stressor may be barely noticed, yet the reaction can be severe. Some people develop a sense of numbness to everything, others experience a constant sense of hyper arousal; still others alternate between the two.
Burnout is a term often used to describe this final phase. It refers to chronic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual fatigue resulting from the stress of working with difficult clients or being exposed to the suffering of others for an extended time without adequate opportunities for recuperation.
Among other things, caregivers who are burned out typically experience a sense of numbness as well as disconnection and apathy to the suffering of others.
Burnout is often accompanied by trauma like responses. I define emotional trauma as a response involving complex debilitation of adaptive abilities—emotional, cognitive, physical or spiritual—following an event or series of events that were experienced, or perceived as life threatening (Gertel Kraybill, 2015).
The phrase “debilitation of adaptive abilities” highlights the reality that stress is normal and that we are wired with natural abilities to adapt and cope.
In traumatizing and high distressing situations (perceived or real) we don’t choose our responses. We respond on “auto-pilot” and our systems do the best they can to help us survive. The sense of debilitation may last only moments or much longer depending on the traumatic event and the existing levels of stress of an individual.
Our life history greatly influences the extent to which we experience threatening events as traumatizing. Someone with low exposure to trauma and low general levels of stress probably won’t be as quickly affected by trauma or prolonged stress as someone already struggling with a long-carried burden of accumulated stress.
Trauma can’t be treated as a stand alone phenomenon. We have to consider it in the context of life history and present dynamics of each individual including personal, family and community (religion, gender identity, cultural and racial identity and values) history.
In early stages of trauma therapy, the focus of treatment may not necessarily always be on trauma itself but rather on supporting the expansion of adaptive abilities, because these, in turn, may enable a traumatized person to find his or her way after trauma.
Designing a treatment approach best suited to the unique aspects of each person’s life history and present situation is key to treatment.
The Stress Spectrum – A Mindful Expansion Activity
In several earlier posts, I mentioned a mindful expansion technique that I find a useful tool in designing treatment strategies.
In workshops and with clients, I use the Stress Spectrum activity as an experiential psychoeducational tool to learn about stress and trauma and get to know oneself.
It helps survivors to become more aware of their body’s responses, warning signals and trigger points related to stress, and thus contribute to the creation of the individualized self-care plan.
Get a free PDF of the Stress Spectrum Activity by clicking here.
Selye, H. (1976). The stress concept. Canadian Medical Association Journal,115(8), 718.
Stressed woman at work photo available from Shutterstock