There is no denying chronic stress can contribute to a reduced quality of life and poor health. But there are things to consider before we label ‘stress’ as simply bad and something we have to ‘manage’ or ‘avoid’.
Stress is simply an umbrella term. It can be broken down in to psychosocial, environmental and physical stress. Some of this may be unbeknown to us. For example we know that inflammation can stimulate the HPA axis (which partly regulates the stress response) and thus increases cortisol production.
In her book ‘Well Stressed’ Sonia Lupien discusses four factors involved in creating a stress response. She uses the acronym NUTS.
N – Novelty
U – Unpredictability
T – Threat To Identity
S – Sense of low control
This really resonated with us at Conquering Fatigue Successfully, partly based on our experience supporting those with chronic health conditions. Often all four of these factors are in play. A common example might be:
A teenager who was both a successful academic and athlete who after a bout of glandular fever was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Symptoms fluctuated, some weeks being better that others with no apparent reason why. In this situation there is novelty (the new diagnosis), there is unpredictability (symptoms fluctuate), there is a threat to identity (going from an athlete or/and academic to potentially bed ridden) and there is a low sense of control (he/she may not know what to do to get better, and as a result they may feel they have no control over this).
Interestingly her research shows that we are more susceptible to certain factors – some people will experience stress more because of novelty than unpredictability for example. We can explore this by investigating situations that have caused stress and breaking them down to understand the origin of it – essentially which NUTS were in play.
There are obviously other considerations when discussing stress but Sonia Lupien puts forward a compelling argument to use this system as part of an overall programme when stress is involved.
In the book she mentions studies that demonstrate that different life stages, such as adolescence and adulthood, as well as our gender impact on what we perceive to be stressful and how we react to that perception.
Cognitive Explanatory Style
Another aspect which is worth highlighting here is cognitive explanatory style:
it is often the person’s habitual way of looking at experience – a person’s explanatory style – which determines how they explain an event they have experienced and influences their cognitive (optimistic/pessimistic) expectation of future events.
This excerpt comes from Positive Psychology UK:
Explanatory style consists of three dimensions: internal/external; stable/unstable and global/specific. Internal/external refers to whether or not a person believes that they have control or influence over events. The stable/unstable dimension represents whether a person believes a repeated event will be the same or subject to change. Global versus specific refers to whether or not a person’s explanation generalises the event to others beyond the specific event in hand. For example the attributional style model believes that if a person has an explanatory style that tends to consider bad events as internal, stable and global they are said to have a pessimistic explanatory style because they see the bad experience or event as one that was their fault, will not change in the future and is generally problematic rather than specific to that particular event. This contrasts with a person with an optimistic explanatory style who is said to explain the causes of negative events as external, unstable and specific. The optimistic person places no blame on themselves, believes there is room for change and that the bad experience was specific to that particular event and is not to be generalised to all others. If a pleasing event is experienced an optimist would exhibit an internal, stable and global explanatory style, whereas a pessimist would be showing external, unstable and specific explanatory style. One’s explanatory style is believed to influence a person’s view of the future and as a result their projected perceptions and subsequent behaviour.
Research on Gender Differences
Regulation of HPA activity (the stress response) differs by sex from birth. Thus, men are less prone than women to stress-related disorders (depression, autoimmunity) and more prone to metabolic and immune dysregulation. Such gender differences are due in part to interactions of sex hormones with cortisol action in target tissues of brain and immune system. For instance, these hormones alter HPA regulation during chronic stress, leading to greater sensitisation to chronic stress as well as more powerful effects of early life stress on HPA regulation in females. Thus, gonadal hormone-mediated differences in regulation of HPA activity and cortisol action yield a range of sex differences in effects of stress on physical (immune, metabolic) and cognitive (mood, behaviour regulation) function.
Chronic Stress May Lead To A Nervous System Primed For A Stress Response
It has also been suggested that people exposed to chronic stress may develop a heightened tendency to anticipate it and mount a rapid cortisol response. In a paper published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2013, the authors proposed that:
“”anticipatory” cortisol reactivity (i.e., increases during psychological anticipation of the stressor) may be an important marker of a central nervous system that is “primed” for heightened stress-reactivity”
Another thing to consider is around transgenerational health. Recognition of transgenerational effects of stress and discovery of their modes of inheritance have perturbed the established anti-Lamarkian view that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited. Transgenerational effects begin during gestation: maternal stress in pregnancy has been associated with altered stress responses in the offspring from early infancy on into adulthood. As noted above, disruptions in maternal–child relationship are linked to enduring alterations in stress responsivity and behavior of the child.
However, those disruptions often have their source in the mother’s own early experiences that have shaped her cognitive, emotional, and social capacity. When we are seeking to understand our current state of health we have to consider the first few years of life and our family health history. There is an area of research called ‘Adverse Childhood Events’ for those interested in this area.
It is important we don’t simply mask stress with our meditation and yoga practice. While these have various health benefits, could they been seen as methods to ‘manage’ stress levels, rather than resolving the issue. Ideally we want to understand the origin of the stress. If we can understand this we can potentially resolve the issue.
Many of these concepts ultimately help us build resiliency – they are skills and tools, or simply ways of rising our self-awareness and self-knowledge, that allow us to navigate through life with control, with the ability to self-regulate our emotions, our actions/behaviour and thus our results.
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