- People across the globe are experiencing unparalleled levels of stress.
- Our biological survival system has an important role, yet is underdeveloped for the stressors of our world.
- The nervous system can be a great ally when we adopt strategies that support stressing wisely.
Stress in the modern world
Stress is an inescapable part of life. This is a truth we know. If we cannot outthink or outrun it, the question then becomes, “How do we carve a path forward with our stress?” Ideally, many of us might hope to find a surefire, one-size-fits-all solution. Unfortunately, stress is a wicked problem that will most likely need some wicked solutions.
People all over the world are experiencing unparalleled levels of stress. The reality is that the pace of life has dramatically increased in these ever-changing and challenging times, and our nervous system is desperately trying to keep up.
When my team and I asked people across industries and from all walks of life to provide one word that describes how they are feeling right now, many reported feeling done. My friends, done is not actually a feeling, yet it speaks to the levels of fatigue and depletion people are experiencing.
Today, we are constantly bombarded with messaging telling us to do more, be more, and excel no matter the cost. This hustle is praised, and exhaustion is worn like a badge of honour. As a result, these unmatched stress levels are becoming more common and readily accepted, and the blast radius is wide. Despite our best efforts, many of us are not living a well-life.
The science of stress
We are born with a biological survival system that is pre-programmed to respond to any environmental or psychological threat presented to us. Once danger is detected, our bodies automatically release stress hormones that lead to a physiological change within our sympathetic nervous system, activating our involuntary fight, flight, or freeze response. Our nervous system is hardwired to keep us safe and alive. From an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors having a well-tuned fight-or-flight response is how we are here today.
There is a lot of messaging out there stating that stress is going to kill us, yet stress isn’t inherently bad. Researchers like Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., have challenged the myth that all stress is bad stress. In her book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, she suggests that rather than minimizing our stress, we can learn to get better at it and leverage the benefits. By shifting how we think about stress, we can transform stress into a catalyst for growth.
We also know from the longstanding work of researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, and the many others who have added to this work, we actually need stress to perform and thrive in our lives. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908), performance increases with physiological and mental arousal, but only up to a point. Without stress, performance is lacking. We become bored and unmotivated. Conversely, when we feel too much stress, we become fatigued, exhausted, and experience ill health. The slow and steady build-up of stress can lead to real damage if it goes unaddressed. If it goes on for too long, it will inevitably lead to burnout.
While stress can be healthy for mobilizing us into action, many people are being pushed beyond an optimal level of stress into a state of distress. We are experiencing daily hits to a system that is underdeveloped for the tasks at hand, and the bar just keeps rising. The body can’t handle too much stress for extended periods of time. Our biological systems were not meant for this.
This stress system allowed our ancestors to survive potential animal attacks, food shortages, and deadly weather conditions, yet we are using this same system to answer emails, meet deadlines, manage our calendars, have conversations, and deal with traffic! Our brain doesn’t know the difference between a tiger and a non-life-threatening stressor. Our nervous systems haven’t caught up to the technological advances of the modern world.
On any given day, the stress system is activated, and most people are not taking the time needed to effectively restore it. We’re sending our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive because we are constantly on high alert and reacting to our stress-filled lives. We are not allowing the parasympathetic nervous system time to do its work in relaxing the body because we’re too busy stress cycling. As a result, many of us are not recovering as we need to. This affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally.
There needs to be a change to how we show up in our lives. We need a reset that takes us back to our baselines because it’s clear that overwork and overwhelm are not the answers. We need to find kinder ways of getting better at stress.
We can begin to alter our relationship with stress and our nervous system by knowing where we are starting from.
Understanding your stress
Our stress patterns live in our bodies. Has the way you have worked with your stress served you in the past? We all have adaptive and maladaptive ways of coping. To get curious about your personal stress patterns and behaviours, I invite you to work through this reflection. Consider what it is that pushes you from an optimal zone of stress into distress.
Understand how you feel stress – Look at how stress shows up in your life and examine how your thoughts and actions are different in times you feel stressed.
Identify your sources of stress – Where is your stress coming from? List these sources. Note what is within your control and what is outside of your control.
Develop self-awareness of your own stress signals and your go-to responses – What does your stress behaviour look like? What are your patterns? What does your coping look like?
Identify how you would like to respond to your stress – How do you want to express your stress? Who models stress responses that you could learn from?
Make your own stress playbook – Make a list of your common stress behaviours and map out how you will cope.
Most of us have received little training on how to navigate life with stress effectively, and when we don’t properly understand the purpose of stress and our personal stress patterns, it can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health, our relationships, and other areas of our lives. In my book, Stress Wisely: How to Be Well in an Unwell World, I challenge everything you’ve been told about stress and help you take actionable steps to make your nervous system your greatest ally in every stage of life using a holistic approach to wellness.
Relax your shoulders. Unclench your jaw. Take a deep breath. It will all be okay.
Better days are ahead for all of us when we learn to stress wisely.
Hanley-Dafoe, R. (2023). Stress wisely: How to be well in an unwell world. Page Two.
McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it. Penguin Random House.
Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482