Stress is here. Sometimes it is so thick we can’t see anything else. Other times, a faint, invisible film hangs over our lives, brains, and bodies.
We can think of stress along a spectrum of experience that ranges from the chronic to the acute. Within that range are general sub-states that vary based on whether we are aware that we are in a stress condition and what we are trying to do about the situation.
Across the entire spectrum, stress is grinding away, affecting our body and our mind. The eventual general impact of stress has already been outlined by stress researchers from the 1950s or so. The “grind” can come from too much stress hormones being released for too long. Or it can be a negative attitude spawned by stress that blinds us to our options, pushes away from stress-lowering social activity, and keeps us glued to the couch instead of exercising.
Stress grinds. Immunity is decreased, major organs get hit, our brain changes. Bad news.
The 4 major stops on the grind spectrum:
Chronic, unconscious stress – also known as “stealth stress” – This is the tricky one. We might feel pretty good or even great but below the surface our bodies are a bit more agitated than they have to be. The agitation can be measured through the presence of stress hormones, changes in the variability of the time between each of our heartbeats, changes in our skin that reflect changes in skin resistance to electrical charges, and in a degree of heightened continuous muscle tension. All of these changes can be measured using technology but can’t be picked up with our own body sense. In the coming years, other ways of detecting stealth stress will be uncovered and we will be able to turn to this new technology to wake up to what is going on in our own bodies.
Stealth stress creeps in a couple of ways: environmental conditions like loud sounds or strong lighting impinges upon our body; little changes in the social pecking order in our lives; a tad bit more uncertainty about what’s coming next; and other tiny, drip, drip, drip, ways.
Chronic, conscious stress, without a solution/managing focus – Ah, this one we know. Burnout is a great example of this position on The Stress Grind Spectrum. Here we are in a situation that we know is driving us to be out of whack but we keep in the situation. We have developed ways to “put up with” or blunt the sharp edges (i.e. with more food, more drink, more television, more Internet). Especially notable in chronic, conscious stress, whether it is burnout or some other situation, we are not putting much energy towards thinking of solutions to the issue or even thinking much in the way of investigation of alternatives, observing to learn more, etc. We are like flies in a spider’s web, we know it and just assume the spider (stress making us sick or driving us nuts) will come someday to devour us. Trapped. Not good. Oh well.
Acute, conscious stress with a solution/managing focus – Here we are in the fire of stress and we actively looking and acting for ways to do something about it. Solutions can vary from helping others who are stressing us; finding answers and fixing a problem; removing a stressor; tapping new resources to control the stressor, etc. The emphasis here is action. Action to tackle stress. We can be hit with things we don’t want to deal with the moment but we are actively addressing the challenge. Or, we actually may be seeking acute, conscious stress such as when we take on new challenges like: running a half marathon; taking a public speaking engagement; getting up and performing; going on a blind date. Stress is there and we can feel it but we know that it will not last forever and we are trying our best to deal with it.
Acute, conscious stress without a solution/managing focus – Here we are in the thick of a stressful situation and we aren’t doing anything about it. Why? Most likely we lack the capability to be solution focus because anxiety or even panic has kidnapped our brains and shut down our executive functions. Executive functions include: analysis, planning, working memory and more. All of that is gone because we have been taken over by pure body reaction. Our bodies have methods to shut down everything we normally feel and think so that it can put all energy towards saving our bacon—getting us to take flight, to fight, or to freeze. In anxiety and panic, we are under the influence of very old, primitive, and darn serious brain/body mechanisms that aren’t interested in idle chatter, hanging out, taking it easy, or speculation.
Bottom-line: We need to be aware of this demading spectrum of grind (and pain) and, of course, do something about it. More about that later.