Understanding and Overcoming Stress
Stress is the bane of my existence.
On a personal level I’m always trying to manage it, because I like to do lots of things. One thing finishes and I’m already onto the next. I have big dreams, big ideas and like to learn and grow, which means that life definitely feels interesting and exciting more than it would otherwise, I also feel like I’m always figuring stuff out instead of feeling like I have it already figured out.
Is that even a thing? I guess some people do have it figured out, for a while at least.
And on a professional level, when I was in health care, I would see patient after patient and almost every single one of them was weighed down by stress in a way that was impacting their health, whether it was energy, hormones, mental health, physical health.
Managing stress is the thing that is very high on my list of priorities. And I’m always thinking of ways of addressing it because, you know, life. We can’t always be meditating and going for walks and all the things we want to do, or know that we should do, to feel calm.
Ambient Stress: Unheard background noise
Then I started stress in a different way. Usually we think of stress as acute or chronic. Meaning is the stress short term (acute) – let’s say you have a deadline or you’re stuck in traffic or you have an argument with someone – vs long term – like you’re caring for a sick relative or you have ongoing financial struggles or a high pressure job. And of course the lines blur because if you have a difficult relationship with your spouse you might get into more arguments or if you commute to work, you might get stuck in traffic on a regular basis.
Let’s leave the definitions for a second though, understanding that it’s usually the way we think about stress. It is acute and short term or chronic and long term.
Recently, I started thinking about stress not just in terms of the stress, the thing causing the stress, and managing it for however long it lasts, but instead how can I understand and manage my threshold for stress?
And this leads me to the concept of ambient stress. And I think that knowing your ambient stress level can actually help you manage both acute and chronic stressors better.
Welcome to the XO Conversations Podcast. I’m your host, Rishma Walji. If you’re new to the podcast, welcome. And if you’re already a fan, I appreciate you and I’m so glad you’re here. On this podcast we explore topics related to identity, personal growth, awareness all in the pursuit of living our own XO (extraordinary) lives.
If you know me, my goal for each podcast is to help you think differently about the subject, have an ‘aha’ moment if you will, and hopefully to give you some tools or ideas to make changes – big or small – in your own life.
One of my more popular resources is my free workshop on emotional regulation. You can get it on the website livingxo.com/emotions
Let’s take the example of ambient sound. If you’re somewhere, say at home or at the office, you might hear some minimal ambient noise – the heater, the buzz of your appliances. Then you go out into the world, say you’re at the grocery store or a mall and you hear more noise, it’s the background noise of people who are talking, or people pushing carts around, or traffic.
Now imagine you’re at a night club or a noisy restaurant, the music is louder, the people are talking louder and it becomes harder to hear others or yourself.
Now let’s think of this ambient noise in terms of thresholds. How much noise can you handle at any given moment?
For me, for example, I love listening to music when I’m cooking or even in the background when we’re having dinner together as a family. But when I’m working, and thinking and writing, I need to have quiet. So my threshold for ambient noise is lower.
Now let’s take stress and look at it in a similar way.
Your body’s response to stress
First, we need to understand that when we look at what stress actually is, we tend to think of it as anything that causes us to get ‘worked up’ or to ‘feel worried’ or ‘overly busy’.
In fact, stress is your body’s response to a threat.
So say you’re in a jungle being chased by a tiger, you have a threat, you want to survive so your body increases your heart rate, your breathing, your blood pressure so you can run away and survive. You might have heard of it as a sympathetic nervous system response.
Of course there’s some more complexity to this but for our purposes, just understand that what we think of as stress isn’t necessarily what your body is thinking of as stress. Your body is reacting as if it’s under attack. It’s not like you have different responses for different things, if you’re in a jungle and you see a tiger, you respond a certain way. Also, a deadline is a tiger. A loud noise is a tiger, an argument is a tiger.
Now in theory, when the stress is finished, when the tiger is gone, you go back into a parasympathetic state where you can relax, you can stop and go to the bathroom and sleep.
When you’re under attack, your body needs to divert resources to certain organs so you can get away. So your digestive system is not a priority, which is why many people who are constantly under stress, have trouble with constipation.
So we are built to handle short term stress. But at some point, we need to take a break. We need to find shelter from the tiger to recover and recuperate.
This is why chronic stress is so hard on us. We don’t get a break, it taxes our bodies in so many ways and contributes to many illnesses because we can’t keep up this response indefinitely.
The Stress You Don’t Even Know You Have: Tackling Ambient Stress in Your Daily Life
Now when we think of ambient stress, think of it as the stress that is around you all the time. Like ambient noise.
- You’re bombarded by negative news stories
- You’re dealing with text messages or emails of urgent work things
- Maybe you’re moving so you’re living out of boxes all the time and can’t find anything
- You feel disorganized
- You don’t sleep well (which is a stressor for your body)
- Etc. the list goes on.
Think of ambient stress as something that might be chronic, negative, probably not urgent but you can notice that it’s always sort of there in the background.
I suppose it might overlap with chronic stress but to me, when I think of this term ambient stress it made more sense to me. Because I don’t think of having kids as stressful, I mean parenting certainly can be, but there is more ambient stress in my day because I’m thinking of my kids, worried about them, busy with them, driving them around, signing forms etc. There’s more on my plate every day so to speak.
And it makes sense to me physiologically because I don’t know if you’ve experienced this but even though my kids are now teenagers, when I’m not in the same house as them, like if I’m traveling or they’re sleeping over somewhere, somehow I just sleep better. I’m able to sleep in more, whereas when they’re home, it’s like some part of my mind is just thinking about them all the time. Even if they’re sleeping. I can’t control it but it’s like I sleep with one ear open. Like I’m listening for something to happen.
It’s not what I would think of as acute or chronic stress but it is ambient.
Ambient Stress and Your Ability to Cope
And this concept of ambient stress has changed so much for me. How I decide my schedule, where I place my boundaries, what I agree to.
Because I know if my ambient stress levels go up, when I’m busy, when my kids are stressed, when I’m organizing an event, then my threshold for additional stress (no matter what it is) is lower. I’m more likely to crash or get overwhelmed if one more thing tips me over the edge.
So now I’ll plan some time off during a busy season so I don’t overcommit, I’ll plan a date with my husband if one of us is traveling for work because the disconnection in our marriage causes ambient stress, I’ll prioritize my sleep when I know I’ll have a bunch of late nights in a row (sleep is key for me – my sister in law teases me that if I’m up too late I’ll turn into a pumpkin because I may have dozed off on the sofa, possibly mid conversation, when we hang out late at night).
Surviving Stress: Building Your Resilience to Cope with Daily Life
Let me give you some other examples:
- If you’re a teacher, there might be additional duties at certain times of the year. Some might be stressful, some might just be things to be done that you might not call stress but you feel as ambient noise or ambient stress. Let’s say in June when school is wrapping up for the year (at least here, that’s when it is). So during that time, if you’re expecting that time of year to be busier, perhaps your threshold for stress will be lower. You might need more ‘quiet’ so to speak.
- Maybe you have some chronic pain or recurring pain – like a very heavy period or a sprained ankle or something like that. It adds stress to your life and lowers your threshold for more stress. It’s harder to add one.more.thing.
- Maybe you struggle with anxiety or depression. That might not be classified by others as chronic stress but in my mind, it counts as stress. And certainly lowers your threshold.
I’ll just end by saying that for years in my practice I noticed that when people have high levels of stress, and not enough let’s call it rest or a reprieve from stress, at some point, when the threshold is crossed – say something big happens – a family member gets really sick or they have a big flood/leak in their house, or someone passes away – something intense that they have to deal with but they no longer have any reserve energy for that stressor – so many times they would end up with a major diagnosis after – diabetes, lupus, or any number of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Stress
- What is your ambient stress level?
- How close are you to your maximum threshold?
- And how can you not only reduce stress but also improve your threshold and ability to manage additional stress – whether planned or unexpected?
I would love to hear your aha moments, from this episode or any others for that matter. You can write a review on itunes – oh my gosh, I love reading the reviews; or you can message me, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hearing from you is honestly the best part of doing this, so please do connect!
Thank you so much for joining me!
Take good care, until next time!
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