Inside the Stress Spectrum: Quick vs. Enduring Effects And How To Build Resilience

women with hands over face stressed out

Inside the Stress Spectrum: Quick vs. Enduring Effects And How To Build Resilience

Crack! The sharp, hollow sound of my son Jake's head hitting against the skull of an opposing soccer player going up for a header sent a shot of hormones through my veins that instantly transformed me into a superwoman. I hurdled over two fences and sprinted across the soccer field to reach my son faster than Sha Carri’ Richardson.


Thank you, stress response system, for instantly kicking into gear to deliver the hormones needed to leap two tall fences and run like the wind to get to my injured son.


I’m guessing you’ve experienced a similar superhuman hormonal stress response from your own high-stress trigger at some point in your life. It’s a sight to behold. Thankfully, once the short-term stressor passes, our bodies go back to normal with no problem.  I call this kind of stress response quick & clean. 


It’s not the quick and clean stress responses that pose the problem for my health coaching clients. There is another stress response, what I call the chronic and dirty stress response, that stands in the way of health and maintaining a healthy body weight.


In this article, my good friend Dr. Stefani Tiveron teaches us what happens in our bodies when we are under stress. Stef unpacks the two different stress responses we experience, what happens with our hormones, and how to become more stress-resilient so we can live in our best state of health and maintain a healthy body weight. 


Take it away, Stef!


Stress is a trigger, like an alarm, that initiates a cascade of signals to help initiate a protective response. 


We all experience triggers for stress in our daily lives. Real or perceived stressful triggers serve as signals to engage the body’s stress response for protection or action. In other words, “Fight or Flight”. There are other responses; however, it’s useful to think of stress and its effects through the lens of the sympathetic nervous system, aka “the fight or flight” response, especially when stress is short-lived. The physiological and behavioral responses that occur from acute stressors are healthy and normal. Increased stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine flood the body to ensure we have the energy and focus to stay on high alert and respond quickly. 


Unpacking Short-Term vs. Long-Term Stress Responses


Short-term stress responses occur via nerve signals from the brain to the adrenals, which produce acute stress chemicals known as catecholamines, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones result in the typical fight or flight responses: increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased metabolic rate, changes in blood flow, etc. These physiological changes are short-lived. Once the stressor passes, physiology returns to normal. Blood pressure and heart rate will lower, for example. 


Long-term stress responses involve the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which can involve the short-term stress response too. It’s a cascade of signaling events involving multiple messengers (hormones) from different “stops” along the HPA axis. 


Stress signals are picked up by the hypothalamus (brain) and relayed to the pituitary gland (part of the brain) via hormones (messengers). These hormones send their messages through the blood to the adrenal glands, which respond to the “stress signal” with their own hormones. These hormones can be divided into two categories - glucocorticoids (cortisol) and mineralocorticoids (aldosterone). This is a slower process compared to the acute response, which can occur in seconds. The release of cortisol, for example, can take up to 30 minutes. 


Glucocorticoids are hormones that regulate metabolism, inflammation, and immune responses. 


Mineralocorticoids are hormones that play an important role in regulating fluid balance and blood pressure by regulating water and electrolyte balance in the body, mainly by promoting sodium retention and potassium excretion in the kidneys. 





The Importance Of Building Stress Resilience 


The persistent effects of the long-term stress response are associated with chronic illness and disease. Increased blood sugar, suppressed immune function, altered salt-water balance, and elevated blood pressure are changes that are rooted in many diseases, including long COVID. 


Both the perception of stress and our response to stress are highly individualized. Meaning, anything can qualify as stress if it’s a trigger for you or if it requires a response.


Acute stressors are transient and often associated with anxiety and panic but are also related to excitement, heightened focus, and motivation. This can be incredibly helpful if we need to leverage those responses to help us overcome a challenging or anxiety-provoking situation, such as speaking in front of a large group (if that makes you nervous). 


Chronic stressors can come from mental and emotional events, blood sugar imbalance, inflammation, immune dysfunction, dysbiosis (altered gut microbes), hormonal imbalance, nutrient deficiencies, and environmental toxins. Chronic stress results in constant activation of the stress response system, which leads to changes in cortisol release patterns. Over time, these changes catch us in a loop and keep us stuck in dysfunction.


We can't hide from stress but can improve how we respond to it. We can grow from it, especially when we adopt strategies that make us stronger and more resilient in the face of stress. How we respond to, or buffer stress is crucial for resiliency. 


When followed up with rest and recovery and a growth mindset, stress builds resiliency. There's a saying, “it's not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts” - Zig Ziglar.


Resiliency is all about the bounce-back factor. 


Highly resilient people have a higher threshold for stress; when the going gets tough, they know how to deal with it. Luckily, there is no magic to resiliency. Anybody can cultivate it and practice it. 


Resource: Seven principles of building personal resilience : practical ways of growing through adversity


Breaking The Stress Loop With Coping Mechanisms That Work For You


Scheduling time for reflection can help us explore triggers. From that place, we have the opportunity to soothe and buffer stress in truly supportive ways. Watching Netflix while drinking a glass of wine and eating a bag of chips is not a coping mechanism. I’m not saying that you can’t do these things. I’m saying, let’s not confuse those behaviors as coping mechanisms. 


If you tend to suppress your stress or avoid it, you’re not processing it. Activities that facilitate avoidance or suppress the stress response are not going to buffer stress. You likely won’t feel better when you cope in this way. 


Unprocessed emotions and thoughts decrease resilience, reduce our capacity to respond to stress, and keep us stuck in stress loops


A typical stress loop looks like this.


Eat more (to regulate unprocessed emotions), sleep less (because stress is not processed, so it’s still on your mind), stop exercising (because you are likely tired from not sleeping), feel demotivated and upset because you aren’t taking care of yourself (exercise also makes you feel good), then eat more to deal with these new emotions (frustration, anger, guilt, etc). The cycle repeats. That’s one loop. There are hundreds, probably thousands, loops like this. 


The behavioral and hormonal changes associated with daily stress make it difficult to get unstuck. This leads to immune issues, hormone imbalances, accelerated aging, chronic illness, and many other physiological and psychological patterns. 


If stress continues to trap you or keep you stuck in dysfunctional loops, start processing. 


Processing looks like this: get curious and ask yourself these questions.


What triggered you? 

What are you feeling emotionally? 

What sensations do you notice in your body? 

Does this situation feel similar? 

What part of you was triggered by this situation? Is it a part of you that feels misunderstood, ignored, excluded, rejected, or underappreciated? 

Is this a pattern in your life? 


Use your insights to highlight strengths and better understand vulnerabilities. Everyone has different capabilities and limits when it comes to stress. 


“Resilience in dealing with adversity requires open-mindedness and a flexible problem-solving approach, allowing for listening, consideration of differing views and being open to a change of tactics or even strategy.” - Rod Warner via Seven principles of building personal resilience : practical ways of growing through adversity


Our daily habits can support a flexible and adaptable stress response or keep us trapped in constant struggle mode. The drain of persistent stress is a state of mind. It’s not about the stress itself; our perception and response to it matters. Do not mistake your stress as “not real” because you don’t work 16 hours a day or manage a multi-million dollar company with 100 employees. Stress is stress. 


Let’s Wrap Up With A Simple Equation


Physiological challenges (chronic activation of stress response) + stressors = decreased resiliency


This equation highlights two approaches for supporting your stress response. Both work together to build resiliency.  


  1. Physiological challenges: Support your brain and body with foundational health practices like restorative sleep, balance work/rest, nourishing foods that regulate blood sugar levels, connection, time for creativity and play, frequent movement, healthy boundaries, etc. These should be individualized according to your health needs.
  2. Explore stressors by processing your triggers to understand them better. This requires compassionate curiosity. Then, identify gaps or what you’re missing. What do you need to move through this challenge? From that place, you can implement strategies that will help you manage future triggers. Strategies might include learning a new skill, a perspective shift, creating and enforcing boundaries, or working with a coach or therapist for additional support and education.


This approach will ensure that you adapt to stress in healthy ways while increasing your stress tolerance.


Ann here again…


Remember, you dont have to do this alone. Schedule a discovery health call with me today to build your health care plan for stress resistance. 

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