A stressor refers to something in the environment that evokes an internal stress response. This environmental stressor could be something that poses a threat or challenge to your health, family, finances, schedule, or routine. When a stress response shows up it can be acute and intense or chronic. Your personal stress response is a dynamic process influenced by many variables including; coping style, support system, previous exposure to the stressor, underlying mental health concerns, personality traits, and cultural or systemic pressures.
You are likely quite familiar with several types of stress responses. Physical responses such as rapid heartbeat, trouble breathing or chest pain. Cognitive and emotional responses like reduced self-confidence, poor concentration, memory loss, irritability, worry, or hopelessness. When our stress increases above a baseline, manageable level, we might alter our behaviour using healthy, or not so healthy coping mechanisms. We might spend more time on our screens, change our eating habits, increase alcohol or drug use, or withdraw from friends and family. Unsurprisingly, these behavioral changes are less healthy, and if you catch yourself doing these as your go-to, it may be a sign that you could use some healthier coping strategies for increased stress. The more we practice healthy responses to stress, the more we build resilience and future adaptability to stress. Looking at ways to build resilience to safeguard oneself in times of stress can be highly valuable.
The general adaptation syndrome (GAS) model of stress describes three stages we move through when facing an environmental stressor: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In each phase, we can learn about healthy ways to best cope.
In the initial alarm stage of stress, our fight or flight hormonal response is triggered as we evaluate the threat; ensuring safety and reducing the nervous system response becomes the focus. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery are all examples of effective ways to reduce arousal.
In the second resistance stage of stress, the individual is adapting to the stress exposure and returning to a more balanced, restful state. This second stage is the time to engage in mindfulness practice, gratitude and positive self-talk, and a commit to building relationships and self-care routines.
If the stress reaction continues, we may move into the third stage. Exhaustion can cause us to feel overwhelmed by the stressor and may result in an inability to find a positive strategy to cope. Tuning in to our values, engaging in a spiritual outlet and/or accepting the support of a counsellor or mental health professional can help individuals move through the burden of stress exhaustion.
Building Resilience is the ultimate goal for stress management. While genetic and environmental exposure plays a part in our coping strategies and baseline resilience – fostering acceptance, optimism, and compassion for self and others goes a long way. Building social connections and social supports is also helpful as these play a huge role in resilience to stress. And finally – keep going and keep moving – one day at a time - you will get through it, and it will pass.