Redefining Our Relationship to Stress

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We all encounter situations in which we encounter stress.  Typically we attribute these scenarios to the events themselves and consider the experience to be negative.  Can we redefine our relationship to this occurrence?

Both in everyday life as well as within occupational situations, we commonly encounter discussions of stress and how to reduce it.  This is particularly true within the healthcare system.  Typically, what is considered within this notion of stress is the presence of particular events or situations that result in feelings and emotions that can include worry, anxiety, overwhelm, a lack of control, as well as others.  Commonly, we attribute the experience of these feelings to the event or situation itself.  With a greater understanding of our biology, particularly as it pertains to the intersection of our psychology and physiology, we can come to appreciate that it is not the event or situation itself that results in any negative feelings, but rather the manner in which we experience and process the cues and stimuli associated with the situations.

It can be helpful to consider the impact of stress within the context of physical activity.  Across all areas of exercise, such as strength and endurance training, the commonly followed principle is that we push the limits of our physical capacity.  While this may cause temporary fatigue and discomfort, it is only through this process that we increase our strength and endurance, allowing us to tolerate greater degrees of activity before reaching our capacity in the future.  Ultimately, we are not able to progress in our physical capabilities and capacity without pushing the limits of our comfort.

The paradigm within exercise and physical training is well understood and appreciated by most, if not all, people.  While this process is well established and considered to be true within the domain of physical activity, the underlying principles are the same when applied to our psychological, emotional, and nervous system threshold and capacity.  In order to be able to tolerate higher consequence situations and events from these perspectives, it is necessary to train our abilities in lower consequence environments and gradually increase our threshold to tolerance, just as we do with physical exercise.

As was previously described, the term ‘stress’ is typically employed to denote our experience of a given situation or event.  While not exclusively, we also tend to reserve this term for negative or adverse feelings or emotions related to the circumstance.  We do not typically use the term for the same scenario within the context of physical exercise.  For the reasons discussed above, this convention does not reflect the reality of these situations.  

It is also evident that not all people experience the same degree of ‘stress’ even when exposed to the same situation.  The inference that can be drawn from this recognition is that it may not be the scenario or event itself that causes the feelings or emotions we label as ‘stress’.  Rather it may be the manner in which we process and subsequently imprint the situation within our nervous system that plays a substantially greater role in the experience of ‘stress’.  This impact on the nervous system is in part related to the manner in which we experience and manage the current situation and is also strongly influenced by past exposures and experiences.  

It is important to note that there are some situations that are inherently so extreme that it may actually be the event that results in the experience of ‘stress’.  It is, however, also important to recognize that even in such situations, any future impact related to such events is not the result of the event itself (it has already occurred and is no longer present) but rather the impact the event had upon on nervous system.  It is the imprint that is left on our nervous system that is carried forward from past experiences.

Following the above rationale, we can further deduce that if it is not the event itself, but rather the manner in which we process and imprint the situation within our nervous system, there can be a measure of control we can apply to optimize such scenarios.  In essence, can we provide a means of influencing the extent to which given situations result in the experience we label as ‘stress’?  

The response to this question is that through the application of mind-based and body-based skills and strategies, it becomes possible to influence the manner in which we not only experience these situations but also how it is imprinted within our nervous system.  Particularly when considered from a polyvagal informed perspective, this becomes a powerful means through which we are able to not only tolerate progressively higher consequence situations but also further our ability to be at our best during such events and increase our capacity and tolerance for future high demand situations.  Again, this is similar in concept to increasing our physical strength and endurance.

These skills and strategies effectively provide training for our nervous system.  The specifics with regards to training our nervous system have been detailed in a previous article.  By regularly training these skills, we are able to manage increasing demands without overwhelming our ability to be at our best.  In addition, these same skills allow us to recover back to baseline, or homeostasis, more effectively following high demand situations and high consequence scenarios.  This recovery process is essential in order to be ready for upcoming situations as well as to promote our health and wellbeing.  The importance of recovery cannot be overstated and has been previously detailed in other articles.

In other domains, the terms allostasis and allostatic load are commonly utilized to describe this paradigm.  Allostasis refers to the high demand activities we are able to manage and tolerate without becoming overwhelmed.  Those situations which result in overwhelm are termed allostatic load.  In practice, the above described principles will increase our ability to remain in allostasis even in the face of increasingly higher demand situations and simultaneously will reduce the allostatic load we experience.  Such a situation is ideal not only for sustainable high performance, but is also essential to promote health and wellbeing.

When viewed from this paradigm, the polyvagal informed Practices of The Healthcare Athlete allow for increased allostasis and reduced allostatic load.  This applies not only within the context of the healthcare system, but across all domains of life.  These principles provide the optimal means by which to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

Dana, D.  Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.

Porges, SW.  Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.

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