Most of us will be familiar with the word stress, but its definition can be highly individual. For some it might bring to mind a challenge or excited apprehension, but for others it might be viewed as something to avoid or carry negative connotations. Addressing stress is an important part of the journey towards better brain health so it’s important to understand what it is, and how it can be tackled. Let’s take a closer look…
What is stress?
The word stress can be full of ambiguities, broadly it can be used to refer to an event (stressor) or our response (physical or psychological)¹. While stress is very personal, the elements which can trigger it are thought to be universal. Dr Sonia Lupin and her group from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) have come up with a helpful acronym that conceptualises the situations which cause stress as being NUTS. Think of stress as falling into the below categories²:
An experience that’s entirely new such as having a child.
Something that you could not have predicted and had no way of knowing would happen such as getting into an accident on your way to work.
Threat to the ego:
Your capabilities are called into question such as a boss who constantly second guesses your work.
Sense of control:
Something that makes you feel you have little to no control over a situation such as your spouse falling seriously ill and you feeling powerless to help them.
Lupin argues that stress is the biological mechanism by which we respond to a threat (a NUTS situation) in the environment, be that an acute/absolute stressor (think natural disasters, major accidents), or something more chronic/relative (time pressure, traffic, long commutes, work deadlines, financial stress).
The stress response
Stress isn’t something unique to our busy, modern day lifestyles. When our cavemen ancestors were faced with predators, their stress response was activated so they could fight or flee, ultimately protecting them. This biological response remains to this day (though what’s stressing us may no longer be a woolly mammoth!). Our autonomic nervous system, and our adrenocortical system (HPA axis) are important protectors of our bodies, in situations of acute stress³. They release stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that allow us to respond appropriately to the threat detected³. In situations of threat, this provides us with a response that is protective and adaptive³.
Positive Aspects of Stress
Not all stress is negative, some can be positive such as working towards a promotion or an adrenaline-filled activity. Stress can help us respond effectively to challenges posed by our environment, motivating us towards stability or resolution³.
Managing Negative Stress
How we view stress and respond to it can be vastly different from person to person due to the different ways we interpret stress—what stresses someone else might not even register on another person’s radar. The first part of tackling any form of stress is to recognise what might be causing it (remember the handy acronym NUTS).
What are the sources of stress in your life? Take note of any recent situations in the past week that have created stress. You can use the NUTS acronym to help you reflect on what is triggering your stress.