While we recorded this episode months ago, we feel that given our current health climate, it is especially vital for the wellbeing of our community. While there are unknowns we are facing as a world, what we all have in common is the challenge of navigating our emotional response to it. Hopefully learning how your body works in relation to stress might help you manage it a little better as we navigate these uncharted waters.
Lynn: I have a little bit of a fear of flying, not enough to keep me off an airplane. It’s a little uncomfortable in takeoffs and landings and I was sitting with a friend of mine and she said, “Oh I love takeoffs, it’s like being on a rollercoaster. Isn’t it exciting?’ She was responding to all those things that your body does when it’s under stress. As “wheeeeee” I’m going to do something fun, and I was thinking as it as, “Oh I’m not so sure I’m safe here.” So some people respond to things as stress and some people will respond to them as excitement.
Liz: Hey it’s Liz Mantel and in today’s episode we are gonna talk about the thing that stresses all of us out, and that’s stress. But are we giving stress a bad name? Are we not giving stress a fair shot? Maybe the reason we don’t handle stress well is because we don’t understand it. Maybe don’t really know what’s going on in our body, and if we did maybe stress wouldn’t be such a problem. So in today’s episode we’re gonna get right down to it. Right to the bottom of it. But we’re gonna need an expert for that.
Lynn: I’m Lynn Horne -Moyer.
Liz: She’s our expert.
Lynn: I’m the director of the doctorate program in psychology at Medaille College, and in my clinical practice I do stress management with my clients.
Liz: So what is stress?
*Record scratches off, Liz Interrupts*
Liz: I feel like that might be too broad to jump right into. Why don’t we go back.
*Record scratches again*
Liz: And let’s start with maybe the basics. What’s going on in our body when we stress?
Lynn: If you’re technical about it, stress is a difference from what we say called, “Homeostasis” So if you wanna think about it you’ve sort of got your basic stable way of living, and if anything good or bad happens, it’s going to take you out of that sort of balanced way of being.
Liz: But not all bodies are created equal right? So, our body could cause us to stress more or less than our neighbor?
Lynn: Yes, that’s true, there are people who are more predisposed to react more strongly, let’s say to stress. We all have kind of a basic level of what we call, “autonomic reactivity.” We have our voluntary nervous system which is all the stuff we think we’re gonna move, right so I wanna move my hand up there I moved it. But the automatic things what we call the autonomic nervous system is all that stuff we don’t have to think about. Breathing, heartbeat. You you don’t have to will your heart to beat. It just happens.
Liz: Ok, so a great example of this is being startled. Let’s say there’s a loud bang.
*Bang noise goes off*
Liz: One person might jump a lot, their heart starts to race and they almost lose their breath. While the person standing next to them just glitches a little bit. So while both people are reacting to that sound, their levels of reactivity are different.
*Classical music plays*
Lynn: Stress is a constellation if you will, of our thinking and our emotions and our environment and what’s going on in our body. There is no one element that makes it stress. If you’re at a party and everybody is jumping around, that could be stressful if that’s the way you feel about it. But it could just be happy and exciting and your body might not tell the difference between those two things, it might be your interpretation of those that might make the difference.
Liz: Ok so now we know that when our body is knocked off homeostasis that’s when we start to stress. We could perceive that as excitement, or we could perceive that as something that is threatening us. A scary situation, uncomfortable. But you still come across these people that no matter the situation, they’re as cool as a cucumber. Does that mean someone can be immune to stress?
Lynn: I don’t know if there’s anybody whose immune to stress, because if you’re out of- if you wanna say your comfort zone then you’re gonna respond to that somehow. But there are people who respond more with anxiety, there are people who talk about it more, there are people who worry about it more, and I think there are people who see stress as something wrong whereas there are other people who may interpret that differently.
Liz: So just because someone has a lower level of reactivity does not mean they’re immune to stress. It just means they interpret it in a different way. But something Lynn said had me thinking. She said some people respond with anxiety. Which thats a little weird, because in the english lexicon anxiety and stress are often interchangeable. We have anxiety and we have stress, but they’re two different things?
Lynn: Anxiety is an emotional response to stress or to fearful stimuli. If you wanna think about it, fear is when you are responding to a danger. Anxiety is when you’re responding not to a current danger, but to a participated danger.
Liz: I feel like this calls for another example. So let’s head out to the woods. Alright so we’re in the woods and we’re walking around and all of a sudden…
*Pause… Bear noise*
Liz: It’s a bear!
Lynn: If a bear is in the woods, I’m going to be afraid. Cause there’s a bear.
*Laughter from Liz and Lynn*
Lynn: Hopefully, right?
Liz: Sounds like a justifiable reaction. But let’s back it up a minute. Let’s say we’re just going on a walk or a hike through the woods and we think we might run into a bear.
Lynn: Then that’s more likely anxiety.
Liz: Right? Probably not going to run into a bear today, but I could. And so depending on how much it interferes with my fun and my walk in the woods verses just how it helps me to take good precautions, then it would anxiety and it might be a healthy level of anxiety or it might be a level of anxiety that makes me run to my car and just sit.
*Person running and shutting car door*
Liz: When we come back, does conquering stress mean achieving that perfect work-life balance? Since we know what’s going on inside of our body, can we control with what goes on outside of our body? And is technology one of the reasons that stress has become so overwhelming? Or is it actually helping us? Thats next..
*Music dies down, AD comes in*
*Happy music comes in again*
Liz: Let’s recap what we learned before the break. When our body stresses it’s being thrown off its level of homeostasis and depending on the factors around you- that stress constellation if you will. It could cause your body’s level of reactivity to be greater or even less than that of your neighbors. Now that we have a better understanding of what’s going on inside our body, maybe we can control it with what’s going on outside of our body. One example of stress that comes up in a lot of peoples life is trying to achieve that perfect work life balance. Being able to succeed in your career but also spend the precious time with your family. But is a perfect work life balance possible, now that we understand whats going on in our body?
Lynn: If you’re looking for perfection then you may be a bit of a perfectionist.
Lynn: Which might contribute to your stress, but if you’re talking about work life balance then you’re talking about how your personal life and your work life fit together. And one of the changes that- if you’ve got your cell phone with you all day and you’re on your work email, now we’re always at work.
Liz: So basically what you’re saying is you need to make yourself available to unplug?
Lynn: You don’t have to, but if you don’t then you have to figure out how always being accessible at work fits into your work life balance.
Liz: So while technology like the cell phone has made it possible for your business life to overtake your personal life, Lynn also says it’s created opportunities that weren’t there before the technology.
Lynn: You know I can go home and let my kids play out in the yard and I know that at work if they need me they can get me. It does divide my attention and that has some implications for stress that we think we’re multitasking and we’re really not.
*Laughter from Liz*
Lynn: We’re shifting our attention back and forth but it- it also might allow us to do things that we couldn’t do or allow- you know has probably allowed more women to be in the workforce because we’re kind of traditionally seen as the caregivers of the children and so its taken maybe some financial stress off of families. So there- it’s a mixed bag. But there is a fair amount of research that shows having some time in the present moment simplifying part of the day is a good thing.
Liz: So what Lynn is saying is that technology can either help or hurt your work life balance and finding a perfect solution might not be practical. But if used right, technology can help towards a better work life balance. But it got me thinking, did technology create this blurred line between work and life? If you think about it to a point back before computers and cell phones, when you left work- mostly you left work. Is that maybe why we stress more now? And to that point, do we stress more now than before technology?
Lynn: A lot of our technologies has transferred our work from being physical to being mental. So we probably have less stress if you think about it, I mean a farmer- if you don’t have a good crop you could starve. And there are a few of our jobs that really would amount to starving. Right, not making it through the winter. But when you’re anxious at work then the energy that your body produces is to deal with that anxiety is able to be used and sort of burned off physically.
Liz: So maybe it’s not whether we have more or less stress than before, maybe it’s how we deal with that stress.
Lynn: If your body mobilizes that energy-
Lynn: You if we’re gonna run from that bear-
Lynn: And you’re sitting in a car-
*Car horn goes off*
Lynn: You have nowhere to burn off that stress, and so it starts to do more damage to your body because it’s not being used. So your heart is going up-
Lynn: But not for any good reason and your stress hormone level is going up, but there’s nothing to cause them to go back down again.
Liz: Ok, time for another example. You’re a farmer-
*Shovel noise and goat sound*
Liz: And you’re working out in your field, and you realize that your crops aren’t as great as you thought they were gonna be this season. So the stress starts to build and it turns into anxiety worrying about not being able to feed your family through the winter.
*Typing noise, shovel and cow sounds*
Liz: However, instead of being stationary behind a desk working with technology like your computer or your cell phone, you’re active out in the field trying to make the crop work. So that pent up energy that’s built up from the stress and anxiety now has an outlet. Whereas if you’re just sitting in a car-
Lynn: You have nowhere to burn off that stress, and so it starts to do more damage to your body because its not being used. So your heart is going up but not for any good reason and your stress hormone levels are going up but there’s nothing to cause them to go back down again and if you’re gonna respond physically maybe it’s just by pushing on the accelerator of your car-
*Car taking off sound*
Lynn: Which is not a very safe thing to do, and it also has the disadvantage not really exercising that stress. And so the technology- even in terms of having cars, having tractors, you know working at computers as opposed to doing more kinds of physical work. All of those things probably have an effect on our choices in terms of how we respond to stress.
Liz: So now we know what’s going on in our body when we stress. We know that each person has different levels of reactivity and we also know that our surrounds can affect our reactions to stress. One person’s excitement could be another person’s fear. We now know that when we do stress, our body needs some place for that energy to go, and while before technology people could physically work it off. They were active in their jobs. Now with technology people don’t have that ability to physically work the energy out right away. So this leads us to our next question, how should we be responding to stress?
Lynn: There are many many ways to respond to stress. So of the ones that are better for us are things like exercising because we’re in a situation where bodies kind of misperceived what it needs to do when it’s giving us all this energy to respond to something we’re afraid of or stressed out about. Then exercise really helps with that, and it might even- as many other responses to stress do it might even make our bodies even a little less reactive in the first place. So it sorta helps us train our nervous system, and a lot of mind body things like meditation and relaxation have that mental side of things it works a bit more directly it doesn’t burn off the energy but it just helps cue the body to come out of that run from the bear mode- what’d we say it goes from activating the sympathetic nervous system to activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Liz: Just a quick refresher. The sympathetic and parasympathetic are both apart of the autonomic nervous system, which we learned earlier means they work involuntarily. The sympathetic is also known as the fight or flight- the active part. Where the parasympathetic is also known as the rest and digest- meaning when your body is at rest! So you can think of it that way. One causes the heart rate to increase while one causes the heart rate to decrease. Ok now we’re all on the same page.
Lynn: And so those two sides of that autonomic autonomic nervous system tend to counteract each other. So you can- can kinda go either direction and most people will do a combination or they may kinda like one better than the other.
Liz: So basically you can choose how to respond to stress, some people might enjoy going to the gym-
Liz: and running a few miles, hitting the bag, maybe even lifting some weights. While others might prefer to do yoga, or maybe meditate.
Lynn: So some mindfulness is meditation, but what a lot of people say about meditation? I can’t meditate, my mind wanders. People who are experts in meditation say that’s not necessarily a problem, as long as you are mindful of the fact that your mind is wandering-
Lynn: The idea is that you focus and don’t judge it, but they may not just be- it may not be a discipline that people find is helpful for them. But you could focus on a smell, you can focus on visual stimuli, you can do a lot of- a lot of things to kind of bring you either into or out of the present moment, but to bring that mental focus…
Liz: Now it’s all coming together, we understand how the body works when we are stressing, we understand why we respond that we do, and why some people have a high reactivity than others. We also now know that we have to get rid of that energy somehow and we do have options. We can either take the sympathetic route and try and work that off with activity or we could take the parasympathetic route and try and calm ourselves down through meditation or just focusing on something. But no matter which way we pick, we now know why we need to pick one way and what its doing to our body to bring it back to that homeostasis.
Lynn: Would you like me to to teach you a relaxation?
Lynn: Okay so for adults, we usually just say breathe in through the nose to the count of three, some people do four. Hold for the count of three, and then breathe out for the count of three. So if you want we could do it.
Liz: Yeah lets try it together!
Lynn: Let’s do it three times-
Lynn: And I’ll try not to blow into the microphone.
Liz: Okay, alright. (Laughing)
Lynn: And I usually tell my patients that I breathe really noisy just so we could do it together.
Lynn: Keep your eyes open, or however you’re more comfortable.
Lynn: And okay we’ll do it together.
Liz: Wait, let me set this up right!
Liz: Okay, go ahead.
Lynn: Breathe in through the nose. One, hold two, three. Out. Good.. Relax those shoulders, there you go get comfortable in your chair. In through the nose. One-
*Soft piano music playing*
Lynn: Hold two three. Out. There you go, one more time. In…. Hold…. Out…. Then you just breathe normally. And just notice the breath go in… and out..
Liz: This breathing technique is one of the simplest ways to activate rest and digest, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Lynn: If you breathe more slowly than your heart rate will also tend to go more slowly. Your digestive organs are gonna be more likely to work- you know sorta get those moving along- you know if you’re really afraid you kinda get an upset stomach because your body is saying, “I can’t digest that meal right now, I’ve got to run from a bear!”
Liz: Now we know ways we can try to bring our body back to homeostasis. When we have this great tool to use when we know we can’t actively work off that energy that’s being built up by stress. But if you’re still wondering, “Why do I still stress about things?” Here’s what Doctor Lynn Horne-Moyer has to say about that.
Lynn: The thing that I always liked to say about stress, it’s not all bad. I think that if you’re in a situation where you’re always running from stress, or seeing any level of anxiety as a negative then you can end up also not present in your life. And so being able to master anxiety and being able to tolerate a certain amount of stress is what really allows us to accomplish important things, because if somethings important- it is gonna create more stress, we care about it, the stakes are higher, but we wanna be able to do those things.
Liz: So there you have it, at the end of the day we’ve given stress a bad name. It’s really not the enemy, it’s something that everyone experiences- no matter how strong or weak they are. But now that we know what’s going on in our body and we understand the tools and how they work to bring us back to homeostasis. Maybe now we can get through those stressful situations a little easier.
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I want to thank Doctor Lynn A. Moyer for giving us her time and expertise. If you want to learn more about her and her work you can visit medaille.edu, thanks for listening and if you liked what you heard share with all your friends and don’t forget to subscribe to us on itunes. My name’s Liz Mantel and we’ll see you next time!