Understanding Stress

Problem Solving

Stress is a part of everyday life, but when we better understand where it comes from, how it manifests in our bodies, and what it yields in our life, we’re better equipped to handle it when it comes up. Building resilience to stress is an important part of supporting our alcohol-free life, instead of resorting to alcohol to calm us down.

Stress is the reaction of our bodies to physical, emotional, or psychological changes within our environment or our body. Stress can range from normal and harmless, to very intense and damaging. It can greatly influence things like our mental and physical health - long term stress plays a large role in a multitude of ailments like heart disease, depression, and even cancer. When we manage stress well, we are resilient against unexpected changes in life, but when we manage stress poorly, we are vulnerable to distress, disease, and unhappiness.

Stress + The Body

But what exactly happens with our bodies when we’re stressed? A physical stress response is another way of describing our “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When we encounter a stressful situation, our body releases a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This is a highly evolutionary response; our bodies have been doing this since cavemen needed to run from hungry dinos. It’s our body’s way of saying, “RUN!” But in this world where we spend more time at a desk than we do evading prehistoric predators, sometimes these stress responses can do more harm than good. And when we let this stress build up over time without any resolution, it can take a toll on our physical and emotional health.

When these stress hormones are released, our nervous system becomes hyperstimulated. We have two different systems within our nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, which sends this jolt of energy, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings us down after the threat has ceased. In a healthy, functioning system, we activate our sympathetic nervous system and then the parasympathetic nervous system brings us back down. However, many of us are not able to bring ourselves back down from this stress on our own, especially if the “threat” is something persistent and ongoing. (Like, say, life in 2020 and beyond.) Our sympathetic nervous system remains activated, continuing to send stress hormones through our bodies. This is one of the reasons many of us have turned to alcohol to relieve stress in the past; as a depressant, it literally acts as that parasympathetic nervous system.

When we understand what happens within our bodies when we have a stress response, it becomes much more apparent why it’s imperative that we learn healthy coping mechanisms in alcohol-free living. If we can find positive things like breathwork or exercise or rest or creating that help bring us down from our body’s stress response, we’re less likely to reach for something like alcohol to bring us down. And when we can work on reducing or eliminating stressful experiences, we’re even better prepared to handle our alcohol-free life with confidence. Stay tuned as we dive into stress in the next few days.

Cleveland Clinic. (2015, February.) Stress. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress
Harvard Health Publishing. (2011, March.) Understanding the stress response. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response