Stress is all around us. We hear about it. We talk about it. But we do know what it is? Like really know? Science gives us a definition: stress is when a physiological response is elicited from external stimuli.
We often think of stress as simply a feeling and equate it to worry. But it’s not just those things. It can affect a person’s biological and psychological state. Stress doesn’t always have to be bad. There are two types of stress: distress (from a negative event) and eustress (from a positive event).
In the 1920s, a psychologist named Walter Cannon described how animals handle stressed based on behavior. This is where acute stress was given the term fight or flight. When an animal is under intense stress, even if the stress is not real, a psychological and physiological reaction is triggered. Chemicals are instantly released, heart rate increases, breathing gets faster, muscles and blood vessels tighten. The result is energy to either fight or flee. This response is involuntary and involves the immune system, endocrine system, and central nervous system.
By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why in the heck we are going down this rabbit hole. And it’s a good question. In a nutshell, it’s because there is an overwhelming amount of data that tells us we are overscheduling and asking too much of our kids.
And many times, the results are scary.
There is a lot of research, studies, and data on how humans react to stress. For our purposes, we’ll use some research from Hans Selye. We adapt to stress and it can be broken down into three stages:
- Alarm reaction – this is where an external stressor disturbs us. Our body first notices and triggers the fight or flight response. If the energy released continually remains unused through a lack of physical activity, it can have harmful effects on the body like damage to muscle tissue, ulcers, high blood sugar, and stroke. We can also damage the heart and brain while increasing our risk of stroke or heart attack.
- Adaptation – This is where the body begins to counteract the external stimulus and restore the “normal” in your body through recovery, renewal, and repair in a process known as resistance. This happens almost immediately when the alarm phase begins and continues until the stressful condition or situation ends. If this process begins repeating too often, we leave little to no time for recovery. If that happens, the body moves into the next stage.
- Exhaustion – This is when the body has been depleted of energy, both physical and psychological. We have nothing left to fight off the thing that is stressing us. As a result, stress levels go up and stay up. This is when we begin to experience adrenal fatigue, burnout, overload, and dysfunction.
Chronic stress can have a profound impact on the mind and body. Nerve cells become damaged, memory and thinking become impaired, and risk for anxiety and/or depression is remarkably high.
We need to consider how stress works and interacts and can eventually damage our mind and body when we get back into the normal swing of things and this pandemic has ended. The demands of school, sports, and other activities are often too much and we’re putting the wellbeing of our selves and our kids in jeopardy.