Growing up, the way we learn to cope with stress is mainly through watching how our parents and others cope with stress. Thus, if we see others coping with stress in maladaptive ways, we are likely to cope with stress in a similar fashion. Similarly, if we had parents who invalidated or minimized our emotions growing up, such as telling us to not to cry, etc., we might learn ineffective ways of coping or dealing with our problems (Nezu, Nezu, D’Zurillam, 2013).
Early life stress can impact how we deal with current stress.
The impact of early life stress can make some of our biological systems react more hyperactively thereby increasing our sensitivity to all types of stress, including both biological and psychological (Nezu, Nezu, D’Zurillam, 2013). Further, dealing with stressful experiences early on in our lives, can prove even more problematic if we have certain genotypes—some of which can increase how vulnerable we are to experiencing negative outcomes later in life. S
Such stress can be relatively minor, like dealing with an illness or having to move multiple times. On the other hand, stress can be traumatic, such as in the case of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Other forms of stress can be the result our socioeconomic status, discrimination, lacking resources, addiction, being bullied at school, and so on.
Yet, we know now that when we learn to cope effectively with stress, even in the presence of genetic vulnerability, we can influence how our genetics are expressed (what is known as epigenetics). In other words, we can either turn the light on or off when it comes to gene expression, limiting the negative impact on our immune functioning (Nezu, Nezu, D’Zurillam, 2013). One thing to note, however, is that the goal is not to eliminate stress entirely, but to cope better with it. Further, the absence of stress during childhood can also affect one’s health negatively (Nezu, Nezu, D’Zurillam, 2013). So, a little stress is good, but chronic stress can lead to a host of difficulties.
If left unchecked, stress can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.
Chronic stress can negatively affect our immune functioning, increasing our susceptibility to disease (Nezu, Nezu, D’Zurillam, 2013). In fact, researchers have found that chronic stress can affects us physiologically, increasing our susceptibility to conditions like coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer, increase in pain, etc.; behaviorally, leading to burnout, aggression, etc.; and emotionally, leading to depression and anxiety.
The body is designed to react to stress via the fight, flight or freeze response.
In our bodies we have two systems which help to regulate this response, i.e. the sympathetic nervous system—which prepares our body to engage intense physical exertion and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response—and the parasympathetic nervous system—which activates to help relax us and seeks to bring our body back into balance (Linehan, 2015). The problem with constant stress is that our body gets the message that we are always in danger—that we are trying to run away from something that is going to cause us harm (from an evolutionary perspective this helped keep us alive). As a result, stress hormones are being released constantly throughout our bodies.
If stress remains constant and it is not dealt with appropriately, this can lead to clinical levels of distress such as depression and anxiety.
Experiencing a major negative life stressor, such as dealing with a chronic illness, going through a divorce, caring for a loved one who is sick, etc. can all increase the likelihood that we will experience more stressful problems in our daily lives. That is, these stressors can put us at risk for experiencing yet another major negative life event, such as losing our job, getting sick ourselves, etc. Further, the longer the snowball effect of stress goes on, the more likely we are to suffer from depression and/or anxiety.
What is even more alarming is that if we have suffered from depression in the past but have not yet addressed our chronic stress issues, a situation that may have once only triggered a minor stress response may now lead to a relapse in clinical depression; in other words, the presence of daily stress can lower our threshold for tolerating stress and ultimately lead to negative health outcomes. Thus, the longer we deal with daily stress, the more sensitive we become to the negative effects of stress, i.e. it takes less stress to trigger poor health outcomes and make us feeling like our brain is crashing. This is known in Problem Solving Therapy as the stress sensitization hypothesis. Unfortunately, this can be a vicious cycle, as poor health can lead to the creation of more stress in our lives both on physiological and emotional levels.
Our brains can trick us into thinking there is danger when there is not, but there is hope!
Because of the way our brains are designed, often our emotions get interpreted as threats. That is, the “fight” or “flight” response gets activated, giving us “Danger!” signals. However, through learning new ways to cope with stress, our brains can learn to function more resiliently, reducing how negatively stress affects us. The good news is that all of these skills can be learned and developed to help us deal with stress more adaptively. In fact, the research is clear: learning coping strategies can help you to become better at dealing with whatever life throws your way.
If you're suffering from chronic stress, let us help. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.