Do you recognize when you are stressed out, but can’t find a way to overcome the negative feelings that often accompany stressful situations? BeWell at Stanford University talked with Kim Bullock, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford School of Medicine, about what stress is really all about and how we can better manage it.
How do you define stress?
While stress can be defined in many different ways, I (as a neuropsychiatrist) view stress in relation to negative emotions: when we are stressed, we just plain “feel bad.” An emotional response in the neural circuitry of the brain tells us stress is present, and this negative emotion urges the caveman inside of us to make an informed change in our behavior. Fortunately, emotions usually are adaptive and help motivate us to take actions to make our life better.
For example, imagine you are on a beautiful hike and a dangerous predator suddenly appears and is heading your way. Evolution steps in and uploads one of three different options — fight, flee or freeze — and prepares your physiology to implement one of them. Such a confrontation with danger, dread or fear — together with the demanding need to decide among difficult options — defines a highly stressful incident. If your emotion on the hike is anger, you may attack the predator, which may be a good idea if the predator can be intimidated and you are physically able to overtake the animal. A more modern day example could be the emotion of fear experienced in a hostile work environment that may motivate a person to find a new job in a friendlier workplace.
However, in certain instances emotions can interfere with problem solving and functioning. For example, in the hiking scenario, anger could be quite deadly if the predator is not intimidated or we are physically weaker than the animal. In this case, we probably should be fleeing or hiding from the animal instead of fighting. If the maladaptive emotion of anger gets us to fight in this scenario, we’ve probably just been eaten. Similarly, in the modern world, if we are experiencing maladaptive stress or fear in a perfectly safe workplace, we may need to change the way we feel instead of looking for a new job. Unhelpful emotions and behaviors can cause poor decision-making and make stress worse.
What are the most common causes of stress?
The causes of stress are the same as the causes of negative emotions and are multifactorial. Thoughts, emotions, behaviors and physiology are all intimately intertwined and influenced by events and our surroundings.
--Stanford News Service