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Lecture 1: What is Stress? Part II
SPEAKER Clay Cook:
Research indicates that 90% of people experience chronic stress. That means stress that sticks
with you for a prolonged period of time and can have a negative impact on your minds, body,
and behavior. There's a really, kind of jargony, or scientific term, that we use to describe chronic
stress and it's called allostatic load. Allostasis is akin to homeostasis. That means your body's
ability to keep things in good shape, good working order. Allostatic load is actually a measure of
how much your body's working to keep itself in good order, and it's really sensitive to stress.
For anybody taking this course, I could literally get a cotton swab and look at your cortisol
levels. I can take a little specimen out your mouth, of your saliva, and I can measure cortisol
levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone response. And we can look at your allostatic load. How
much stress are you under right now? And the allostatic load tells us how kind of toxic the stress
has become, and chronic distress has become.
The issue with managing chronic stress is that things become more difficult. You tend to have
good ideas become less likely, and bad ideas and bad behaviors come more to the forefront of
your mind. So we'll have to first develop the motivation for why in the face of chronic stress we
have to intentionally do things to take care of ourselves, take the edge off stress, and ultimately
think about our own mental and physical well being. Chronic stress produces a wear and tear on
our bodies minds and behavior.
So let's figure out what it actually does to our bodies, mind, and behavior. We're going to first
begin with kind of our bodies. Chronic stress does really horrible damage to our cardiovascular
system. And the way it does this is that when we're under the stress response, there's pressure
blood flow that actually kind of hammers, and disrupts, and damages the lining of arteries. And
when it does this, it actually produces an inflammatory response that can be associated with a
number of health risks.
Robert Sapolsky has demonstrated that most of the things people die from, particularly in
Western cultures, aren't actually things they should really die from like accidents, plagues, other
types of illnesses. They are actually stress related. And we're in a place where stress related, or
induced, diabetes is coming in one of the main illnesses in society, and the leading cause of
death. So that's our body. It really produces that. How about our minds? Well the stress
Lecture 1: What is Stress? Part II
response causes us to become even more sensitive, in terms of our emotional responding. And
things can be triggered and cause us to think less clearly.
Let's go back to the vision of the brain. We got here the limbic system. Here's the frontal lobe.
The frontal lobe's the CEO, the thing that makes all the good decisions. When we perform our
best, we self regulate, we can weigh consequences, and so forth. The limbic system with the
amygdala is that emotional center. What happens when chronic stress, we function more from
this limbic system. So from a more irrational, emotional place. And so what that does is cause
us to think less clearly. We might be able to solve problems or challenges more effectively, but
we can't when we're stuck in that emotional brain. And ultimately, we develop a more
pessimistic than optimistic lens about the future. So we start thinking more negatively about life,
and our futures, and others, rather than having a more optimistic spin on life, that life is worth
living, that we have a reasonable chance of being successful in the future.
So it impacts our minds. Let's think about the behavior. Behavior is kind of the manifestation of
stress that people can actually see. A lot of stress happens inside of us, like our physiological
response, our physical response, and then our internal experience in terms of thoughts and
emotions. But behavior also is linked to these, and people can do a range of things. They're
more likely to be agitated and upset and act aggressively or angrily towards others. A lot of
stress produces anxiety. And it's not justified anxiety. It's anxiety that actually leads to problems
meaning you end up avoiding things you shouldn't really avoid in life, which can be problematic.
It also leads to increased substance abuse as a way of coping with stress. That I'm under
heightened stress, I want to take the edge off, so I drink or consume some type of drug. And it
also creates all kinds of relationship problems. Someone's more likely to argue, be
condescending, or really talk negatively to someone else, and engage in a range of behaviors that
undermine the quality of relationships.
So when someone's under chronic stress, it's producing kind of a three-fold negative influence.
It's impacting their physical well being, it's impacting their ability to think clearly and be
mentally healthy, and lastly, it's manifesting in terms of their behaviors. Engaging in problems
problematic behaviors that make things more difficult for them in the long run.
Lecture 1: What is Stress? Part II
Stress is intimately connected to our mental health. In some way, they could be considered
synonymous, or siblings in someway. Stress is at the heart of a lot of mental health diagnoses.
Things such as depression, anxiety, trauma related issues, and anger problems. And so stress
helps define.
But there was an old way of viewing stress and mental health. It was viewing mental health as
falling on just one continuum. On one end you've got mental health, like you're doing really
well. On the other hand you've got mental illness. And so you're only one place on this
continuum. If you have mental illness, meaning you have a lot of distress or stress, that means
you can't have any mental health or enjoyment in life. And that's such an incorrect view.
The modern day in mental health is now that it exists on two continuum. There's a distress, or
stress, continuum. And there's actually a quality of life, or wellness, continuum. So let me put
this in kind of context. We know there's a lot of people who have high amounts of well being
and satisfaction and quality of life, yet they have stress, distress, and illnesses. For example,
imagine someone with a substance abuse problem. It doesn't mean just because you have a
substance abuse problem and you're using that to maladaptively cope with stress, that you can't
have any quality of life. A lot of people maintain-- have good jobs. They have a lot of good
relationships. They go do fun enjoyable things. They actually are pretty good decent parents.
So we now know that mental health exists on two continuum. One is what we'll call, for lack of
a better way of saying it, the stress continuum. People optimize their well being and life
satisfaction and performance in life, if we can develop skills, routines, and habits to minimize
and lessen the impact of stress in our life. But that doesn't mean you're going to live a really,
really highly enriched fulfilling life, and your and optimize your well being. We also have to
engage in specific things, skills, routines, and habits that optimize our well being.
So we have two dimensions that we have to be cognizant of when we're seeking to become
resilient. One is what are we doing to manage stress. And the second is what are we doing to
optimize our quality of life and well being. Those are two inter-related but important elements to
becoming a resilient person. And we're going to learn about specific things we can do, that fall
along each one of those dimensions, to minimize stress and optimize our well being.