Last week, one of my best friends from elementary school got married. This wedding was 2+ years in the planning, and my husband and I were looking forward to a road trip (she was getting married in New Jersey)! We planned to do some hiking (of course, I can't pass up that opportunity), visit friends in Connecticut, then celebrate! We were driving out first thing Tuesday morning (bright & early), so naturally, we spent Monday night packing. At around 9 pm, my husband gasped. "My passport has expired," he announced, and I felt my heart sink. The whole atmosphere shifted, and I could feel his frustration cut the air, without any words being uttered. I noticed in myself a flurry of fear, annoyance, worry, and at the same time, I could also feel my emotions become numb, and my problem solving brain kick in, feeling a rush of focus and energy. I immediately started looking up express passport renewals, and googling the chances of driving across the border with an expired passport.
This was my body's stress response kicking in. Let's take a look at stress, and the impact it has on our bodies. Stress is a normal response that occurs within our body. Evolutionarily speaking, when we are put into a potentially dangerous situation, we react. Our bodies release cortisol, adrenaline and switches to a fight or flight mode to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, you get a rush of energy, your heart pounds, you might have faster breathing, you can sometimes focus your attention to respond quickly. This was definitely happening when we realized the predicament we were in, especially since I remembered I had my friend's dress that she was to wear on Friday night at the rehearsal dinner. This situation, level of stress, and reaction is normal.
The challenge exists when we respond with a state of stress in inappropriate situations (e.g. living with anxiety). When only the most important muscles needed to fight or flee are being pumped with blood, our brain function is compromised. This can lead to an inability to think straight, and over extended periods of time, can be detrimental to our health. It can negatively impact your immune system, upset your digestive system (does anyone else always need to go to the bathroom right before a big presentation?), increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up your aging process (Cameron Diaz has a great book on Longevity that I'd recommend for women who are interested in learning more about stress & aging). It can even rewire your brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
When it comes to a more prolonged state of heightened stress, burnout is a factor to consider, and one that is more of a pervasive state of low energy, and feelings of hopelessness, resentment, and as if nothing you do will make a difference. As a qualifying Registered Psychotherapist, I do have to mention that if you are consistently feeling this way, I encourage you to speak to a professional (your GP, a therapist, etc.) as it can take a toll mentally, physically, and can impact your personal and work life. When we look at some of the factors related to burnout (e.g. expecting too much of themselves, never feeling that the work you are doing is good enough, feeling inadequate or incompetent, feel unappreciated for your efforts), we notice that some of them can be impacted by the way we are perceiving ourselves, our expectations, fears, and our belief in our own abilities to handle the situation we are in (self efficacy). Note* some factors are definitely related to logistical concerns such as low income, work pressures (e.g. long hours, bad conditions), etc. so the aim is not to take away from the realities of life, rather to make a point about some of the factors that are impacted by our perception. Brene Brown, a popular sociologist and researcher, and author, describes a scarcity mindset, always focusing on what we do not have, and advocates for the power of gratitude (or an abundance mindset) and the impact that switching your focus can have on your life.
Gratitude is the experience of feeling thankful or grateful, and savouring the good things that are happening around us. It is stopping and taking time out and encoding the memory into your minds and bodies. It is like taking a photo in real time, and cherishing the moment. It sometimes takes the absence or loss of something to recognize what you do have to be grateful, but research is showing that when you prioritize gratitude, it has a powerful positive impact on your work and personal life. In the incident last week around the expired passport, gratitude came into play when we were applying for the passport, and noticing how (surprisingly) all the individuals who were processing it were helpful, and went out of their way to be as quick as possible to accommodate us. Literally, when my husband walked in the room, one of the attendants (without even being asked) recognized his photo, and went to retrieve the passport so we could hit the road. Gratitude came into play when we noticed each other, and the patience and compassion we were showing one another, even amidst a stressful situation (trust me, it doesn't always go as smoothly as this). We were thankful that we caught it when we did, instead of realizing at the border, or being turned back.
Do you recognize the difference in your bodies, behaviours, and interactions when you switch your perspective? When you focus on the good, instead of honing in on the bad? One thing I've found helpful is recognizing my stress responses, and using those as indicators that I need to PAUSE, and try to reframe the situation. Comment or reach out to me to share any experiences you've faced where you switched your perspective and it changed the way the situation went.
Canadian Mental Health Association (n.d.) Retrieve from https://cmha.ca/documents/stress/
Workplace Strategies for Mental Health – GWL. Retrieved from https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/managing-workplace-issues/burnout-response