Believe it or not, your low level stress (your baseline stress) is having a bigger impact on your life than you may realize. And in the case of my clients, its usually this that is dragging them down.
Stress is your body's response to specific events and situations. It is simply the way the body is built to respond to situations that are challenging you, physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. It is designed to help you overcome struggles in very difficult situations.
However, stress isn't just a response to immediate threats that you face, it can also build and assist you in responding to longer term events, like coping with a divorce, long term financial struggles, getting married, moving, chronic illness, or any other long term changes to your life.
Long-term stressful situations can produce a lasting, low-level stress that's hard on people over time - physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. This can wear you out, leave you feeling tired, unmotivated, distracted, overwhelmed, feeling of hopelessness and despair and even weaken the body's immune system.
Have you ever felt that way?
It's Impacting Your Daily Performance
I'm not a psychologist / physiologist or anything of the sort, but as part of my training in Aviation (and understanding Aviation Safety), I learned quite a bit about having not only day-to-day stressors that can impact performance. I also spent a lot of time learning about long term stressors that can create unsafe situations and how to recognize those stressors in other pilots. In the Navy, we call these stressors, Human Factors - and defined them as issues that could generally impede the peak performance of an aviator.
And as you might surmise, in Naval Aviation, not being at "peak performance" can be extremely dangerous.
Although most people think it's the case, it's NOT usually your daily stress levels that causes you to feel "out of it" . . . we are all pretty good at handling day-to-day stress levels. And our body is designed physiologically pretty darn well to handle short term stress.
Basically, when short term stress occurs, it activates the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream - giving you energy and focus to overcome problems. This is the activation of your "fight or flight" mode.
However one of the secondary effects of elevated adrenaline and cortisol in your bloodstream is that your body also reduces blood flow to the higher levels of your brain stem. In essence you are working with a considerably lower IQ, because there isn't enough blood flowing to give you access to your more advanced thought processes.
When you are feeling out of it, distracted, "unmotivated", just not wanting to do or accomplish anything, many times, what you are feeling is the result of a higher baseline stress level.
It's very Difficult To Lower Your Baseline Stress Level
The truth is, you can lower your day to day stress spikes pretty easily by taking simple steps, but it is very difficult to reduce this long term stress.
What triggers a "tough day" is usually something related to one of your long term stressors that causes that long term stressor to drive it to the forefront of the mind.
The reason this is soooo tough, is because it isn't usually something that "feels" that stressful at the time. . . but that distracted feeling actually comes from two fronts:
- Your increased stress levels decrease blood flow to your higher thought levels of your brain, and
- Your subconscious mind is working overtime trying to solve the cause of the low-level stress, demanding more and more from your already overworked adrenal glands and not giving you all the "support" throughout the day that you are used to.
Impacts Of High Baseline Stress Levels
It may sound weird, but when your low level stress gets above the levels that you are comfortable with, you are actually more likely to get into a car accident, get hurt or screw up on the job, and even miss important events (lose track of time).
The ability to multi-task goes down dramatically - you are more likely going to drop a ball that you are normally very good at juggling. And focus and concentration levels will drop dramatically as well.
Many more obvious symptoms include:
- anxiety or panic attacks
- a feeling of being constantly pressured, hassled, and hurried - never feeling caught up or rested
- mood swings, over-reacting, or even underreacting to situations
- physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, skin problems or even chest pain - the symptoms vary from person to person
- allergic reactions, such as eczema or asthma
- problems sleeping
- doing anything to excess - from smoking, eating, dieting, drugs, drinking or any other vice that you may have
- sadness or depression
Finally, it's important to note that everyone experiences stress differently. But what is usually quite consistent is how individuals deal with stress, regardless of the cause. That is, if you get irritable from financial stress, then you will most likely get irritable from other low level, long term stressors.
So when and if you find your symptoms to increased levels of long term stress, remember them and watch for them. Be very aware and begin to take actions to "load shed" as the stress builds.
Dealing With Elevated Low-Level Stress
The first key to dealing with long term, low-level stress is recognizing the problem. That is being aware of your stress and YOUR specific symptoms. And then, rather than trying to treat the symptoms, begin to treat the cause - your elevated stress levels.
As an example, my key symptom is a auto-immune disease flair up - my body attacks my skin from the inside. I don't see it right away, as it flares up about a month or so following the onset of the increased stress levels, but when it does, it can be tough.
The problem is that no matter what I try to do to relieve the skin irritations, all I'm doing is relieving the symptoms. I have to attack the problems and look at my long terms stressors - try to balance my life better and live within my abilities.
Why All Of This Matters
The truth is, all of this matters, because it can help you cope with your life, your situation, and your stresses better. It gives you awareness and better understanding of your life situation so that you are more prepared to handle it. And it helps you recognize that what you are feeling is a natural reaction to the life you living. . . and that you have a choice for the future.
Take a moment to look at your life stressors and do your best to honestly assess how you well you are coping.
Is your baseline, low-level stress something you are coping well with?
Or are you constantly feeling the overwhelmed, overworked, fatigued, unfocused, and distracted?