Working as an AmeriCorps at a youth development nonproﬁt has been a wonderful opportunity that I’ll always be grateful to have had. I’ve gained a lot of professional experience and personal fulﬁllment during my time at Kid Power, and it will be a bittersweet departure when I return to my hometown in Michigan. As I know most of you can relate, building connections with our students has been the most rewarding and important aspect of the job. And that makes it all worth it. However, at the intersection of nonproﬁt work and youth development lies a point of compounded stress.
Early in 2018, I was presented the opportunity to discuss stress in the workplace at one of our training sessions. And although this did not go through due to a few unfortunate circumstances, I’ve decided to transfer my research and ideas into this article with the intention of promoting mental health awareness. Evidently, I’m not a doctor— nor a psychologist, nor even a health sciences major—, but physical and emotional wellness has always been a passion of mine. And, aside from my individual level of expertise (or lack thereof), I still believe that what I have learned and experienced thus far could be of beneﬁt to others. One does not need a relevant degree in order to comprehend or add value to the existing discourse.
Rather, speaking up on mental health needs to be normalized. We are naturally emotional beings, yet many of us go through life suppressing or trying to work around our feelings. We don’t talk about them, but hide and suppress them. And that’s because others don’t talk about theirs. So, we all go on believing that our wellbeing is a private matter— or worse, that we’re alone in the shadows. But this must end. Saving our emotions for the sake of others’ opinions does no good for anyone. It is all just a facade that we’re trying to play, encouraging resentment and resistance in ourselves.
So, for these reasons, I’m writing this piece as a way to express what I’ve learned about stress— the what’s, how’s, and why’s. I note how stress affects each individual differently, whether in obvious ways or with more subtlety. Once these aspects of stress are better understood, coming up with solutions is much more effective; and, perhaps, it may provide the tools for us to work with our biological systems, rather than against them.
Now, what has inspired me to write about stress? Why in the world am I bringing emotional well-being into our professional circle? My primary response to this question is “Why not?”. Why must we try to compartmentalize the many aspects of the self into different societal roles, as if these aspects were possible to separate from the whole? I used to believe it would be enough to mentally divide ‘work-life’ from ‘personal life’.
For example, you may have a bad day at work. You have a ‘talk’ with your boss; then the kids run around when they’re not supposed to; and at the end, you get into a heated argument with a parent. And you may think, “Well, that’s not real life—that’s just work!” But, considering that a forty-hour work week takes up almost exactly a third of your waking life (assuming you sleep around seven hours per night), separation is not the answer. It may not even be possible.
How you begin work in the morning sets your day’s precursor, and you remain there for most of the day. Do you believe you’re going to get home at 6:30 pm and have a completely different mindset? Now, that is what we’re supposed to do (if we want to get ‘better’). We aren’t meant to bottle up our emotions and carry them with us throughout the day. Rather, we’re supposed to experience them fully in the moment, process and integrate them, and then continue on our merry way. But, realistically, that’s not how it works. Many of us don’t know how to deal with our emotions. (This, again, is a societal byproduct of stigmatizing authenticity.)
So, until we master this, the stressors we often encounter during the workday can and do creep into the other aspects of our lives, outside of the workplace. The emotions manifest in different areas as the stressors pile up in the backs of our minds. Without proper attention, personal problems don’t go away on their own. They continue growing until, ﬁnally, they lead to a breaking point, at which you must make the decision to either completely address and solve the issue, or to live your live fully committed to not resisting it.
For many people, work is a place with a lot of stress that cannot be addressed right in the moment— especially at Kid Power. Our work is a type where we may encounter overwhelming stress daily. We are put in charge of hundreds of little ones who do not yet understand basic social skills, and we cannot relieve that consequent stress instantly (without putting our jobs on the line).
And this stress can take its toll if you are not conﬁdent in the other areas of your life. I’ve recently been motivated to write this piece on stress because of the way certain stressors have been magniﬁed during my experiences this year in D.C. I hope to not give the impression that Kid Power itself is, inherently, a stressful organization. This is not the case. Rather, as I will mention later in this paper, nothing is inherently stressful—or ‘good’ or ‘bad’, for that matter. But it’s our perception and the meaning that we place on that thing that determines whether or not it will cause stress.
However, because I have been in an emotionally vulnerable place due to additional life circumstances that I’ve perceived as ‘stressful’, work has also been a stressor in my life. I assume many of you may relate to this notion that work is stressful, and therefore, can apply this to your own lives. This is why I choose to share.
As you may have gathered by now, this isn’t going to be another list of superﬁcial rituals that you can do to ‘ease’ and mask your stress. I’m not going to recommend that everybody takes up yoga, begins keeping a diary, and takes nightly bubble baths. Now, I’m deﬁnitely not discrediting those things— they are actually quite relevant and useful tools for many people. However, if I were to solely focus on all that ‘ﬂuff’, and not get to the deeper root of the issue, I would be doing a disservice.
What Is Stress?
Stressors and the Stress Response System
Now, of course, before addressing how stress occurs, we must ﬁrst have a common understanding of the word. For this, I’m providing a brief deﬁnition that I’ve found helpful during my research process:
Stress: “the process by which we perceive and respond to certain events, or stressors, that we view as challenging or threatening.” (Crash Course)
According to this deﬁnition, we acknowledge two key factors to stress: First, stress is not an emotion, but rather a physical reaction to a disturbance. Second, stress is based on perception. The amount of stress you experience depends on your approval or disapproval of a stimulus. As I mentioned earlier, what causes stress for one person might be quite easy for another to handle. This also means that some stress can be prevented if we learn to alter our perspectives.
Although therefore, stress is a very individualized experience, there are many common stressors for us that fall into these three main categories:
•Catastrophes: unpredictable, large-scale events like war, famine, and natural disasters
•Signiﬁcant life changes: anything that requires a signiﬁcant change to daily routines, such as having a new child, moving homes, or losing a loved one
•Everyday inconveniences: the small things that irritate us, such as trafﬁc, running late to work, or ﬁghting with your signiﬁcant other
From personal experience, the third category is tricky: Because these stressors are so small, their impacts are more subtle and can slowly accumulate into our subconscious without our awareness. However, these are also the stressors of which we can most easily change our perceptions and believe we can manage. There’s not much you can do about catastrophes, and signiﬁcant life changes aren’t always under your control either. Even if they were, why would you want to get rid of them? Do you truly wish to remain in a comfortable, stagnant life? But the ‘everyday inconveniences’ are the more minor—more annoying— parts of life that we can best become resilient to.
Any of the aforementioned stressors—big or small— are able to trigger the sympathetic nervous system and activate the ﬁght-or-ﬂight response. This is a quite natural response that keeps the body continually guessing and prepared to conquer your challenges. The release of hormones adrenaline and cortisol help keep you active and alert for a brief period.
Indeed, minor bouts of short-lived stress are actually good for you. Yet, the problem occurs when this response is overly activated. Chronic stress sends this natural, short-term process into overdrive, which can wreak havoc on the body and mind. The energy typically used to maintain homeostasis and basic functioning is reallocated to the muscles and brain in order to ﬁght against the stressors, leaving you “burnt out”.
Overall, stress is not the enemy. The stress response enables organisms to resist or escape stressors (Hofmekler 2). If we’ve evolved—along with most other species— to have this system in place, then we’ve been designed to encounter stressors. And so, if this system did not beneﬁt us in some way, we would not have survived. We’ve also been programmed to experience some sort of compensation after encountering stressors. This is why, for example, some people enjoy running long distances. After strenuous exercise, the individual experiences a ‘runner’s high’, that surge of endorphins following a workout.
Taking this all into account, the stress response is clearly a complex process that requires lots of energy. But, it is also quite efﬁcient. Once your body becomes familiar with a particular stressor, you’re then rewired to adapt to it. And, consequently, you become better and stronger. This adaptation is called hormesis, which conditions your body to become resilient to stress. This makes the stress work for you rather than against you. In this process, however, stress can only go from low to high, not start high and remain high (Hofmekler).
Adaption and resilience to stress are gradual. Think about this in terms of long-distance running again. The average person cannot just suddenly run a 5K and think that their body will adapt to the stress and instantly become a conditioned marathon runner. Rather, the person must train slowly and gradually—increasing their speeds and times— over the course of a few months. They adapt in small increments. Without moderate changes, we are more vulnerable to damage by high-level stressors, such as heat, cold, hardships, etc..
But, exposure to mild stress provides future protection against more intense stressors. This is the reasoning behind military training, learning new skills, vaccinations, and exercise, among others. At the cellular level, exposure to low-level stress activates pathways to grant resistance to a higher level of stress, and then that resilience is then conveyed to the entire body (Hofmekler 6). Therefore, contrary to popular belief, in order to become your best self, you must purposely encounter and integrate small, gradual stressors over time.
However, under conditions of prolonged stress, endocrine responses are prone to serious disruptions, particularly those involving ﬁght-or-ﬂight reactions. So, if you do not allow for mental recollection and physical rest after undergoing bouts of stress, you are setting yourself up for harm. Remember: your stress response takes up a lot of energy, meaning that other bodily functions are slowed or halted during the process. An extended release of cortisol actually impairs stress hormones and diminishes their capacity to sustain proper response. It will just make you intolerant to stress, and will mess with your ability to eat, sleep, and perform optimally (Hofmekler 18).
At that point, it is no longer a matter of stress, but what we call distress. For this reason, it is important to remain cognizant and spread out your stressors to the best of your ability. For example, while exercise is typically a very beneﬁcial stressor, it’s not advisable to perform a strenuous workout after a night without sleep. The lack of sleep has already caused much stress on the body, and therefore, the added stress of exercise would merely put you into a distressful state.
Types of Stress
Before devising a solution, we must ﬁrst determine what patterns of stress we carry throughout our everyday lives. The reason why I believe stress management is such a complex issue is that there are different types of stress (and stressors) that all require different approaches and solutions. However, if we are able to pinpoint the root causes of our stress, we can, from there, discover what needs to be done. It is important to remember that stress comes up for a reason: What is your body telling you? What are your personal boundaries and limits? What is currently not working for you in your daily life?
Most stress— and distress— can be categorized into three main types: acute, episodic acute, and chronic. I will, below, explain the distinctions between them so that you may ﬁnd which most resonates with your current state. However, it is important to ﬁrst note that the following segments will mostly relate to emotional health and stress, rather than physical and nutritional. Also, although stress and negative emotions are two different things, they are inextricable for many.
Therefore, I will frequently go back and forth between talking about stress and feelings throughout the rest of this writing.
The most common type of stress and the one that best follows the traditional sense of the word is labeled acute stress. This is founded upon the pressures of the recent past or the demands of the near future. Because these bouts of stress are relatively shortlived, they can be healthy, and even exciting, in smaller doses. However, as mentioned previously, too much of any stress will reduce the body’s functionality, and may lead to symptoms such as anger, irritability, and bad digestion.
So, if this description resonates with your current relationship to stress, then you are at a pretty healthy and manageable state. Because it is short-term, acute stress doesn’t have enough time to do extensive damage and is, therefore, easily reversible. Therefore, the best way for you to bring yourself back to balance, or homeostasis, is to make the conscious effort to dissipate that stress. This can be done through the cliche solutions that I indicated earlier, like meditating, talking to a friend, or purposely doing more of the things that make you happy.
Episodic Acute Stress
I like to think of episodic acute stress as the adversity of long-term acute stress— or “going overboard”. Usually, those experiencing this type have ingrained stress into their personalities. Those with anxiety, or who worry a lot, or spread themselves too thin with obligations, are all probably experiencing episodic acute stress (APA).
These individuals tend to attach their self-worth to their productivity, accomplishments, and others’ approval. While for some people, committing too many obligations and keeping busy is genuinely enjoyable, those with episodic acute stress do not sincerely enjoy being overtasked. Rather, they are concealing the hardship and internal sacriﬁce of labor with feelings of success.
If you are over-committing yourself or are feeling constantly pressured, and it makes you feel irritable, anxious, worried, or unpleasant, that’s when the stress can deteriorate your health and well-being. You’re merely working against yourself. So, when you do ﬁnd yourself in this situation, you must ponder this question: Why am I so focused on productivity? What fulﬁllment am I seeking? Go into your mind, and gather just why you have placed your self-worth on your external reality.
This is like acute stress, but the stressors involved do not resolve in a timely manner —if at all. While episodic acute stress is the result of too many different acute stressors all the time, chronic stress stems from having the same stressors mentally stay around for too long. Some of these chronic stressors could be things like poverty, dysfunctional families, an unfulﬁlling career, holding pessimistic limiting beliefs, etc.. Sometimes, one may undergo chronic stress and not even realize it, or may feel like it’s a lost cause to manage. The stress may become so normalized and familiar that it may even feel comfortable (if you are truly honest with yourself).
Managing Episodic Acute and Chronic Stress
Recommendations for those suffering from episodic acute or chronic stress are not simply pinpointed. It is because these things cannot be “cured” by a weekly bubble bath, or by “taking deep breaths”. One simple guided meditation on YouTube isn’t going to rid you of deeply-rooted mental issues. Often, episodic acute and chronic stress manifest as anxiety or depression, respectively, and are both deeply ingrained into either the personality or a personal belief system.
Therefore, to help overcome these obstacles, one must have a genuine and deep-seated will to do so, usually with the guidance of a professional. In many cases, mental health is a long-lasting cycle of ebbs and ﬂows—of awakenings and shadows. This is just how our brains have been wired to be. But it’s absolutely essential that you learn to work with this system, either through complete acceptance of what is, or continually overturning the underlying causes of your stress. You must become aware.
As mentioned prior, the human body is programmed for receiving compensation after a stressor. If that compensation does not arise, the person will look for it in other ways (Hofmekler 31). Being under chronic stress brings forth a chronic search for reward, which may manifest as addictions, obsessions, and other forms of ‘escape’. Therefore, when we are not aware of our stressors and their root causes— or even the root causes of our desires— we will constantly work at the demands of the subconscious. You must take deliberate control of your actions.
The Ideal Relationship with Stress
For the aforementioned reasons, stress is a sort of double-edged sword. On one hand, humans are meant to encounter frequent stressors throughout everyday life— physically, nutritionally, and even emotionally. Stress is merely the presence of change, or of discomfort—a disturbance to physical and emotional homeostasis. Without such changes, our lives would be quite unfulﬁlling and unhealthy. We wouldn’t grow, and we would not learn. Stress is the necessary catalyst for any sort of progression— the signal for expansion.
The true problem lies in the lack of recovery or the lack of integration. On the physical level, you may take exercise as an example. A strenuous workout is one stressor, but can either result in detriment or success, depending on the individual. If this person works out and takes the necessary time to recover afterward, they will have allowed for natural progression and muscle growth. However, if that person overworked the body, without allowing for adequate rest throughout the week, they could easily injure themselves and slow down muscular progression.
Now, there are parallels between this exercise example and mental stress. However, the emotional body is vastly more complicated. This is because our mind is split into the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Therefore, emotional injuries are not always quite as obvious as, say, a physical injury, such as a torn muscle. Sometimes, we push them to the backs of our minds. And we believe—or at least hope—that, eventually, they will just ‘disappear’.
But that’s not how the mind works. Memories and emotions can be stored in the emotional body for lifetimes. Without awareness of their presence, and giving conscious attention to them, the stressors will eternally manifest in our lives. Again, without proper integration, our shadows and desires will remain concealed.
Evidently, stress cannot and should not be entirely avoided. There are also multiple levels and types of stress that all require different approaches and care. While everyone can beneﬁt from meditations, regular exercise, and a nutritious diet, these are not adequate solutions for many. However, there are a couple of strategies that may take us deeper into the roots of our mental conﬂicts that I would like to share.
As mentioned before, the stress response is determined by one’s perception of a stressor. For this reason, we can eliminate some of the stress in our lives by altering our thought patterns. A valuable piece of advice I’ve followed recently is something I had heard in an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle (two of my signiﬁcant inspirations). In this conversation, Oprah asserts that a lot of the dissonance and stress caused in our reality is due to us believing that it “shouldn’t be happening” (OWN). As Eckhart then adds, it is not the people and situations we encounter that cause stress, but rather, it is our belief that those things are disruptions to our lives.
So, instead of placing ourselves in opposition to a “stressful” situation, we can decide to accept what is. Accordingly, activating our stress response, realistically, does not always have the greatest results when dealing with emotional stress. But our body doesn’t know that. The response system is like a one-size-ﬁts-all, commencing to help us ﬁght off a mountain lion, for example (or tackle a work project). But we are not a slave to this system. We have the power to either pause and tell the body that the situation is okay, or to let the stress continue.
Now, on top of this advice, I would like to add that the path of least resistance does not allow for bypassing our stress and negative emotions. For this would mean that we are not eliminating the stress, but rather storing it in the subconscious. Again, the stress response is a necessary system that has helped species evolve. Therefore, stress is not the problem; and the stressful situations are not the problem. The “problem” is that you have a problem. This may be sort of a tall order for some to accept, especially with serious matters. So, I am not saying that we must take ownership of all of life’s adversities—just the small ones. What this all boils down to is authenticity and honesty with yourself.
When you ﬁnd yourself feeling “stressed out”, ask yourself the following:
• Will the added energy and focus of the biological stress response help me in this situation?
• What is causing me discomfort, and why? Am I in serious danger (physical or emotional) from this situation?
• Will this situation cause long-term problems, or is this a relatively trivial matter in my life?
If you are honest with yourself in your answers, you can then determine how to properly move forward with the issue. Of course, there are times when your honest answer indicates stress as an appropriate response. Again, stress is a necessity of life, and positivity and negativity are opposing points of the same circle. But, there’s also the possibility that the situation really isn’t that important. For example, you may be stuck in trafﬁc one day. You may feel the anger start to kick in, and you even start to honk your horn at others. But then, you decide that stressing about the trafﬁc isn’t going to make your trip any faster. And that’s when you begin to take control of your emotional body.
Sometimes, when I ﬁnd myself stressed in similar situations, I ask myself: Are you actually, truly worried deep down inside? Or are you worrying because you feel like you should feel worried about this situation? And, a lot of those times, the latter is correct. Again, it is of utmost importance to be aware of your emotions and feelings—of your positives and negatives. The answer lies in your truth.
As said before, stress is not inherently harmful to the body. (It is beneﬁcial intermittently.) However, the problem lies in chronic stress—distress. When applying this to emotional stress, this means that the problem is our attachment to the stress. We often overestimate the duration of our bad moods and underestimate our capacity to adapt and bounce back from traumas. So, a lot of times, our stress and emotions are no longer caused by the stressors themselves, but rather, by an attachment to the emotions (or the stress). We don’t want to let it go. We’re too prideful; maybe we’re bored, or maybe we just can’t bother to look beyond. When we ﬁnd ourselves attaching to or prolonging our negative emotions for an extended period of time, often we are somehow gaining something from it.
And sometimes, we just get used to the feeling. In a ‘twisted’ way, it becomes comfortable. We may even start to identify ourselves and personalities with those feelings or stop believing that other realities are possible. We begin to say things like “I’m depressed” instead of “I’m experiencing depression”. Or, you say “I’m a worrier” or “That’s just who I am”. You begin to attach your personality—your sense of self—to the negative emotion.
So, the best thing you could do is think to yourself: Am I depression? Am I anxiety? Am I stress? Or am I a human being, currently experiencing depression… experiencing anxiety… experiencing stress? You need to recognize the attachment you’ve created and observe your feelings from an outside perspective. When you identify with these negative feelings, how are you going to accomplish positive things? Attachments merely limit who you are, and they ﬁlter your perception like a glasses lens. Ultimately, it is up to you how you want to perceive the world—internally and externally. Be aware of your lens so that you may deliberately alter your reality.
“Eckhart Tolle’s Advice that Oprah Says “Eliminated All Stress in Her Life.” YouTube, OWN, 22 Oct. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ys17xPHS2Q8&t=2s
“Emotion, Stress and Health.” YouTube, Crash Course, 11 Aug. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KbSRXP0wik.
Hofmekler, Ori. The 7 Principles of Stress. North Atlantic Books, 2017.
“Stress: The Different Kinds of Stress.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.