The scientific definition of “stress,” refers to an physiological response to unpredictability and uncontrollability, which prepares us for an acute threat. It’s commonly called the “fight or flight” response and as I wrote about in my blog post What A Shark Attack Can Teach Us About Reducing Stress, it’s an evolutionary superpower designed to save our life. But while we all generally know what stress feels like and what it does to our body, there’s a important component in the science of stress that is often forgotten – It turns out that how we perceive or appraise the situation plays a large role in whether the stressor triggers our fight or flight response.
In the 1960s and 1970s stress researcher John Wayne Mason discovered that our perception of a stressful event was critical to how our body responded to it. More recent research shows that our biology responds according to this perception. When we believe we have enough resources to cope with the stressors in our lives, we experience a challenge response but when circumstances are seen as exceeding our resources, we have a threat response.
In other words, whereas one person may be consumed by terror at the thought of public speaking, another might see it as an exciting challenge. One person in a traffic jam may sit fuming at the delay, but another person in the same traffic jam may sit calmly taking the time to enjoy listening to their audio book. After all, stressing won’t make that car move a single millimetre further.
Leading stress researcher Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University highlights that many of us are responding to completely imagined stressors. “We turn on the exact same stress response for purely psychological states, thinking about the ozone layer, the taxes coming up, mortality, 30-year mortgages… We turn on the same stress response and the key difference there is we’re not doing it for a real physiological reason and we’re doing it non-stop” he said in the documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer.
One of the most fascinating studies I’ve read about the dangers of this unnecessary stress response was conducted during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Munich. Researchers found that on days when the German national football team played, the rate of cardiac emergencies (such as heart attacks) in German men more than tripled, with the highest incidence occurring during the two hours after the start of the match. Given that I have a husband with a passion for football, I do understand that some games can seem like a matter of life and death. But is one game really worth getting that worked up over?
The word “stress” is a catch-all phrase we apply to a variety of negative mental states and circumstances. While the source of stress is different for everyone, when we say we’re feeling stressed, we’re generally referring to a feeling that the demands we’re facing exceed our resources and capabilities. Our jobs are stressful. Paying the mortgage is stressful. So is being homeless. Years of infertility are stressful. And so is wrangling a three-year-old on the side of the road in the midst of a tantrum tornado when you need to get to work.
As I stood on the side of the road next to Theodore who had completely lost it, I knew that there was no sense in losing it myself. I was keenly aware that my fight or flight stress response would be triggered based on my perception of how threatening this moment was. I took a minute to reappraise the situation and to notice that there was no immediate danger to anyone. This was not a matter of life or death and my To-Do list could wait. I turned Theodore around and took him back home. Jules, my husband hadn’t yet left for work and without giving-in to our mighty-toddler, together we coached him through his big emotions and helped him to calm down and reconnect. When I finally did get to my desk that Monday morning my mood was calm and focused. My week had started more than an hour later than I'd expected it it to, but at least it hadn't started in full-blown stress-mode.