Stress Sensitivity and Eustress – Can You Increase Your Tolerance to Stress?

Stress Sensitivity and Eustress – Can You Increase Your Tolerance to Stress?

Stress sensitivity – inherited or learned?

This article is an excerpt of the forthcoming the Resilient Being book.

When you embrace stress, you can transform fear into courage, isolation into connection, and suffering into meaning.

– Psychologist Kelly McGonigal

The amount of overall strain is related to stress tolerance. It is often thought that stress is harmful and relaxation is good. This misconception has led to some people not experiencing enough strain in their lives. In other words, the amount of so-called beneficial stress, or eustress, is deficient. These people often have a low stress tolerance.

Regular pressure or load prepares you for future stressful situations. A person who experiences only a few stressful situations from day to day may be more susceptible to disease, as his or her immune system has not been strengthened enough in the face of surprising stressors. On the other extreme, chronic or long-term stress impairs the functioning of the immune system.

You cannot nor shouldn't you escape stress. Sedatives and other numbing stress management tools are not the answer – it’s more about how you deal with stress and stressful situations in your life. Many say that life is stressful when in reality a person usually has too many things to take care of or they are poorly organized. Your mind and the fears that emanate from it ultimately cause haste and a sense of pressure.

On the other hand, human bodies are different, and your genetic make-up affects stress sensitivity. Studies show that about 15–25 % of people respond to stress with a strong nervous system response. These people also have a much higher-than-usual ability to analyze sensory stimuli produced by the environment. This is called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). A 2018-study investigating brain circuits related to SPS found that it is a stable trait that is characterized by greater empathy, awareness, responsivity and depth of processing to salient stimuli. Interestingly the authors conclude that SPS serves species survival via deep integration and memory for environmental and social information that may subserve well-being and cooperation.

Genetic differences between individuals also occur, for example, in the amount of cortisol, or stress hormone production, triggered by a stressor. Genetic differences in the so-called HPA axis also significantly contribute to the triggering of the biochemical stress response. For example, impaired HPA axis regulation during an acute stress period has been associated with depression and bipolar disorder.

According to an extensive study of identical twins, personality type has a significant effect on perceived work stress. Correspondingly, nearly 45 % of personality type formation is genetic. The study focused specifically on work-related stress and found that due to heredity, a person may in some cases be better able to change jobs that feel too stressful. At the same time, the researchers also found that although heredity affects stress tolerance, stress tolerance can also be developed through various methods.

Stress and perceived fatigue

Rest may not help with fatigue. A person who feels tired may benefit from activity-related variation (such as changing the environment or work tasks) instead of resting. Stress fatigue can also be caused by a low threshold for frustration. This is described by psychologist Albert Ellis as Low Frustration Tolerance, LFT. A person by this definition cannot tolerate unpleasant emotions and stressful situations. Repeatedly avoiding unpleasant and frustrating situations can paradoxically increase one’s frustration.

In addition to stress, LFT has been associated with anxiety and depression, especially in adolescents. In addition to rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), targeted transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), for example, appears to work in the treatment of LFT. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) also helps identify frustration and associated stress. On the other hand, MBCT can also be used to program the mind in a more constructive and resilient direction.

Some people confuse normal occasional fatigue with the actual exhaustion, where constant fatigue becomes a chronic condition. Today’s glorified performance-centredness, constant pursuit for results, and "don't stop until you drop" -mentality have made a normal feeling of being tired an unusual, even medicalized condition.

Still, it is wise to understand that when experienced for too long, fatigue can become chronic as distress continues. So it is wise to realize that especially at the end of a physically and mentally challenging day, it is common to feel tired.

Symptoms related to chronic and too high stress:

  • Constantly sore muscles and / or muscle weakness
  • Headache
  • Irritability, mood swings and apathy of the mind
  • Blurred vision and dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory problems, especially in the case of nearby memory
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Decision-making difficulties
  • Slow down of reflexes
  • Frustration
  • Lack of motivation

Eustress is the fountain of life

For many, beneficial eustress is represented by a particularly inspiring or motivating activity or situation. An example of this is an interesting hobby or an enjoyable day job. Another good example of eustress is falling in love, which increases heart rate variability (HRV), reduces stress, and generally makes it easier to manage emotions in stressful situations.

Eustress (optimal stress in the curve above) is generally perceived as a positive state and is not perceived as harmful or threatening. Eustress is also perceived as a flow state where there is a positive challenge or effort that does not seem too overwhelming or frustrating. There is also a strong sense of hope and satisfaction associated with eustress. Eustress also means adequately challenging yourself without expending all your resources at once. Eustress can also be considered as a means of personal growth in different areas of life such as physical, psychological and emotional development.

Eustress is an individually experienced phenomenon, influenced by your thoughts and experiences of each situation. A similar situation can be experienced by two different people in exactly the opposite way. For example, during rain, one gets soaking wet and the other experiences a refreshing rain on the skin. A situation that causes severe distress to one can mean eustress for the other. Studies show that those who are optimistic about their lives and have good self-esteem tend to experience less distress in their lives.

Image: One model of the stress process, where a reaction to a stressor defines the outcome.

Source: Branson, V. & Dry, M. & Palmer, E. & Turnbull, D. (2019). The Adolescent Distress-Eustress Scale: Development and Validation. SAGE Open 9 (3): 2158244019865802.

According to an extensive survey conducted in the United States at the turn of the 21st century (n = 28,753), about one-third of people felt that stress was having a detrimental effect on their health. Those who considered stress to be a health problem were more prone to an overall deterioration in health and mental health problems. Also, a large proportion of those who died from stress-related complications believed that stress was harmful. Studies show that caring for others and general help can reduce the harmful effects of stress on the body and also reduce stress-related mortality.

One of the main thesis of the Resilient Being book is to change general perceptions of stress and adaptation to it. Instead of the harmfulness of stress, we want to help pay more attention to the good aspects of stress in coping with life. Stress can also be an energizing way to cope with challenging situations even stronger than before.

Your thoughts have a concrete effect on the physiology of stress. For example, it has been found that an increase in heart rate increases the oxygen supply to the brain and enhances the functioning of the circulatory system. In an experiment at Harvard University, those with a positive attitude to stress dilated blood vessels, further increasing oxygen uptake in the brain. Correspondingly, those who reacted negatively to stress constricted their blood vessels. Clinical trials have also shown that training, for example with attention modification program, can generally improve their attitudes toward threatening situations.

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How do you perceive stress? Is it a threat or a possibility? Let us know in the comments!

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