Stress is the body’s reaction to challenge. At its core, stress is a physical phenomenon but due to our big, human thinking brains, stress can also come with emotional consequences. For example, I get weepy when I am stressed. My husband gets cranky. This month, Wello is continuing our exploration of the four domains of well-being that impact individuals and communities. For the last quarter, our focus has been on physical well-being but now we’re entering the realm of the well-being that addresses individuals’ mental and emotional health.
Ask a sample of humans to name what the greatest challenge is to their optimal mental well-being and we bet the majority answer is “stress.” And most wish stress would simply go away.
Yet, having worked as a yoga and meditation teacher for 20 + years, I have learned that stress is literally where our “personal rubber hits the road.” Where we find stress, we also find motivation for change and our ability to manage stress often defines the scale and scope of the life we live. The better we handle stress, the easier it is for us to leave the safety of our home and habits. The easier it is for us to step outside our comfort zone and begin to adventure out into new life territory.
In fact, one of the most powerful human capabilities is our ability to direct our stress response. Unlike a deer in the headlights, who freezes and then instinctually dashes away, or a badger surprised in a hen house that fights like the dickens to escape, humans can actually choose how to respond to stress.
Let’s break it down.
On the physical level, we’re pretty much on the level of the deer or the badger. Our physical stress response increases powerful hormones that make it possible for us to run or flee from danger. Equally powerful is the relaxation response that help us rest, nest and digest. In theory it’s a balanced system. Yet our big human brains also play a role by amplifying perceived stressors, which some call “running from the bear that is not there.” Our brain can also put misperceived stressors (it’s just a text message – it’s not a T-Rex!) back in their place.
Our big, human brain is also capable of amazing feats like imagination, innovation and love. And it can also train itself to respond to stress effectively. Practices like physical exercise induce relaxation. Yoga poses train the mind to respond to stress by putting the body into uncomfortable positions and asking us to remain calm. Art, literature and nature help our brain transcend our individual nature and connect with a calming sense of greatness. As communal animals, humans can also reduce stress through connection and collaboration.
It’s also essential to realize that stress can have systemic causes that can only be addressed at the community level. And that’s where you will find Wello. We understand that where there’s stress there is opportunity and will for change. Our goal is to connect our community around the challenges that are impacting every individual’s ability to thrive. Later this year, Wello and our community partners will be conducting a population-level survey of well-being in Brown County, WI. Our tool, which is based on the World Health Organization’s Quality of Life survey, will measure residents’ well-being in four “domains:” physical, mental, community and environmental.
This project will help us identify areas of stress, which we see as areas of opportunity for motivation and collaboration. Interested in joining the network? Come to our next Well-Being Influencer Network event on April 30 and learn more!