Definition of stress removes anxiety, tension

This article was originally published in North County News.

The lecturer scanned the audience, cleared his throat and flashed a statement on the screen that forever changed my way of thinking.

But first, he reviewed our answers, only shadows of the truth.

Wilkie Wilson, professor of pharmacology at Duke University, had asked the group of parents to define “stress.”

“Anxiety. Worry. Tension. Overwhelmed. Pressure,” several of us called out.

“And how does stress make you feel?” Wilson asked.

“Frustrated. Edgy. Physically ill,” others replied.

Wilson, a neuropharmacologist, presented, “Motivated! How students can minimize stress and maximize potential,” as part of St. Paul’s School’s Health and Wellness series. His lecture included his research on the “biology of motivation,” a twist in the usual parental topics that focus on psychology.

As he reviewed our definitions of stress, he suggested that it is becoming an “out-of-date phrase.” He pointed to the screen to reveal his definition.

“Stress is the effort of the brain to adapt to a change in the environment.”

The parents collectively paused at that new thought, keenly aware of its contrast to our definitions.

He went on to define acute stress and chronic stress, noting how our bodies were built to handle the ups and downs of acute stresses, where we respond to sudden changes and then recover. Yet, chronic stress, he warned, could be dangerous, where the changes are not resolved before another change takes place. An upward progression begins and builds when there is no time for the body to recover.

I listened, yet my mind was still stuck on his definition — its simplicity, neutrality and truth

“Stress is the effort of the brain to adapt to a change in the environment.”

As I reflected on the hubbub of the holidays, I recalled times of stress where I felt overwhelmed, tense and became frustrated and edgy. As I reviewed each circumstance, I realized I was reacting to an unplanned change.

Early arriving guests, an emergency trip to the vet, spoiled meat, pneumonia, a power outage and one final migraine all made unplanned appearances at my home during the holidays. Yes, I felt stressed.

In a strange way, however, it was comforting to think that my reactions were caused biologically. It was my brain’s effort to respond to change.

I wasn’t irrational, grumpy or rude — my brain just needed a moment to adjust to a new circumstance.

So often we are told how to manage our stress, avoid it or ways to overcome it. Yet, Wilson’s definition grants us a new freedom to embrace that part of daily living that is inevitable.

Several years ago, a reporter asked my father to describe the most difficult part of his job as the senior minister of a large church.

“Changing gears,” he replied. “One phone call may announce the birth of a baby. The next one may be about the death of a church member. And yet another may announce a wedding engagement.”

Dad had discovered, too, the need to give himself a moment and to press on the clutch, neutralizing the gears before shifting into a changed environment.

As we parent our children whose schedules seem to expand exponentially with each passing year, our environments change as hormones soon join the mix, infusing new life into their limit-testing talents.

Perhaps it is worth remembering that both the changes we experience, and those we impose on our children, will inevitably cause stress.

But, no worries.

We simply need to step on the clutch and give our brains (and theirs) a moment to respond to the change.

And shift forward.