Our thoughts are the main source of stress for most of us, says Bouvé clin­ical instructor Erin Sharaf, so we can reduce stress by changing our internal nar­ra­tive. Photo by Casey Bayer.

The Amer­ican Psy­cho­log­ical Asso­ci­a­tion recently released a study reporting that one in five Amer­i­cans is extremely stressed. We asked Erin Sharaf, a clin­ical instructor in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and a former primary-​​care provider, to expound on the con­cept of stress from a phys­i­o­log­ical per­spec­tive and what we can do to reduce stress in our own lives.

What is the clin­ical def­i­n­i­tion of stress?

Dr. Walter Cannon was the first to coin the term “Fight or Flight Response” in the early 20th cen­tury. This response of the sym­pa­thetic ner­vous system was acti­vated in response to per­ceived threats to phys­ical or emo­tional security.

How does chronic stress affect the body and mind?

Chronic stress affects just about every organ system of the body in a neg­a­tive way. The fight-​​or-​​flight response is designed to save us from a phys­i­cally life-​​threatening sit­u­a­tion. Cor­tisol and other stress hor­mones flood the body, causing increased heart rate, muscle ten­sion and levels of glu­cose. Other sys­tems are down-​​regulated, including diges­tion, repro­duc­tion, immu­nity and growth. Our body can’t tell the dif­fer­ence from an actual phys­ical threat and a per­ceived threat that is cre­ated entirely in the mind. When we think stressful thoughts, we are in the same phys­i­o­logic state as if we were being chased by a predator. The problem is that there is no fight or run to release the ten­sion; we are sit­ting in our offices, in traffic or on the couch. Over time, this can lead to pro­found phys­ical and mental impair­ment and can exac­er­bate prob­lems such as hyper­ten­sion, dia­betes, obe­sity, insomnia, muscle pain, headaches, anx­iety and infer­tility. Chronic stress puts our mind on a per­petual state of high alert, which neg­a­tively affects mood, con­cen­tra­tion and memory.

What are some sug­ges­tions for man­aging or reducing stress?

Most of our thoughts happen to be neg­a­tive, which trig­gers the stress response. We all have thoughts that play through the mind as “sto­ries” all day long. The first and most impor­tant step in breaking this cycle is rec­og­nizing that a thought is simply an inter­nally gen­er­ated idea. It is not nec­es­sarily a truth and it is tran­sient. Step­ping back and iden­ti­fying that a par­tic­ular thought is a hypo­thet­ical threat sce­nario (and not an actual threat) decreases the effect on phys­i­ology. Most of us feel help­less in the face of stress because we feel it is cre­ated exter­nally. When we learn that we have lots of con­trol over our internal processes, stress can be markedly reduced. We can choose another thought in any given moment or choose not to hold on to and rumi­nate over our neg­a­tive thoughts. The best way I have found to do this is through a reg­ular mind­ful­ness prac­tice. A growing body of lit­er­a­ture sup­ports mind­ful­ness as a vital com­po­nent of stress reduc­tion and true mental and phys­ical well­ness. Our minds need to be exer­cised to func­tion opti­mally just as our bodies do, and mind­ful­ness is an ideal way to do this.