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Stress Spectrum: From Eustress to Traumatic Response

Different kinds of stress: At almost every moment of our lives, we are affected by stress. Whether enjoying a sense of thrill - one end of the stress spectrum - or struggling with burnout or trauma symptoms at the other end, managing stress is central to the experience of being human. This post, drawn from my study on the topic, reviews aspects of stress that I think are particularly important to consider in understanding stress and how to manage it.

In moderation, stress is helpful Hans Selye first recognized and began studying a set of symptoms known today as stress. Selye coined the word eustress (1976) to describe stress levels that are helpful. Eustress is a moderate, routine kind of stress that elevates our attention and functioning and at times even contributes to a sense of excitement and joy in life. However, beyond a certain point, helpful stress becomes too much and we experience it as distress (Selye, 1976).

The tipping point The tipping point at which we begin to experience eustress as distress varies widely. A few people, thanks to genetics, family history, personal disciplines, etc., are able to tolerate quite high levels of stress before becoming distressed. Others feel distressed at the slightest disruption of routines.

As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, those with a life history of trauma tend to have lower tolerance for stress than others. Stress symptoms feel a lot like trauma symptoms, which means that as stress levels rise, it is normal for people with a history of trauma to experience what feels like old trauma symptoms as they approach their tipping point of distress. Understanding this may help to reduce anxiety about the sudden appearance of symptoms we thought were history.

Regardless to where our tipping point is located in the spectrum of stress, the more we know about it - the signs that it is near and the factors likely to move us in one direction or the other - the better equipped we are to cope.

Distress, accumulative stress and burnout/trauma like responses In light of insights from trauma-related brain research, I define distress as caused by a sense of real or implied threat that activates instinctual response mechanisms that originally evolved to enable survival. These responses – for example, elevated heart, breathing, and alertness levels - function at an autonomic level not readily controlled by rationale thought. This makes management of our stress responses complex.

Distress is not so difficult to cope with when it comes in short episodes followed by return to “normal”. This allows for restoration of the resources consumed by high alert.

Prolonged or chronic distress is a different matter – a state of constant arousal and alert creates fatigue. For individuals who are exposed to frequent traumatizing experiences, human service practitioners, or populations experiencing trauma on an ongoing basis, stress accumulates.

The accumulative nature of stress can create unexpected dynamics. Many small stresses together add up to create a large, generalized, or continuous feeling of emotional distress. Think of it as many small weights adding up to a staggering load. Eventually it doesn’t take a heavy additional “straw” to “break the camel’s back”. The movement from a chronic sense of distress to a paralyzing state of burnout and trauma-like symptoms can be quite fast. It may not even be obvious which stressor caused the shift. When there are many sources of stress, a new stressor may be barely noticed, yet the reaction can be severe. Some people develop a sense of numbness to everything, others experience a constant sense of anxious hyperarousal; still others alternate between the two.

Burnout is a term often used to describe this final phase; it refers to chronic physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual fatigue resulting from the stress of working with trauma survivors or being exposed to the suffering of others for an extended time without adequate opportunities for recuperation. Among other things, caregivers who are burned out typically experience a sense of numbness, as well as disconnection and apathy to the suffering of others.

Burnout is often accompanied by trauma like responses. I define emotional trauma as a response involving complex debilitation of adaptive abilities—emotional, cognitive, physical, or spiritual—following an event or series of events that were experienced, or perceived, as life threatening (Gertel Kraybill, 2015). The phrase “debilitation of adaptive abilities” highlights the reality that stress is normal and that we are wired with natural abilities to adapt and cope.

In traumatizing and highly distressing situations (perceived or real) we don’t choose our responses. We respond on “auto-pilot”, and our systems do the best they can to help us survive. The sense of debilitation may last only moments or much longer depending on the traumatic event, and the existing levels of stress of an individual.

Our life history greatly influences the extent to which we experience threatening events as traumatizing. Someone with low exposure to trauma and low general levels of stress probably won’t be as quickly affected by trauma or prolonged stress as someone already struggling with a long-carried burden of accumulated stress.

Trauma can’t be treated as a standalone phenomenon. We have to consider it in the context of life history and present dynamics of each individual, including personal, family, and community (religion, gender identity, cultural and racial identity and values) history. In early stages of trauma therapy, the focus of treatment may not necessarily always be on trauma itself but rather on supporting the expansion of adaptive abilities, since this in turn may enable a traumatized person to find their way after trauma. Designing a treatment approach best suited to the unique aspects of each person’s life history and present situation is key to treatment.

The Stress Spectrum – a mindful movement activity

In several earlier posts I mentioned a mindful movement technique, which I find a useful tool in designing treatment strategies. In workshops and with clients I use the Stress Spectrum activity below as an experiential psychoeducational tool to learn about stress and trauma and get to know oneself. It helps survivors to become more aware of their body’s responses, warning signals, triggers and secondary alerts, related to stress.

These tools are calming and restorative. Equally important, experimenting with them provides valuable information for creating an individualized self-care plan, an essential requirement for long-term sustainability of progress in responding to trauma. Get a free PDF of the Stress Spectrum Activity by clicking here, or see it below the image. References: Selye, H. (1976). The stress concept. Canadian Medical Association Journal,115(8), 718.

A Stress Spectrum Activity

Guidelines: This is a powerful tool. If you are working on your own issues of trauma, have a skilled therapist guide and accompany you through it rather than doing it alone. Don’t lead others through it unless you are a trained therapist with experience working with expressive and or body oriented approaches.

The instructions assume a group setting. If you are working with individuals, ignore the instructions for pairs. Give people the option to “pass” at any time, on any piece of this. Always leave time for sharing/processing.

Procedure • Create the spectrum on the floor (Eustress — Distress — Accumulated Stress — Burnout or Trauma Response). • Divide participants into pairs*. • Explain mindful expansion. Ask them to slowly move, breathe mindfully, and let their body guide them to a pose that represents their experience — in the present moment — of the first phase. Encourage participants to pay attention to their senses as they are in a pose — sight, sound, smell, touch. Invite them to describe how and where they experience that phase in the body. This info will be useful later in designing a self-care plan. • Decide who is A and who is B and start with A. • Each person goes through the phases of the spectrum one by one, first person A and then Person B. In each phase they strike a pose (create a still, embodied sculpture). They do only the phases they have experienced (however if they want to do phases they have not experienced, it is fine as sometimes this provides important insight on where they are not in the spectrum) They can skip phases if they want. • When Person A presents poses in the various phases of the spectrum, Person B mirrors A’s poses. A looks at B’s mirror poses and either accepts them as is or changes them as desired, sculpting the body of B until the pose reflects A’s experience of that pose. If the pose is changed, A then poses again so that A’s pose is the final reflection of that phase before moving to the next. • When A has finished, B de-roles from the mirroring work. An easy way to de-role is to shake the body and say “I am XXX (name), I am here and now.”)

Transition to group work: •Ask all participants to walk over the spectrum and position themselves where they feel that they are now on the spectrum. They can stand between phases if they want. Participants then strike a pose reflecting where they are now**. •Ask participants to slowly, mindfully let their body guide them to where they would want to be on the spectrum, and there take a pose and create an embodied sculpture reflecting where they want to be. • Ask participants to de-role, unless they want to keep the sensation of that position. • Give participants time to reflect on and write down their responses. Their observations may assist them when working later on identifying alerts (sensory triggers) and stressors as part of a self-care plan. •Group Sharing/processing time.

** I use this activity in the beginning and at the end of long training or in therapy. I make notes about what was said and done in the first session and use these to help process changes at the end of our work together.


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