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Mental wellness

June 21, 2012

Deconstructing stress management

New book explains the four factors of stress and reveals surprising insights into how we experience stress and what we can do about it.

Scientist Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal, says stress is “NUTS.” That is, it results from any or all of: “novelty,” “unpredictability,” a “threat” to your ego and a “sense” of low control. Lupien has written a book about her research on the topic, Well Stressed: Manage Stress Before It Turns Toxic, that has just been translated into English. (French title: Par amour du stress.)

“The general public didn’t know about my findings,” Lupien says. “I got tired of doing research to do research. I wanted to spend more time on knowledge transfer, translating this so anyone can understand it, not just other scientists.”

The book cites other recent research along with Lupien’s own work. Among the highlights:

  • Stress defined. “Stress is not the same as time pressure,” she emphasizes in the book. Instead, it’s our bodies’ hard-wired response to events that are new or unpredictable, and that pose a threat to our ego or sense of control. The stress response evolved back when humans were chasing down or running from large, fearsome creatures such as mammoths, and is not so well suited to handle stresses that require less-athletic coping strategies, such as starting high school, undergoing a divorce or being passed over for a promotion. By deconstructing our stressors and figuring out which factors are involved, we can act to reduce our stress response.
  • Stress can make us fat in the wrong places. Under stress, our bodies mobilize energy to fight or flee, but if we do neither, that energy is stored as belly fat, for easy future access – and an increased risk of health perils such as hypertension and diabetes.
  • Stress isn’t just a problem for busy, working people. “It has been shown that stress has the capacity to accelerate the aging of the brain in the elderly,” Lupien writes. “It has also been shown that stress can delay the development of some parts or functions of the brain in children.”
  • Women and men react differently to stress. Recent research shows women often respond to stress by “tending or befriending” rather than by fighting or fleeing. Additionally, Lupien has found that while men can make women’s stress hormone levels rise, women can actually make men’s levels drop.
  • We need stress to survive. Never mind having survived as a species by our ability to deal with mammoths – we need the vigilance associated with stress to get up on time in the morning, play sports effectively or cross the street safely.
  • Stress-induced illnesses can be predicted – and prevented. Doctors can plug in numbers for an individual’s glucose, cholesterol and cortisol (stress hormone) levels and waist-to-hip ratio into a calculator and recommend action long before any single number becomes worrisome. Lupien plans to put a doctors’ version of this calculator on her website, humanstress.ca, and hopes eventually to make it available to individuals as well.

While Lupien got her start in stress research by working with older adults, she says she is doing more and more work with children and adolescents. She has some advice for parents: “Never think you can hide your stress from your kids. They have the same stress detectors that you have, and they will react to your stress if they sense any of the NUTS factors. If you won’t deal with your stress for yourself, do it for your kids.”

Finally, what stress factor affects Lupien the most? “Unpredictability,” she says. “I need to keep my life organized.”

And how does she deal with stress? “Exercise,” she says. “I walk my dog a lot. He’s in very, very good shape. Exercise works; ask my dog – he knows.”

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