So, What Is Stress?

By Penny Boreham, Intake Manager

What is Stress ?

At Khiron House we talk a lot about treating ‘trauma’, and trauma is just a sub-set of the body’s response to ‘stress’. So what exactly is stress and how should we be thinking about it, behaving about it and treating it?

Stress and the body

In life, when we experience our systems being under pressure we often say we are “stressed”. Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The human body experiences stress negatively when we feel we are dealing with more than we can cope with

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist who teaches at Stanford University, has recently announced that new research about stress in the USA has led to a complete change in the way she teaches, and has altered her attitude to stress. Previously she had been teaching people about the negative health effects of stress, and how to avoid and control them. Now she believes she has been demonising stress and she was wrong to do that.

Dr McGonigal states research has revealed that it is the belief that stress is bad for you that is more damaging that the stress itself. She is advocating that we change the way we think about the feelings we experience when we are under pressure. By doing this, she says, we can actually start to change our body’s negative responses.

For Kelly McGonigal the sensations and the physical symptoms we experience when our systems feel under pressure should be embraced not demonized. Dr McGonigal reveals her change of attitude was largely due to a research study in the USA that tracked 30 thousand adults and their relationship to stress.

In this study, individuals were asked to both evaluate how much stress they had experienced and also the extent to which they felt that stress had a negative effect on their health. The results showed that people’s deep concern about stress produced worse effects than the stress itself.

Stress in relationship

But there is more than just the biology of stress at stake. Just like we teach and practice in our treatment at Khiron House, it turns out that stress and trauma in the body has a relationship not only with itself, but also with others.When we are under pressure our system starts to pump out hormones. Oxytocin is one of these hormones. For Kelly McGonigal it has played a key part in her new attitude.

Oxytocin is a neural hormone and has many functions. Kelly McGonigal focuses on the way it is released as part of the stress response and how motivates us to seek support, and also how it performs the function of protecting our cardio-vascular systems from any damaging effects of stress.

McGonigal is suggesting that starting to notice and experience the benefits of a stress response could lead to us to change our perception of the experience. This shows the importance of the balance between relationships and stress (or trauma), something which we know very well from our clinical experience at Khiron House

Biology and attachment

Dr Kristina Sandstrom is the Clinical Supervisor for Khiron House and also a chartered counselling psychologist for the NHS. She specialises in working with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma, complex trauma and dissociation. She responds to Dr McGonigal’s suggested new approach to stress;

“Kelly McGonigal highlights the vital role of the hormone oxytocin in motivating social bonding. If we are too overwhelmed, however, we can find it difficult to connect to others, leaving us feeling isolated and alone. Our ability to change the way we think about stress, and start to see the associated bodily changes in a more positive light, depends on our internal state of arousal. What can seem like a relatively benign event can trigger us, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and flooded, causing our thinking brain (frontal lobes) to shut down. If our system is flooded it will severely limit our ability to stop and respond. A good analogy for a system that is flooded is that it is as if you are standing in a tsunami and you cannot swim however much you might want to. 

Our ability to cope with stress is shaped by the quality of our attachment to caregivers, especially during our first years of life. If our caregivers were emotionally unavailable, depressed, neglectful, abusive and/or if they had experienced a less than nurturing attachment relationship themselves, they may not have been able to regulate our constantly changing arousal levels. The process of interactive regulation between the infant and caregiver shapes the infant’s developing brain, given that critical parts of the brain develop during these early years: the limbic system, responsible for emotional and social function, and the autonomic nervous system, which activates our fight, flight and freeze response. 

So what can we do when we feel completely overwhelmed and stressed out? At times like this it might seem impossible to think about stress in a different way, or indeed, it might seem impossible to think at all. The first thing we want to try to do is to switch on our frontal lobes again by noticing and witnessing our emotion. Next time you’re in an overwhelming situation try the following: say out loud, or quietly, to yourself: ‘I am noticing myself feeling anxious, stressed, angry etc’. Compare how that feels different to saying ‘I am anxious, etc’. By saying ‘I am noticing myself …’ we are placing ourselves outside of the tsunami instead of being in its midst.

Furthermore, a crucial yet difficult ingredient to recovering from stress is to have compassion towards our reaction(s). Easier said than done, I know, but if compassion currently seems out of reach, hold the intention of compassion. 

The good news is that recent research has shown that the pathways in our brain can be re-wired well in to our nineties, making recovery possible. Remember, neurones that fire together wire together. Slowly, slowly we can start to change our habitual responses to overwhelming emotions.”

You can see the original TED talk here. If you have any clinical questions for Dr Sandstrom she would be delighted to help you at

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day.

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