When it comes to stress tolerance, I use an easy-to-understand metaphor to explain the concept to patients.
We are all born into the world with a certain size “bucket” that dictates our capacity for stress, any stress. Our genetic tolerance for stress — let’s say, the size of the bucket — is developed at conception and shaped throughout life. You get half of that capacity from your mom, half from your dad.
Even before birth, our adrenals perceive how stressful the outside world is through a shared circulation between Mom and baby. This means some of us may be born with a bucket already half full, while others have a bucket with just a few drops.
All Stress Goes Into One Bucket
There is no separation of various stressors from one another, physical, mental, or emotional. Whether it be an injury, a chemical toxin, an annoying text message from your brother, the death of a loved one, or fear of debt, all stressors go into the same bucket. Some sources of stress take up more room in the bucket than others.
By design, this stress tolerance bucket was meant for extreme, acute stressors, such as a fending off plague, fighting famine, or running from a predator. For example, if a tiger were to lunge at you, your bucket would immediately and completely fill with “stress.” And if you lived through this experience with the tiger, your bucket would immediately empty again and be ready for the next acute stressor.
Our Stress Tolerance Is Tested Every Day
The problem with living in our present society is we now use our stress response bucket quite differently from its designed purpose. Chronic, low-level stress comprises our world. Most of us, thankfully, no longer fear for our safety from predators or worry about starvation. However, we do fill our bucket with multiple chronic, perpetual stressors.
As you read this, you’re probably thinking of a bunch of things that affect your stress tolerance daily. We are deluged with so much constant stress these days that we don’t question it. Our minds have acclimated to it, even as our bucket begins to overflow.
Relatively minor chronic stressors begin to fill up your “bucket” of stress tolerance little by little. You remain in the stress response too often.
Healing and Repair Are Compromised
When you remain in the stress response, your body compensates. But when it compensates for too long, it over-activates the organs of stress, causing wear and tear on your body. Your continually activated stress response also shuts down the organs of relaxation, those that help your body heal and repair.
Daily burdens — bills, arguing with your teenager, or the hour-long drive to work — keep your stress bucket full. Brimming with stress like that can potentially compromise your ability to handle the next major stressor that comes our way. A highly stressful event, such as the loss of a job, a serious illness, or even something as pleasant as getting married, and that bucket is going to overflow.
Our stress tolerance bucket holds everything…
until it can’t!
After the body has been under assault for long enough, your entire physiology is affected. The effects are body-wide, and the damage is done. Once this overflowing bucket becomes a long-term problem, it’s no longer a simple fix. Removing the last big stressor or even reducing the ongoing chronic stressors will not correct your body-wide symptoms: anxiety, extreme fatigue, chronic pain, insomnia, depression, digestive or immune conditions, and more.
This is “Adrenal Fatigue,” or what I refer to as a stress response system dysfunction. Depending on the size of your bucket, this breakdown occurs over years or, for some, decades. By this time, the body requires effective, targeted treatment to get all its systems functioning normally again.