What is stress?
Stress is not an event or situation, but rather stress is our body’s natural reaction to external events (called stressors) that we subjectively find stressful.
Generally we find events stressful if we view them as threatening to our goals and values AND if we view them as uncontrollable. Combined, this creates the experience of being overwhelmed. It is common to feel a push and pull in different directions, and to experience emotions like frustration, anxiety, and anger.
When we find an event to be stressful, our body reacts in a fight or flight response – our heart rate raises, our blood pressure increases, and all systems operate on overdrive. This physical stress response is a natural one that is present in all animals. Picture a gazelle seeing a Lion stalking it. The stress response is what allows the gazelle to quickly react and flee for its life.
For the gazelle, the stress response is temporary. It reacts to the event and either escapes with it’s life, or it doesn’t…. However, humans have brains that allow for higher order functions, such as imagination and memory. This is what allows us to do great things like write books and create new inventions, and this is also what brings about psychological stress. Thinking about events in the past, or worrying about the future stresses us out. We can experience the same physical stress response as a gazelle just by THINKING about an upcoming event that is not happening at the moment. Mind blown, right?
Can you imagine trying to explain your stresses to a gazelle? I can’t imagine they would understand why an upcoming meeting or getting stuck in traffic makes you react the same way that being chased by a Lion does!
Even though we often experience stress that is triggered by our imaginations, the impact it has on our lives is very real. Psychological stress is often persistent, which results in our bodies being in ‘stress mode’ for an extended period of time. This form of chronic stress is incredibly harmful to our physical health. Chronic stress can lead to an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke, digestive problems, and autoimmune disease. Not to mention, the more stress you experience, the less you feel like you. Ongoing stress increases your risk of developing depression, negatively impacts your sexual functioning, and can create significant strain on relationships.
How many times have you said to yourself, “This year will be different! I will [insert new health behavior here]!”? If you are like the majority of people, you have set a New Year’s resolution or two for yourself in the past. You might even be thinking of marching into the new year resolutely with your head held high and a plan to change your life for the better. Well, if you are like the majority of people, then it is also likely that you are setting yourself up for failure.
But wait- all hope is not lost. By learning some of the reasons we are typically destined for failure, you can go into the new year better equipped to make healthy choices and stick to them.
Don’t fall prey to the honeymoon effect
Early on, many newly married couples seem to be on cloud nine and live each day together as though they are on their honeymoon. There has been a great deal of research that has been conducted to better understand this stage of relationships and why so many lose that loving feeling. What is clear from research findings is that early in the relationship, your brain’s reward centers work on overdrive, and you are under the influence of both love and lust. Think of this as the love drug. During this time, butterflies are fluttering around in your stomach and the birds seem to sing just for you. It is also very natural and common during this time to place your relationship partner on a pedestal. At the same time, there is the tendency to downplay your partners’ faults and see only the best parts of who he or she is. Everything he or she does is soooo cute, lovely, and not at all annoying.
Research also shows that holding these ‘positive illusions’ that your partner is all sorts of wonderful helps you feel secure in the relationship (Murray et al., 1999) and more satisfied too (Barelds & Dijkstra, 2011). Early into the marriage, people bask in the glow of these positive illusions. This brain-on-overdrive-happy-illusion time is called the “honeymoon effect”, where your relationship is like a vacation that you wish would never end. However, like all vacations, the honeymoon cannot last forever, and it is near impossible to keep your partner on that pedestal.
Over the course of the first few years of marriage, an interesting shift happens across couples. We actually start to see our partners as less agreeable, less open-minded, and more emotionally unstable than we originally did (Watson & Humrichouse, 2006). Essentially, the pedestal they are on starts to crumble over time. Just think about this for a moment… The person you marry is not the person you see a few years later. They might seem less cute or lovely, and more flawed. You might be wondering, did he always slurp his soup so obnoxiously?!
The result of our partners coming off their pedestals means that we start to see them up close, with all their flaws exposed. With all that security we felt when we saw them as Mr. or Mrs. Perfect washed away, we might feel like we are seeing someone we do not recognize. All of a sudden, you can’t ignore that your partner picks his or her nose or constantly leaves the toilet seat up. This fall from the pedestal can be unnerving, because you are now face to face with your partner and his or her flaws, who is also face to face with you and all your flaws. If you are not prepared for the end of the honeymoon and the start of the marriage, you will be in trouble because it is this person, flaws and all, who is now standing right next to you ready to walk into the future.
Knowing that we are all prey to the honeymoon effect can help you to prepare for the inevitable truth, which is that your partner is not perfect and neither are you. The couples who make it out of the honeymoon stage unscathed are those who anticipate this shift and who work together with their partners to define ways to thrive. Ultimately, it is not enough to see your partner in a realistic way, and accept and love who he or she really is, boogers and all. The true hallmark of a lasting relationship is actively working towards building the recipe for longevity.