Changing Your Body’s Reaction to Stress: Five Dimensions of Stress

Changing Your Body’s Reaction to Stress: The Five Dimensions of Stress

Stress is both a cause of trouble and the result of trouble. As the first step in empowering you to change your bodily reactions to stress, we ask you to observe and notice what kinds of stressors exist for you in each of the five domains. The goal is awareness. You can't change it if you don't see it or feel it or know about it.

Some stressors in life are obvious. Time pressure is well understood. And yes, if you've been through a divorce, lost your job, or just returned from serving in Afghanistan, you don't need a detective to identify your stressors.

Taking a New Look with a Fresh Set of Eyes

Our brain is wired so that we pay atten­tion to new things and tune out things that are around us all the time. For this exercise, we want you to take a new look at your life with a fresh set of eyes. For this reason, the first step is about centering and finding a place of deep calm within yourself. When you're centered, tune in to your inner stress-o-meter and listen to what sets it off. With a relaxed mind-set, you can feel where the tension is coming from.

The five forms of stress clearly overlap each other, and one insight can be found in multiple categories. There are no right or wrong answers here. The five categories are merely prompters to encourage a complete review of your life.

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As you examine each form of stress, also consider what resources or anti-stress elements are present in your life. If you would like, keep a running list for each of the forms of stress: stressors on the left, anti-stressors on the right. The point is to not only achieve clarity about your stressors but to also under­stand your easily overlooked resources and strengths.

Environmental Stress

Where and with whom you spend your time are crucial and easily identifiable elements of environmental stress. Think about what is going on at home, work, or school and in your community. Consider the physical aspects of these environments: sights, sounds, and smells, for example. Also look into the social aspects of these envi­ronments, especially the most important relationships in your life: family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

For most people, the biggest source of stress is the workplace. In 2009, 69 percent of employees reported that work is a pri­mary source of stress, and 51 percent reported that they were less productive because of it. And, of course, family dynamics are also major stressors, especially with numerous opportunities for miscommunication, resentment, and other forms of tension between members. Are there opportunities for improved commu­nication at work and at home?

Also easily overlooked is the risk for nature-deficit disorder. How much sunlight is in your life? How far do you have to walk, bike, or drive to find some green space? Is the winter too long and too dark where you live?

Many people neglect engaging their senses in dance, music, poetry, or other forms of art. Are you at risk for not expressing your soul through dancing or singing or writing?

As you review the possible stressors in your environment — the places and situations that make you feel uncomfortable — also keep an eye out for the aspects of your home or workplace that make you feel good. Make note of these and increase them in your life, if you can.

Physical Stress

Physical stresses such as acute or chronic illness, surgery, pregnancy, or arduous work are easily understood. Additional stressors such as dehydration, obesity, or insomnia are also eas­ily recognized. Not so frequently seen are the physical stressors that come from insufficient movement or the accumulation of muscle tension. Compared to the lives of our grandparents, we are much more likely to sit during most of the day.

One way to observe your sources of physical stress is to keep track of what you do with your body all day long. How much time do you spend each day in front of a screen relative to other activ­ities in your life? How much time do you spend sitting compared to standing or walking?

There are other clues to physical stressors, too. Do you experi­ence neck, shoulder, and back pain on a regular basis? Perhaps the poor ergonomic position of your desk and chair is aggravat­ing these aches and pains.

A wide variety of activities — such as jogging, bicycling, playing tennis, and so on — can free you from the restraints of physical stress. Of course, the body should not be active all the time. About a third of each day, it should be asleep. How many hours of sleep do you get every night?

Emotional Stress

Changing Your Body’s Reaction to Stress: The Five Dimensions of StressEmotional stress can result from internal or external sources, but either way, it can wreak havoc on your digestive health. Emotions present a great dilemma in any society, and hence in any individual. If emotions are given free rein, external chaos erupts. Yet if they are kept strictly under control, the repressed emotions can cause internal chaos.

The problematic emotions include sadness, anger, shame, disgust, anxiety, frustration, grief, and despair. Unresolved difficult emotions are one of the most common triggers for flare-ups of bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, gas, and other gastric distress.

Spiritual Stress

Whether or not you are religious, the potential for spiritual stress cannot be overlooked. Especially when challenged with a life-disrupting health con­dition or another form of suffering, people are challenged to ask deep questions. How could this happen to me? Why me? Why now? Who am I? How do I fit into the world? What does fate hold in store for me? What is worth doing? Why should I care? Does God exist? Does God have a plan for me? Is it just me against the Universe? What is the meaning of my suffering?

Spiritual distress comes from challenges to our most impor­tant connections: with ourselves, with others, with nature, with a higher power, and with a story that goes far beyond our own.

For those who believe in a personal God, major challenges in life may prompt questions related to that relationship. Why doesn't God listen to me? Am I being punished? Why aren't my prayers enough?

Giving voice to spiritual questions, concerns, and challenges can itself be healing. The best answers are found rather than given.

Pharmaceutical Stress

Pharmaceutical stress is another name for the visible and invis­ible side effects of prescribed medications. Yes, medications that have the power to do good also have the power to harm, tax, deplete, or strain the body.

Certainly, many medications can cause gastrointestinal distress, rashes, headaches, and the like. But medications can also cause unrecognized nutritional prob­lems that can affect energy, mood, memory, sleep, and general oomph. Ironically, additional medications are often prescribed to treat the side effects of the first medicine.

If you require prescription medications, be on the lookout for side effects. These can magnify if you are taking more than one medicine at a time.

Has your doctor assessed you for nutrients potentially depleted by prescription drug use? (See for a complete listing to help you prepare to talk with your physician.)

If you suspect that you are suffering from pharmaceutical stress, see your primary care physician or find an integrative physician. These types of problems require a professional who understands the chemical reactions in your body. The physician can look for alternative medicines or other ways to treat your condition while minimizing the stressful side effects. Yoga and deep breathing are not going to do the job in this dimension of stress.

Dietary Stress

Key concerns here are:

  1. Potential food allergies and/or food reactivities
  2. Nutritional insufficiencies
  3. Oxidative stress

Additional concerns include food cravings, mindfulness, and the quality of foods eaten.

To begin your dietary stress assessment, keep a diary of everything you eat for at least two weeks. Also note when you eat, how you eat, and why you eat. How often do you skip meals? How often do you snack? What are your snack foods? How often do you cook? How often do you eat whole foods? Processed foods? How often do you eat out? How often do you eat a meal at your desk? While walking? While driving? These aspects of eating provide insights into how mindful your meals are.

Getting a handle on what we ingest and why is complicated because we eat for many different reasons. Food is necessary for survival, but most people make their food choices out of pleasure or convenience.

Consider the context of your eating. Do you eat because of emotional cravings? Are your meals largely social in nature? Or are they in a rush? What is the ratio of cooking time to eating time? Are there any foods that you find don't digest well or otherwise disagree with you but that you eat anyway?

As you observe your diet, you may find yourself taking a more mindful attitude toward eating and making time to sit down and savor your meal. A surprising fact: the more we appreciate the sensual nature of our meals, the more we seek better quality. This fact makes wise choices easier. And you'll be less likely to eat something that would be embarrassing to write down.

One study found that people who kept food journals ended up losing weight. It seems they avoided terrible foods because they were too embarrassed to write them down! But we want you to be honest about observing what you eat and drink. We promise it will be quite helpful.

A Little of This, and a Little of That

It is important to keep in mind that these five areas of stress overlap. As you track down the sources of your stress, it's okay to identify more than one area at the same time. In real life, these stressors gang up on you simultaneously.

©2013. Gregory Plotnikoff & Mark Weisberg. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.

This article was adapted with permission from the book:

Trust Your Gut: Get Lasting Healing from IBS and Other Chronic Digestive Problems Without Drugs
by Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP and Mark B. Weisberg, PhD, ABPP

Trust Your Gut: Get Lasting Healing from IBS and Other Chronic Digestive Problems Without Drugs by Gregory Plotnikoff and Mark B. WeisbergIn Trust Your Gut, two leading doctors in integrative medicine – a physician and a psychologist – have teamed up to develop the revolutionary CORE program. Gregory Plotnikoff, MD and Mark Weisberg, PhD offer a comprehensive, mind-body approach to healing, without the need for drugs. Their book is based on decades of clinical experience in resolving the most challenging gut symptoms. Trust Your Gut will empower you to awaken your ‘inner doctor”, find lasting, sustainable relief and reclaim your life through making simple changes in your diet and sleep, stress reduction and more.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon

About the Authors

Gregory A. Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP, co-author of: Trust Your GutGregory A. Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP, is a board-certified internist and pediatrician who has received national and international honors for his work in cross-cultural and integrative medicine. He is frequently quoted on medical stories in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times and been featured on All Things Considered, Speaking of Faith and Science Friday. [Photo credit: John Wagner Photography]

Mark B. Weisberg, PhD, ABPP, co-author of: Trust Your GutMark B. Weisberg, PhD, ABPP is a clinical health psychologist. He is a Community Adjunct Professor in the Center for Spirituality and Healing, University of Minnesota, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Weisberg is frequently interviewed for television, radio and print. Visit him at

More articles by these authors.

Watch a video with Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff: Trust Your Gut


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