A few months ago, my mom told me a story that I didn’t quite know what to do with. At her most recent physical, when asked if she was stressed, she shrugged off the question: No, not really. But then, because she is a chatty person, she proceeded to fill in her doctor about various events going on in her life — the health issues of her mother and mother-in-law, planning an upcoming wedding for one of her kids, watching anxiously as the other one embarked on a summer internship search. And then at the end, as she told it, there was a pause, and then an out loud lightbulb moment: Oh, actually, I guess I am stressed.
I was baffled. When I’m stressed, I spend most passing minutes actively knowing it. I marinate in it. I could take a bath in my stress. To be utterly unaware of how stressed you are sounded insane, and also insanely enviable — and also kind of hard to wrap my head around. Is it really possible to be blissfully ignorant of your own stress?
To answer that question, it helps to first define the terms, says Jessica Payne, a cognitive neuroscientist at Notre Dame who runs the university’s Sleep, Stress, and Memory Lab. Stress, she explains, isn’t a state of mind so much as it is a quantifiable biological response: A stressor — which can be an event or a thought, something real or imagined — activates what’s called the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, a network that connects the nervous and the endocrine system, to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Something is stressful, then, insofar as it causes that biological response.
Because occupying a human body is a rich and diverse experience, we all react to that uptick in cortisol in different ways. “Stress usually finds an outlet,” Payne says. “For some people it’s insomnia, or sleep disruption in general. For others it’s stomach problems. For others it’s headaches.” And just as the physical side effects of stress can vary widely, so too can the mental ones. More specifically, so can the conscious awareness of that biological stress response. That angsty feeling we tend to associate with stress, in other words, is a feature of the state, but not its defining one.
Whether or not a person keeps their stress front of mind depends on a host of factors, Payne says — personality, upbringing, even genetics. Highly neurotic people, for instance, tend to spend more time ruminating in their negative feelings, and therefore are more likely to keep their stress front and center as they move through it. People raised in families where feelings aren’t often discussed may be more inclined to push down any stress and move through their days as though everything is fine.
And then there are people who don’t consciously recognize their stress because they don’t have the emotional vocabulary for it, or a finely tuned awareness of their own internal state. “If you can’t label something,” Payne says, “it’s very hard to experience it.” When it comes to recognizing and articulating what’s going on in your own head, some people are just better than others. Some people are so bad, in fact, that there’s a term for it: alexithymia, or an inability to define your own emotions. (On the other end of the spectrum are people with high “emotional granularity,” defined in one study as the ability to translate specific feelings into words “with a high degree of complexity.”)
And while it may seem like a pretty good deal to be able to section off your stress so neatly, neither tendency — focusing on it, or ignoring it entirely — is, in its extreme, particularly healthy, Payne notes. On the one hand, talking it out “is very effective in dialing down cortisol levels,” she says — that is, “until talking about it turns into ruminating about it, which is not helpful at all. So it’s almost like you want a blend of those two personality types to effectively cope.”
Or, if you didn’t happen to be gifted with that particular blend, it’s at the very least a helpful thing to aspire to when you fall too far to one side or the other. There’s value in making an effort to focus your attention elsewhere when your feelings threaten to swallow you whole. But there’s also value sometimes in coaxing them out, in taking a moment to arrive at the conclusion: Huh, I guess I am stressed, as counterintuitive as it may seem.