Stress Can Drive You NUTS!

In Helpful Stuff, Latest Research by christine

Stress Can Drive You NUTS!

When presented with the question what causes you stress, what comes to mind for you?  Do you think of time constraints, traffic jams, parenting, family conflict? 

Interestingly, stress researcher Sonia Lupien (2016) and her team at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress have identified that there are four sources of stress (I know what you are thinking: only FOUR?!).  Yep, FOUR.  They are:

N – Novelty, something new (for example: moving, new job, having a baby)

U – Unpredictability, no way of knowing it could occur (for example:  job loss, an accident, unanticipated illness)

T – Threat to ego (for example: feeling your competency is questioned; public and personal embarrassment)

S – Sense of Low Control (for example: feeling a sense of “unfairness” such as someone or something holding power over you; oppression) 

The more “NUTS” you can identify present for you, the higher your stress is.

How can using the NUTS tool benefit you?

Being able to identify and label our emotions is part of cultivating a mindfulness practice. Often when we are experiencing a distress response, there can be a disconnect between our understanding of what is going on for us and our physical responses to it (things like stomach aches, panic attacks, headaches, sweating, et cetera).  You know how great it feels when someone “gets” us?  We can also give that kick-ass feeling of validation to OURSELVES (cool, huh?).

 For example, imagine that during a presentation at work in front of your peers and bosses, you started to feel the effects from food poisoning.  You had worked for months on this presentation, and you were passionate and prepared to give your pitch.  Recognizing that you felt some nervous excitement, you thought a little food in your belly might better ground you.  Unbeknownst to you, the sushi you grabbed from the deli had gone “off”.  During your presentation, you started to sweat profusely, and completely lost your concentration.  Your bodily functions let loose, and you wound up vomiting down the hall out of the boardroom as you ran to the bathroom. 

When we break down this scenario using the NUTS acronym, we can identify ALL of the NUTS are present.

N – The presentation was something that does not happen all the time, and is considered a novelty.

U – Food poisoning is an unpredictable occurrence – individuals do not expect to become ill from nourishment

T – Bigtime threat to ego present!  Presenting as incompetent or unprepared (lacking the ability to focus due to feelings of malaise), and vomiting in front of others (something most people deem embarrassing)

S – No one can “control” food poisoning when it occurs   

Using this extreme example, we can identify that this is a high-stress scenario because all the NUTS are present.  Labeling emotions activates the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and reduces the emotional amygdala reactivity (the area of the brain responsible for fear conditioning).  By consciously recognizing our emotions (or NUTS stressors), we are reducing their impact (Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002).   

For those of you that think suppressing or numbing emotions work, think again:  you may fool others with your outwardly cool appearance, but inwardly, your limbic system is just as aroused, and in some cases, even more aroused with suppression – causing you increased distress ☹.      

Labeling your emotions and using the NUTS tool helps reduce negative reactivity.

To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system.

To summarize: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion and stress (Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002).  



Lupien S. J., McEwan, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009).  Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition.  Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.  doi: 10.1038/nm2639

 Lupien, S. (2016). Understanding your stress. Centre for Studies on Human Stress. Retrieved  from

 Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. E. (2002).  Rethinking feelings:  An fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion.   Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215-1229