If you’re not careful, stress can overtake your life. We break down the how, what, and why of stress, and teach you how to manage it.
These days, who isn’t stressed out?
More the rule now than the exception, stress has become a commonplace occurrence in our daily life. It seems like everywhere you turn, doctors are tossing out phrases like stress management, stress-related illness, environmental stress, psychological stress - you get the point.
Stress has become a somewhat nebulous, umbrella term for all the indefinable ills that ail us, that make our heads ache, our hearts pound and unsettles our stomachs.
It makes us panic at work and snap at our family members. Sometimes, it serves as a motivation for finishing that project we’ve been procrastinating on or asking out that study buddy we’ve been too shy to approach. But mostly, it gets a bad rap. Nobody likes stress.
But in order to effectively manage stress, we need to know what it truly is, what causes it, and the impact of stress on the body. If we don’t lay this foundation, we won’t be able to address the core issues that cause stress.
What Is Stress and What Triggers It?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is, “any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes”.
Simply put, we have a fight-or-flight response that releases stress hormones into our body whenever we experience a triggering event. Once the response is triggered, our heart rate and blood pressure go up as blood rushes into our large muscle groups, such as the legs, preparing us to run if needed.
What is a triggering event? Once upon a caveman’s time, a triggering event was spotting a lion, running to the nearest tree and hiding there until the lion moved onto new prey. In the modern world, a triggering event can be almost anything our minds perceive is risky to our survival, such as:
- Failing a test
- Losing a job
- Getting stuck in traffic
- Arguing with a significant other
- Going on a blind date
Depending on your particular personality and life experiences, you may experience stress for any number of non-life threatening reasons simply because you were emotionally triggered into the stress cycle.
Unfortunately, for many people, rather than returning to baseline hormone levels after the “danger” has passed, many people experience chronic stress - a scenario where the nervous system is disregulated and stressors are perpetually present. This can lead to many problematic consequences for the body.
How Does Stress Impact The Body?
Research suggests that stress, especially chronic stress, can have a multitude of effects on the body, including:
- weight gain
- poor digestion
- sleep problems
- anxiety and panic
It can also correlate with long-term health issues such as heart disease and obesity. In fact, the American Institute of Stress estimates that 75-90 percent of all primary care visits are for stress related problems.
What Can Be Done To Combat Stress?
The good news is that quite a bit can be done to combat stress. Just as our body is hardwired to experience the stress response, we are also wired for relaxation. And with a growing wellness industry sprouting up, seemingly everywhere, there are more choices than ever for those seeking a more natural path to managing stress. Here are some simple, yet effective options:
Yep, this one is always going to be at the top of any stress-busting list. Whether you like to engage in simple, daily walks or love rock climbing, exercise is a must.
Find walks boring but don’t really dig the intensity of extreme sports? No problem. There are a wide-range of classes available at most gyms, including different types of dance, spin, pilates and yoga, to name just a few.
Yoga can be especially helpful, as it combines cardio and strength workouts with meditation-giving both the body and mind the chilling out they need!
If you struggle to commit to regular exercise, consider finding a workout buddy or using a workout app to help you stay the course-apps like Map My Fitness, Workout Trainer, or All Day can be effective with workout goals and reminders.
Regardless of how you exercise, it has been shown to release endorphins into the bloodstream - wonderful floods of feel-good hormones that can counteract the impact of stress on your body, especially when you exercise on a regular basis.
Like exercise, meditation can be a great, low-cost way to manage stress.
Research suggests meditation can help with calming stressful or anxious feelings and can increase self-awareness and the ability to think through challenges and act on them more effectively. It is important to note that there are multiple types of meditation you can engage in, depending on your preference or mood.
A brief list includes:
Mindful meditation. This is a type of meditation combining focused breathing with specific attention to the present moment-sounds, touch, smells, etc. It is specifically designed to encourage and build acceptance of the present moment without attaching to specific thoughts and feelings that can increase stress and pain.
For instance, if I’m washing dishes thinking, “I hate washing dishes. This is boring,” then I am judging the experience rather than having it consciously, such as feeling the warm water. When practiced on a consistent basis, mindfulness can be very effective at managing daily stress and bringing awareness to the day-to-day joys in life.
Mantra meditation. Mantras are a powerful way to focus the mind and set specific intentions while meditating. Usually, mantra meditation involves identifying a word or phrase that helps to keep attention on the breath, as well as to support a positive flow of thoughts and feelings into the body.
For instance, while engaging in focused, deep breathing, a participant might use the phrase “let go,” saying “let” out loud or in their head as they breathe in, and “go” as they breathe out. There is no one-size-fits-all with mantras; the common thread is that the mantras be purposeful and support the natural flow of the breath.
Guided visualization. This is a form of meditation typically involving listening to another person’s voice guide you through a series of images designed to increase relaxation and calm the body.
They might begin with encouraging you to breathe deeply, then progress to having you imagine you are walking on a beach, or hiking through the woods. Often, guided visualizations emphasize awareness of the five senses as you imagine yourself in a particular location or situation, so as to fully immerse in the experience. Visualization can be especially useful for those with very busy minds for whom focusing on the present moment is difficult or ineffective.
3) Gratitude Journaling
As journaling becomes more popular among those seeking self-improvement and calming techniques, gratitude journaling has emerged as a compelling style of writing in which you identify daily or weekly positive things that have happened and you detail them in a journal.
You are encouraged to consider ordinary, often-overlooked daily events as items to include in journaling, such as, “I hit all green lights this morning,” “my spouse offered to pick up milk after work,” or, “my boss just sent me a thumbs up text”.
The point, and utility, of this sort of thinking and writing is similar to the effects of engaging in cognitive-behavioral therapy. It supports reframing negative thoughts and retrains the brain to build awareness of positive events. In doing so, it can be a powerful and effective method of managing and lessening stress, especially if done regularly.
4) Vitamins and Supplements
There is a growing body of research which suggests that vitamins and supplements can be effective in treating stress.
A few common types include:
As with any new substance you are considering putting into your body, natural or otherwise, it is important to consult your doctor to assess any risks or potential side effects.
Don’t Let Stress Manage You
On the whole, stress is not meant to be a mysterious or unmanageable phenomenon. It is a normal part of everyday life that has naturally occurred for thousands of years.
However, as stress takes on a more chronic form in the modern world, more and more people are seeking simple, natural ways to deal with it. Whether you engage in daily walks, meditation, journaling, supplements, or some combination of all of these, there are a variety of ways to handle your stress.
You can empower yourself. Stress doesn’t have to ruin your mood, your day, or your life. For more tips on improving your mental health, check out this article.