What is stress: Stress is a state of emotional strain. In terms of effect, it is difficult to define because it is different for everyone. Stressors are constantly changing and throughout history, mankind has encountered various stresses. Even now, we are experiencing different forms of stress from the isolation we are living through. For the most part, stress is a good thing and the reaction our body has from stressors protects us from dangerous situations. Like most things, stress, in excess, is bad for our health.
Why it is bad, and good: When something threatens us, our bodies and minds jump into “fight or flight” mode. This is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also known as the “fight or flight” response, which floods our body with fast-acting hormones and neurochemicals. This psychological response sends signals to the brain identifying it is time for action. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flood the brain to help us act quickly and aggressively and sometimes make us freeze up. These hormones in excess can drain our energy, impair our cognition, and if we don’t have techniques to combat stress, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our health. Stress has been known to be a culprit in heart disease, cancer, and more. Chronic stress damages our immune system over time. “Decades of research shows that chronic stress predisposes us to more frequent and severe viral infections, by damping the immune system’s ability to do its job,” (Dr. Sternberg). Powerful testimony in a time like the present. It is important we have many tools in our toolkit to be able to mitigate chronic stress.
Techniques to help reduce stress:
- Exercise: Exercise itself is a stressor. When done well it will raise our heart rate and challenge our muscles. The difference between exercise and external stressors, that are bad, is we are initiating the action of exercise ourselves. This allows our brain to distinguish that everything is ok and that the perceived stress of exercise is good for us. During quarantine, I have been implementing a walk a day. Typically I drag along a family member for the social interaction and the benefits are amazing. There are multiple studies that found walking in a forest or in an unpopulated area is an effective way to reduce blood pressure and resting heart rate. Other exercises like weight lifting, light aerobic exercises like running and biking can be great at reducing stress (tension). Dr. Ratey in his book Spark , is quoted “Studies show that by adding physical activity to our lives, we become more socially active- it boosts our confidence and provides opportunity to meet people” (70)
- Socialize: Socializing is one of the best things you can do to reduce stress. In numerous studies it has been proven that isolation increases blood pressure and heart rates in humans and rats. So being with people you love and respect will do the inverse of that. “In fact, findings from animal and translational studies reviewed above show that social support reduces stress-induced cortisol release.” (Ozbay, 2007). Cortisol in excess is a culprit of annoying belly fat. Want to kill two birds with one stone? I can’t think of a better way to improve health than going to the gym, or exercising with a friend/loved one. It will create social interaction, physical movement, and new experiences for your brain development. Socializing will also create an army to fight your stressors with. “Overall, it appears that positive social support of high quality can enhance resilience to stress” (Ozbay, 2007). Why fight something alone when you can have some of your favorite people bye your side. Build your inner circle, and don’t be afraid to share it with other people’s circles.
- Breathing techniques: Nasal breathing combined with belly breathing, also known as deep diaphragmatic breathing, is an effective way to relax. Focusing on our breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and counteracts the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). Doing this will rebalance your autonomic nervous system (default mode) you’ll be better at relaxing without focusing on it. Nasal breathing also forces the air to be processed lower in your diaphragm which has a calming effect. Breathing through our nose also produces a powerful relaxant gas called nitric oxide. “Nitric oxide is a potent bronchodilator and vasodilator. Therefore it helps lower blood pressure and significantly increases the lungs’ oxygen-absorbing capacity.”. Nasal breathing is a great starting point to begin navigating a meditation practice.
- Meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a promising method to help alleviate stress and anxiety. Mindfulness has been described as the “nonjudgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise” (Baer, 2003). To begin mindfulness meditation take a minimum of five minutes out of your day and be one with your thoughts. It can help you better understand what is happening in your head, and this will allow you to transform your focus in a forward direction. Figure out what is stressing you so you can act upon it. Mindfulness meditation can also allow you to detach yourself from negative thoughts through its non judgmental state. Meditation has also been shown to improve sleep.
- Sleep: Stress and sleep go both ways. Too much stress can lead to not enough sleep. Not enough sleep can create stress. For this specific instance, let’s focus on improving our sleep as a means to reduce our stress. Improving your sleep is imperative in decreasing your perceived stress. Do you notice that when you are more tired your patience is lower and you snap easier? If yes, that is because “Sleep is so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep can affect memory, judgment and mood”(Harvard Medical School). Your family will thank you for optimizing your sleep. Sleep and stress are so interconnected that it is hard to find a causal order. Studies on blood pressure report “Some clinical studies also revealed that sleep disorders occurred along with higher psychological stress status, and it has been documented that most anxiety disorders are associated with reduced sleep quality” (Huang 2011). Fix our stress with better sleep, and fix our sleep with less stress. Check out the hyperlink on sleep to see how to improve your sleep today.
Butler G. (1993). Definitions of stress. Occasional paper (Royal College of General Practitioners), (61), 1–5.
Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125–143. doi:10.1093/clipsy.bpg015
Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 4(5), 35–40.
Huang, Yulia; Mai, Weiyib; Hu, Yunzhaoa; Wu, Yanxiana; Song, Yuanbinb; Qiu, Ruofengb; Dong, Yugangb; Kuang, Jianb Poor sleep quality, stress status, and sympathetic nervous system activation in nondipping hypertension, Blood Pressure Monitoring: June 2011 – Volume 16 – Issue 3 – p 117-123 doi: 10.1097/MBP.0b013e328346a8b4
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation. (n.d.). Consequences of insufficient sleep. Healthy Sleep.