We’ve all heard it – “try not to stress.” But it’s easier said than done. Unfortunately, stress isn’t a switch we can just turn on and off. Sometimes when we begin focusing on how to lower it, that often times begins to stress us out even more. So how do we end this vicious cycle and learn to realistically keep stress under control?
Stress affects multiple systems in our body. It alters our respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, nervous, endocrine, gastrointestinal systems and more! Our bodies go through a chain of reactions when we feel stressed.
- First are the nerve signals or “alarm” signals. This is when you first identify a “threat.” Our nerve signals send a message to our brain that something is happening or about to happen.
- The second step occurs after the nerve signal is received by the brain. The message is collected by the amygdala, which is responsible for making decisions and controlling emotions. The amygdala then sends a message to the hypothalamus, which regulates the production of hormones.
- The third step has to do with how these hormones are dispersed. Adrenaline is released by the nervous system. This is our “fight-or-flight” response to stressful situations. While this is going on, the hypothalamus also produces a hormone that initiates the production of cortisol – the stress hormone.
- For the fourth step, adrenaline and cortisol travel throughout the body via the bloodstream. The cortisol begins to fill proteins that are outfitted on each cell of our body.
- Finally, our blood sugar spikes as a response to the cortisol, and adrenaline beings to make our heart beat heavily and quickly and increases the amount of oxygen that fills our muscles.
So what effects will we notice when stress starts to take its toll?
Short-term stress is not always a bad thing. In fact, many times it is good. The “fight-or-flight” response is what tells us when we need to get out of a dangerous or threatening situation. It helps us to handle problems and tough situations. It can also push you to accomplish things outside of your comfort zone, complete tasks on a deadline, etc. However, chronic stress can be very detrimental to our health.
Here’s what’s going on:
- Central Nervous & Endocrine Systems – we can experience irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, and behaviors like over/under eating or social withdrawal.
- Respiratory System – because you are receiving an increased amount of oxygen, you begin to breathe faster. If you already experience issues with your respiratory system, such as asthma or emphysema, stress can take a larger toll on you and make it harder for you to breathe.
- Cardiovascular System – stress raises blood pressure due to constricted blood vessels, which increases your risk of hypertension.
- Digestive System – the increase in blood sugar that is produced can put you at a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes as your body may not keep up with the extra surge of glucose.
- Immune System – stress stimulates your immune system which, over a long period of time, can make us more susceptible to illnesses and infections like the common cold or influenza.
Managing your stress levels
We’ve established that chronic stress is really bad for us, but what’s more important is how we can go about realistically managing it.
Reorganize and Refocus. Many times when we are beginning to feel stressed out, we are focusing on an event or situation that could go wrong. For example: you have a big meeting coming up for work. You feel overwhelmed and start to worry that you will forget an important point or you’ll mess up a line. Instead of focusing on these aspects, take a step back and refocus. Train your mind to start thinking about the things you can do to rock the presentation. You can perform some additional research, create flashcards to help you remember key points, or rehearse it in front of the mirror and in front of friends. The point is that the situation is only as stressful as our minds perceive it to be. If we can reorganize our thoughts and focus on the items that are within our control, we are much less likely to begin stressing.
Assign yourself reasonable goals. It’s common for people to take on more than they can handle. We think we can do it all. The truth is, we all have our limitations. Assess the amount you can handle and recognize when it’s beginning to feel like too much. Then, realize that it’s okay to say “no” to some requests that are made to you. If you feel like you cannot take on another big project at work and complete it to the best of your ability, then state this. This will help to eliminate unnecessary stress and leave you some time to decompress and relax!
Make time for yourself. This doesn’t have to mean you need to attend a meditation class every single day (although go for it, if you can!), but let yourself enjoy at least one relaxing activity each day. This could mean listening to music, coloring, writing in a journal, or even just sitting in a quiet room. These 15 to 30 minutes can really help lower your stress levels, as well as help you think more clearly.
Get some perspective. This one is sometimes easier said than done, especially if we’re feeling angry or disappointed about something. But an important question to ask yourself is: is this truly worth my worry? Will it matter in a month or a year from now? If your answer is no, try to focus on the positive and move on from the situation. Your time is much better spent on those things that are important to you and this small step will help you to manage your stress levels.
Exercise. Countless studies have shown the benefits of managing stress with exercise. If you can, try to work in 30 to 60 minutes each day to perform some sort of exercise, whether it be weight training, yoga, pilates, cardio, etc. If this it too unrealistic for you, try these other options:
- Park your car at the end of the parking lot for a longer walk into work
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Bring in groceries one bag at at time
What are some ways that you help keep your stress levels down? Comment below!