What Is Our Relationship With Stress?
What is a stressor? Formally defined as a disruption to the body’s homeostasis, a stressor is any challenge you encounter that may threaten the state that your body (mentally or physically) finds to be “steady” or “stable.”
When we are presented with these situations you can respond in a myriad of ways, not all of them are bad. Some stressors can be things like weightlifting or being immersed in a new culture. As you think of these examples you would naturally think the result is getting stronger or maybe learning a new language. I point this out to illustrate how a stressor isn’t inherently bad, while still a situation that is pushing you out of your comfort zone or area of stability, it can also cause you to improve and come out stronger.
Then there are other situations such as being extremely busy or concerned about something in your life. Oftentimes the result of stressors like this can cause negative effects in your daily life, like not being able to focus or get quality sleep.
While any kind of stressor can produce either growth or struggles, the key to living with stress is how you manage it. Now, the way we manage stress can look vastly different based on the situation and the person managing it. This is what we are going to talk about today, managing stress and coming through to the other side stronger while limiting the negative effects it can have on you along the way.
The problem with stress is that, in a lot of scenarios, it is far more disruptive to our health than we would like or even realize. It causes physical ailments like headaches, upset stomach, high blood pressure, and lots of other issues that can be more specific depending on the cause of the stress and who you are. It can also be extremely hard on us mentally and emotionally, ranging from disrupting focus and causing mild anxiety, to more severe ramifications such as depression and panic attacks.
Stress is present in everyone’s life, if we don’t manage it well, then we are sure to see some effects start to show up and impede on our daily activities.
So how do we manage stress in a way that will mitigate these negative effects and allow us to live with stress happily? Like we mentioned, not all stress is bad, recognizing the stressors in our life that are challenging us to make changes and improvements while also recognizing the ones that are bringing unneeded problems into our lifestyle will play a big role in how we manage it (or eliminate it).
What is good stress?
When thinking about stress, you may have a lot of overlap in your mind using the words nervousness and anxiety. In a simple explanation, nervousness is a form of short term, or acute, stress; it goes away as you become more comfortable in that situation or as the situation passes. Anxiety is chronic, or long-term stress that does not go away and is diagnosable and often needs a form of treatment.
You see stress show through nervousness at times such as when you are getting ready to talk in front of a group of people, or you are in the final round of trivia. Some of the feelings can even be due to excitement. As the moment comes and goes, and you encounter it more frequently, you feel the nerves start to dissipate and you become more comfortable (or less stressed) in that situation.
Some other examples where “good stress” might be present for you are:
· Riding roller coasters
· Going on a date
· Performing a new task at work
· Lifting weights
· Dealing with finances
· Or problem solving in any situation where the outcome is important.
The result of being in these situations is that it can heighten your focus or cause you to learn and improve your ability to handle them the next time. This is good stress; it is short term and pushes us out of our comfort zone to a place of change or normalization.
What is bad stress?
When we experience stress that does not push us to make improvements, or when that stress becomes chronic (long term) and out of our control - the toll it takes on our bodies, both mentally and physically, becomes unhealthy, this is “bad stress”.
Some examples of what this might look like are:
· Work situations that are out of your control
· Exercise that results in [non-accidental] injury
· Abusive relationships
· Health issues
· Or anything that is not improving as you face it more often or implement strategies to manage it
Stressors like this can cause anxiety, low self-esteem, injury, weight gain, or various other symptoms that will usually require help to resolve.
Understanding how your body works during stress
Our bodies have a neuro mechanism called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis where the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands interact and mediate our response to stress. No matter what the stress is caused by the first thing that happens is our nervous system kicks in and sends signals to our body to raise blood pressure and move our blood faster, resulting in things like sweaty palms before a big meeting, or short breath when we are waiting for our name to be called.
Shortly after, the HPA axis is activated; this is a relation between different glands that are above the brainstem and above the kidneys. This system elevates the nervous response system to send more hormones into your bloodstream to better take care of your body in stressful situations that may be believed to last longer or linger.
In the effort to keep this learning simple and relatable, we are going to avoid spelling out the terms used for every hormone and function that is seen in this mechanism, but you can read more specific details here.
We need this system to deal with stress in our life so that more resources can be given to the areas of our body that need it, like pushing through a physical activity or getting more blood to our brain to stay alert. The downside, these hormones and brain signals block processes in our body that it decides are not as important until the main stressor is dealt with.
There are many ways that our body fails when this system is active for a prolonged period. Repeated HPA axis activity, or higher levels of the associated hormones, has been linked to obesity, poor sexual performance, diabetes, and poor immune and digestive systems to highlight a few.
Studies have also shown a major impact on our mental abilities caused by these high hormone levels as well. This means when you are stressed too often, or for too long of a period, you struggle with memory, cognition, self-esteem, and your body cannot produce the positive hormones that keep us happy and content.
You can see how when unhealthy stress lingers in our life people can begin to experience debilitating anxiety, depression, and long-term health complications.
Now that we know about good stressors and bad stressors, how to assess them, and the way stress works within our bodies, we will move onto learning more about managing stress in our lives.
There are three foundational components to a healthy lifestyle, sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Before we dive into tips on managing stress, let’s take a brief look at these three components and the relationship each has with stress, both by how each is negatively impacted and how each can positively fight against stress. Understanding this will help us learn how the tips that we will mention work to benefit us during stress management.
1. Sleep and stress relationship
a. Negative: When relationships, work, finances, or anything else are becoming too stressful, it impairs your ability to get enough sleep by prolonging the time it takes to fall asleep and breaking up your sleep pattern. This doesn’t allow your mind or body to recover and can result in loss of performance, potentially even leading up to insomnia.
b. Positive: When we get enough sleep, our memory is stored for long term recall, we are better equipped to regulate mood, concentrate, and avoid injury.
2. Nutrition and stress relationship
a. Negative: Stress puts a greater demand on the body for oxygen, energy, and nutrients. Making us feel hungry and the desire to eat. The hormones in your body from the HPA axis system cause cravings for “quick energy” like sugary, high-fat, and other unhealthy foods that do not provide the proper nutrients. Additionally, these hormones, specifically cortisol, favors the accumulation of fat cells, leading to weight gain.
b. Positive: A balanced diet fosters a healthy immune system (a system the body blocks when experiencing high levels of prolonged stress). Research shows that healthy fats, such as found in vegetables and omega-3’s, regulate cortisol levels.
3. Exercise and stress relationship
a. Negative: Prolonged stress negatively affects cognitive decision-making, causing it to be difficult to manage our time well and prioritize exercise. We also have learned that stress in our body reduces the amount of energy we need to exercise, partially through the effects it has on our sleep and nutrition.
b. Positive: Exercise imitates stress in the way it gets oxygen and blood moving to other parts of your body, this teaches your body’s systems to work together and even relieve the stressful emotions. Any kind of exercise, even just walking or stretching, releases positive brain chemicals to lift your mood, increasing positivity, regain focus, and sleep better.
Tips to manage stress
Remove yourself from stressful situations that are not improving you. I don’t mean if public speaking is stressful or managing money is stressful to run away from those, the stress can motivate you to learn and get better in challenging areas. What I mean is, once you identify that an area is out of your control and not giving you the opportunity to improve, consider making changes. This could be changing departments at work if your boss is setting you up to fail or getting out of an abusive relationship.
Considering what stressors in your life are healthy and giving an opportunity for growth versus what stressors are taking away your ability to enjoy a healthy life is imperative when addressing stress management.
· Prep your meals.
When we experience stress, it can be very hard to make good decisions. Having a healthy meal to start your day and preparing lunch and dinner in advance will set you up to provide your mind and body with healthy nutrients and will keep you from making the decision on what you will eat when you are in a weak state to do so well.
· Relax before bed.
Building a routine before you lay down for sleep can help take your mind off of the stressful situation and allow you to sleep better. Before you hit the hay, try reading a book for a little bit, doing a puzzle, writing in a journal, or taking a relaxing bath with calming music.
· Schedule activity in your day.
And set your environment up to make that easy! For example, setting a 30-minute walk on your calendar in advance will help you to keep that time as a priority, keep your walking shoes under your desk or close by so that they remind you and will make it easy to slip them on and get moving.
· Get support.
Managing stress is a very hard task! That is why it is important to be prepared with a plan before it strikes. But even when you do prepare, you can start to drown in it very quickly at times. Having a support system of family and friends that you can share with and will encourage you, or even assist in bearing the burden, can make or break your success.
There comes a time when seeking professional help is the right next step, there is no shame in talking to a doctor or therapist at all! In fact, it is a healthy and mature decision to make. If you feel that the stress is not going away after trying other tactics, and it is continuing to affect your work, relationships, or happiness, it may be the right time to talk to a doctor about finding an effective next step that is right for you.
Stress is a monster; it has the ability to disrupt our lives so much and in so many ways. Stress is unavoidable, but it is NOT uncontrollable. If we all practice learning and developing the skills to eliminate and manage stress in our life, we can get through with little or no need to cope with stress!
I say that managing-stress is a skill in the same way that time-management, or budget-management is a skill. Each of us are challenged and encounter stress in our life regularly, it takes practice to not let it get the best of us when it does. Beginning by eliminating the stressors that are not helpful, followed by giving ourselves tools to manage the stressful scenarios that can be helpful is the key!
Much like in practicing effective time-management, you need to prepare yourself and your environments to make the decisions easier when the stress hits. Prepping your meals, developing good sleep habits, or building a supportive friend group are going to set you up for exactly that.
Stress can be good. It brings an opportunity for us to focus, grow past our comfort zone, and create productivity. When I read the research, “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response”, I was continually learning the importance of how we perceive and deal with stress in our lives.
As we become better at eliminating the unhelpful stress, and better at managing the stress that remains, we will be healthier, more productive, and happier in our daily lives.
As you better manage the stress in your life you will be more equipped to be succesful at living a healthy life. Read more about the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle here!