In honor of Stress Awareness Month (April) I will be posting a series of blogs to help identify ways stress might be affecting your life and offer tips for dealing with it in a healthy and balanced way.
Why Fight Stress?
Everybody has stress, so why fight it, right? Well, the truth is that there are different kinds of stress, and while a mild to moderate level of occasional stress can help motivate us to get things done, keep us alert when we drive or help us navigate a dangerous situation, there is such a thing as too much stress and it may be affecting you more than you think.
There are times when stress is helpful for us and years of evolution have developed our biological stress response into a well-oiled machine. For example, in days of old, when our ancestors were threatened by a saber-toothed tiger, they were likely grateful for their body’s natural stress response because it kept them alive. It’s what we’ve come to know as the fight-or-flight response.
However, in the modern-day environment, most of us are not at risk of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger most of the time. The problem is our nervous system doesn't know this and is still operating under old assumptions, because in the grand scheme of evolution, it's only been the blink of an eye since we faced these types of life threats on a daily basis. So our body's stress response can get kicked off by seemingly mundane things like our boss stopping by our desk and asking about that project that's running late, or someone making a sarcastic comment that makes us wonder where our relationship with that person stands.
We are basically like ducks on the water: On the surface everything looks calm, cool, and collected. But underneath, our nervous system is churning from stress, just like the duck's legs under the water.
This post will help you understand more about how your body's stress response system works, what the risks are of letting it run out of control, and what you can do to start retraining it to a calmer more balanced state.
What Is Stress and How Does It Work?
When a stressful event happens, our body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear (think of this like putting the pedal to the metal in a Corvette). Our body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. Our pulse and blood pressure increase dramatically, our breath becomes quick and shallow. Blood is shunted away from non-essential organs (like our digestive system) and sent to our muscles so we can fight off an attack or flee. These responses are very helpful if you need to defend yourself from a sudden attack or avoid a car accident, for example.
Once the threat is passed, our parasympathetic nervous systems kicks in (think of this like the breaks slowing a Corvette back down after a race). Your breathing and heart rate slow down to normal. Blood is sent back to all of your organs, and your body processes out the hormones it released to deal with the threat. This is often known as returning to homeostasis or “rest and digest” mode. However, if the stress is too high (like in life-threatening traumatic events), or it becomes chronic, that’s when it can be problematic for our systems.
Types of Stress
This is the most common type of stress and falls in line with the types of immediate threats listed above. Nowadays most of us aren’t at risk of being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, but this type of stress can be triggered by all sorts of little everyday things. Things like a fight with your partner, a disagreement with a colleague or your boss, an important presentation at work, or one of your children clobbering the other with a whiffle ball bat.
Not all acute stress is bad either, there is an optimal level or sweet spot if you will, that keeps us engaged with the world but not overwhelmed.
When acutely stressful events happen frequently without being resolved, they start to melt into what’s known as chronic stress. This type of stress is like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps going and going…
This can happen in situations like:
Dysfunctional family systems
The Cost of Stress
After a while, we may begin to feel overwhelmed and powerless to get off the stress merry-go-round. Our system gets worn out over time and this is when our happiness, our relationships, and our mental and physical health begin to suffer in many ways that we might not even realize are being caused by stress.
Signs of Too Much Stress
High Blood pressure
Heart health issues: heart attack, stroke, etc.
Intestinal issues (like IBS)
Compromised immune system resulting in chronic or frequent illness
Muscle strain: neck, back, shoulders
Burnout or depression
Anxiety or full-blown panic attacks
How to Get Relief from Stress
If any of the above sounds like you and you're starting to get worried about what your stress levels might be doing to your health...don't panic. There are steps you can take to get relief from stress now. Below are strategies you can use in the moment when something stressful is happening or right afterwards to help calm your nervous system back down again.
Quick tips for calming your nervous system
Here are some tips for bringing your nervous system back down from high-alert once a threat has passed. These techniques are all designed to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. put on the breaks when you’re going too fast.
One of the things that can often happen when we are in the grip of fight-or-flight/anxiety is that our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, which, if left unchecked can lead to hyperventilation and for some even escalate into a full-blown panic attack. Start by simply noticing your breathing, the pace, the quality of the breath. See if you can slow each breath down by a second on the inhale and a second on the exhale, and then another second, and another until each inhale and exhale is several seconds long and you start to notice the spaces in between the breaths. Once your breathing is stable, try a technique known as box or square breathing: breathe in to the count of 4, hold for the count of 4, out for the count of 4, and finally hold for the count of 4 before drawing your next breath. The military actually teaches soldiers this method (known to them as “tactical breathing”) for intense combat situations. If it can work for them in the middle of a fire-fight, it can work for you.
Cuddle or Hug Someone (or a pet)
Contact with a loved and trusted person or animal friend will trigger the release of a chemical called oxytocin in your brain. Among other functions, this chemical has a naturally calming effect on your system, easing stress and boosting mood. So, if your nervous system needs help calming down, try cuddling up with a pet or getting a hug from a friend.
Singing, humming, chanting or gargling
All of these activities, singing, humming, chanting (like “Om” in yoga class) and gargling, help stimulate the vagus nerve, which in turn triggers parasympathetic nervous system activation along with a host of other mood-boosting benefits.
Take a walk in Nature
Research has shown there are many benefits to spending time out in nature, not the least of which is that it reduces the stress hormone cortisol. So, if you want a quick fix to help lower your stress level, try stepping outside. Go run your fingers through the grass, smell a flower or a pine tree, feel the breeze or sun on your face. This will help slow your engine down to a more manageable level. Can’t get outside or the weather is terrible? That’s okay, research has shown that even taking a break and looking at pictures of beautiful natural places or listening to natural sounds (e.g., a babbling brook, birds, etc.) will help calm your nervous system down. So try making a favorites folder on Flickr or Instagram of beautiful natural places, just make sure wherever you go to look at them isn’t full of advertising or other distractions (like Facebook).
Try practicing these techniques before you need them, that way they will become second nature and you will remember to use them when you are in a stressful situation and actually need them. Next time you catch your heart racing from stress, try some of these quick tips to start training your nervous system to slow back down to a normal level. That will help you avoid some of the dangers of chronic stress buildup.
Get Relief Now!
Help with managing stress and living a more balanced life
If you found the tips above useful, check out the full guide for a more comprehensive list of strategies to help you relieve stress and regain balance and happiness in your life.