What is stress?
Stress is not an event or situation, but rather stress is our body’s natural reaction to external events (called stressors) that we subjectively find stressful.
Generally we find events stressful if we view them as threatening to our goals and values AND if we view them as uncontrollable. Combined, this creates the experience of being overwhelmed. It is common to feel a push and pull in different directions, and to experience emotions like frustration, anxiety, and anger.
When we find an event to be stressful, our body reacts in a fight or flight response – our heart rate raises, our blood pressure increases, and all systems operate on overdrive. This physical stress response is a natural one that is present in all animals. Picture a gazelle seeing a Lion stalking it. The stress response is what allows the gazelle to quickly react and flee for its life.
For the gazelle, the stress response is temporary. It reacts to the event and either escapes with it’s life, or it doesn’t…. However, humans have brains that allow for higher order functions, such as imagination and memory. This is what allows us to do great things like write books and create new inventions, and this is also what brings about psychological stress. Thinking about events in the past, or worrying about the future stresses us out. We can experience the same physical stress response as a gazelle just by THINKING about an upcoming event that is not happening at the moment. Mind blown, right?
Can you imagine trying to explain your stresses to a gazelle? I can’t imagine they would understand why an upcoming meeting or getting stuck in traffic makes you react the same way that being chased by a Lion does!
Even though we often experience stress that is triggered by our imaginations, the impact it has on our lives is very real. Psychological stress is often persistent, which results in our bodies being in ‘stress mode’ for an extended period of time. This form of chronic stress is incredibly harmful to our physical health. Chronic stress can lead to an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke, digestive problems, and autoimmune disease. Not to mention, the more stress you experience, the less you feel like you. Ongoing stress increases your risk of developing depression, negatively impacts your sexual functioning, and can create significant strain on relationships.
Now that we better understand stress, and the harmful impacts it has on our bodies, what can we do about it?
Just like everyone’s stress is unique in some ways, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to survive and thrive during times of stress. I take the principle of pragmatism on this topic- Try different strategies and keep the ones that work for you and toss the ones that don’t.
Here are my own personal stress relief strategies that I keep handy for a rainy day:
- Deep (Diaphragmatic) Breathing
- (here is a great tutorial on how to get the most stress release from this activity: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_Understanding_COPD/hic_Pulmonary_Rehabilitation_Is_it_for_You/hic_Diaphragmatic_Breathing)
- Taking some ‘me’ time to listen to music, close my eyes, and focus my mind
- Your body is already in fight-or-flight mode, so use that to your advantage and use it towards a healthy activity. My favorite is Zumba.
- Yoga and other mindful movements
- Taking a laugh break- find something funny to give a reason to break the tension.
- (did you know that smiling actually triggers your brain to release the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters, which in turn reduces stress?!)
- Recite a mantra- my personal mantra is, “In the here and now, I am fine and free”
Here are some additional ones from some great and reputable sources:
American Heart Association: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/StressManagement/Stress-Management_UCM_001082_SubHomePage.jsp
National Institutes of Health: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001942.htm
Written by Maya D'Eon, PhD
Maya's degree is in clinical psychology (PhD, UCSD), with a concentration in behavioral medicine. She specializes in helping people overcome barriers to healthy living. Maya's past research and clinical work focused on developing health programs for people with chronic pain and other illnesses. Maya is passionate about finding personalized solutions for real-life problems.