Stress. We know all to well what that looks, sounds and feels like: some more than others, and at different periods of our lives more than others. While there are people who do a great job at not letting stress get the best of them, there are also many who are not as good at dealing.
We have never ending to-do lists, deadlines at work, a house to clean, errands to run, kids to wrangle, people to love, a workout to accomplish, a dinner to make. Sometimes, the stars seem to be aligned just right and tasks are checked off with ease. Other times, it seems like one after the other the things start to pile, eventually toppling over and burying us. If a tall stack of objects toppled over and buried me, I’d probably start to panic. This is what happens when our plates are too full and we feel like we are falling behind: we panic. We get stressed. This is how most people generally think of stress; the “I’ve got too much to do” kind of stress. Stress, however, doesn’t stop at this surface level meaning. Stress isn’t just a feeling, there is an entire physiology to what happens when we become stressed and when we stay stressed.
What is a stressor? Most simply, its a stimulus that elicits a stress response in the body. — Obviously, right? –Another definition I came upon was “a physical, psychological, or social force that puts real and perceived demands on the body, emotion, mind or spirit of an individual.” I think this latter definition does a good job of encompassing and honing in on the fact that stress lives in many forms and can have different effects on the body. There are two types of stress: Distress is the bad stress, its when the demands placed on the body are greater than the body’s ability to adapt and thus can cause harm. Eustress is the good stress; the stress necessary for adaptations to occur but not so much that it causes harm to the body.
What is a stress response? In short and basically, its the way your body physically and chemically reacts to a stressor. Scientifically, its a bit more complex. There are actually two different pathways as to which our body can react to stress depending on how long the stress response will need to occur. — Hang with me as I nerd out for a little bit!
In short term stress, the Sympathomedullary Pathway is what handles our body’s response. This is when the adrenal medulla releases epinephrine (aka adrenaline), stimulating our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) which results in decreased digestion and increased heart rate and blood pressure. We become more alert and focused and our eyes are zeroed in on trying to figure out how to “survive” or remove the stressor. As soon as the stimulus or stressor ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and the body relaxes. This is the quick panic because I’m running late, kind of response, and as soon as you arrive on time to your destination, you relax and calm down and there are no adverse or remaining effects from this.
But when the stressor doesn’t go away quickly and outlasts the short term stress response, our Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal Axis is kicked on. In this system, the hypothalamus senses a stressor and releases corticotropin-releasing hormone to the pituitary gland. The Pituitary gland then releases Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH) which then stimulates the release of Cortisol from the Adrenal glands. When cortisol is released, it stimulates the release of stored glucose into our blood stream as its way of thinking it must provide is with energy to “survive.” In this survival state, our heart rate increases, our digestion slows, our reproductive system is halted and our immune system weakens. In a relatively shorter HPA axis response, these don’t cause a long term issue, but when you’re body is in a state of chronic stress, these effects are prolonged and can begin to take a much larger toll on our bodies.
When we think about to-do list, too much on my plate type stress, we look at an example of time as the stressor: we feel like there is not enough time to do everything, feel spread thin, and thus feel psychologically stressed, eliciting a stress response. The other type of stress that many of us don’t think about but have indeed struggled with is physical stress. When you exercise, you are putting your body into stress. Be it usually the good kind, eustress, but still a stressor eliciting a response. When you allow for adequate recovery, and exercise within your body’s ability, the short term stress response is enough to keep your body balanced and allow for its return to the parasympathetic nervous system (required for recovery). When you overexert yourself during your workout, and then continue to do so day after day, you’re keeping your body at a low-medium level of constant stress. This results in constant stimulation of the HPA axis, which over time results in dysfunction within the body. This can cause adverse effects such as hormonal imbalances, digestive troubles, and a weakened immune system. The hormonal imbalances alone can wreak so much havoc from skin health, to emotional and mental health to reproductive issues.
Another physical stressor that can elicit the same HPA System issues within your body, is the lack of proper nourishment. When you deny your body the proper nutrients and enough of them, your body will also enter the survival mode, releasing cortisol to release the glucose from your liver and tissue to increase your blood sugar. Again, this also down regulates and decreases your body’s production or important reproductive hormones resulting in menstrual irregularities, fertility problems, skin issues, emotional distress, and more.
Why does this matter?
I’m talking about all of this because I’ve been there. I’ve worked out too often and too hard. I’ve gone through bouts of calorie cutting, I’ve stayed up all night studying only to crash and need all the sugar and coffee the next day. I’ve let my stress at work turn into crying on the subway. I’ve let previous relationship stress turn into crying on the subway. I’ve let my body image issues turn to crying on the subway. (Yeah, I’ve done a lot of crying on the subway). And then through all of this would wonder why even though was working out and eating healthily I still felt so terrible about myself, felt bloated, exhausted, my skin in a funk. It’s because I’m pretty sure the entirety of years 18-25 were spent existing in low-level chronic stress with spikes of higher level stress. Some of my stress was psychological, but then a lot of it was physical. It was not honoring my body and instead beating it up with daily intense workouts and then not giving it what it needed to repair and heal. When things felt stressful, I wasn’t on my own side telling myself I could do it, instead letting the negativity fester inside. Letting chronic stress take a free ticket ride in our lives takes so much more of an effect on us than we give it credit for. Stress if a part of life, but when we let it own our lives, it takes a major toll on our bodies.
Look. Stress is going to happen. We’re never going to be able to remove all of the stressors because such is life. I still get stressed to some level almost daily. It can, however, be beneficial to look at the different portions of our lives and see where stress may be living and what we may be able to do about it. Our to-do lists aren’t necessarily going to get any shorter, but is there something we can do to handle it better? To ward off the feelings of overwhelm and anxiety? What about our workouts? Is it possible that those are doing more harm than good? Are we feeding ourselves enough? Are we speaking to ourselves kindly inside or are we really hard on ourselves? Stress isn’t going to go away, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to try and find small simple effective ways to try and deal with it. When you’re less stressed, your body will feel better, our digestion will be more efficient, you’ll feel more present, you’ll feel less anxious. Below I’ve listed 10 different things that have really helped me in the past 6- months as I’ve worked to improve my ability to deal with stress. Many of these activities require 10 minutes or less and little to no money at all, and I assure you they are so worth the try.
- Meditate – Me about 6 months ago would roll my eyes as I read this, but hear me out. Meditation is an extremely effective way to quiet your mind and bring yourself down from that overdrive feeling. You don’t need to spend 20 minutes meditating in silence with incense to reap the benefits. Just sit down, close your eyes, set a timer for 3 minutes and breathe in and out fully. I dare anyone say that they don’t feel better after doing so. I recently started meditating through moments of overwhelm or negative self-talk. If you want an app, Calm and Headspace are great, but there are ample amounts of free guided meditations on Youtube. Aside from the short term relaxation effects, meditation also packs some great long term effects like increased gray matter in the brain and improved ability to handle/understand your emotions.
- 10 Minute Walk – Sometimes I feel like I am hitting a wall on the tasks I am working on. Getting outside for a walk around the block is great way to freshen your mind and to get fresh oxygen flowing through your body. When I’m working on the computer, I take really shallow breaths. As soon as I get outdoors my breathing deepens and feel more alive. This walk is also a great moment to listen to a few of my favorite songs, and take my mind off the other things going on. After the walk, I feel reenergized, refocused, and less stressed.
- Gratitude/Self-Affirmation/Manifestation Journaling – this is a tip I’ve read and heard from many sources. Simply open your journal, the notes app on your phone, or pull out a post it and write down 3-5 things your grateful for. If you’re spending time to be consciously grateful for things in your life, its pretty hard to feel upset or stressed. I was pretty shocked by how simple but effective this was when I gave it a try. This is also a great daily prompt for routine journaling. Self-Affirmation journaling is writing down empowering I AM phrases. Sometimes I feel so much better after writing out things like I AM strong, I AM focused, I AM intelligent. Lastly, You can do manifestation journaling, a form of visualization. Write out your plans/goals and the steps you will take to reach those goals. Writing this out on paper can make it seem more feasible and less stressful.
- Sit Down and Enjoy Your Coffee or Tea – Before you run off to embark on the craziness of the day, take 5 to 10 minutes to sip your coffee and read a magazine or book. This is one of my favorite things to do on days that I have so much to do, or days where I wake up feeling a bit emotional. Reading for leisure is a great way to take your mind of other things. Just 10 minutes. I know it seems like a lot, I thought so too, but when I realized how often I check my phone, I found 10 minutes to spare.
- Make Time for a Hobby or Two – for years I lived the “working out is my hobby” life. I’m here to suggest you find at least one other hobby. A craft, perhaps? I’m not very good at painting but I love it, so I do it from time to time and its so soothing. I also picked up the guitar almost two years ago, with youtube and the internet, you can learn an instrument without having to pay for lessons. I found my guitar on amazon and it was the best investment i’ve ever made.
- Hug Your SO – hugging your significant other is proven to stimulate the release oxytocin, the feel good/love hormone, which can signal your body to relax. Sometimes the only thing that can get me to calm down and feel less stressed is a giant hug from my fiancé, Corey.
- Diffuse a Calming Essential Oil or Burn a Soothing Candle – If you have a diffuser, load that baby up with lavender. If you don’t have a diffuser, mix 3 drops of lavender oil with a carrier oil and rub into your temples, on your neck muscles, and into your wrists for a totally calming, zen effect. This is also a great way to help yourself fall asleep better. A lavender or jasmine scented candle will also do the trick.
- Reevaluate Your Workout Routine – as I said earlier, chronic physical stress is just as detrimental as chronic emotional stress. This can be a hard suggestion for people to swallow, but it can be a very necessary and rewarding choice. On the flip side: if you don’t participate in regular physical activity, the addition of exercise can help you deal with stress. Yoga is a great choice for stress reduction. When I transitioned to more yoga and less high intensity workouts, my body thanked me in so many ways.
- Make Sure You are Nourished – lack of adequate nourishment imposes stress and inhibits your body from healing and recovering. Plus, think about how irritable you can be when you are hungry. It can be helpful to keep a granola bar or trail mix in your purse for those moments when you get hungry out in public and aren’t going to have time for a meal right away. It’ll be much easier to continue through your to-do list when you aren’t thinking about the growls in your stomach.
- Self-Love/Care – I am here to say that self-care doesn’t not have to be the glamorized flowers floating in your tub kind of spa night. Self-care can be really anything that involves you taking care of yourself and your needs. Yes it can be a face mask, but it can also be sitting and doing nothing for a few minutes. It can be getting your hair done or it can be sipping on coffee while your baby takes a nap. It can be a 3 minute self-affirming pep talk, or that quick workout before anyone wakes up. Whatever you choose to do, it just matters that you give yourself even just minutes day to listen to your body. Taking care of yourself is important too, even when you have so many others to take care of. Give to yourself so that you can fully give to others.
Again, stress is never going to cease to exist. Life is busy, unpredictable at times, and often tiring. But life is also a beautiful and joyous thing. We cant’t get rid of all of the stress, but we can try and deal with it more effectively.
Lastly, remember that you are strong, capable, powerful and intelligent. Don’t let anyone, even yourself, try to tell you otherwise!
Lets keep the discussion going. Comment below and tell me, what area of life stresses you out the most? Whats your favorite way to try and deal with stress?