With thousands of tasks that never seem to get accomplished, it’s only natural that you feel the pressure — these are the fast paced conditions of our modern world. We are living through the age of stimulation and pleasure, with the added cost of constant stress.
We all know it, and doctors tell us to avoid it by all means. But if you really think about it, would your body deploy a response system that it doesn’t really need?
In this segment we explore the meaning of stress and how you can manage stress and use it to make positive progress and accomplish your biggest goals.
The Biology of Stress
So what is stress and why do we experience it in the first place (especially so often)?
Stress is the body’s way of responding to any mental, physical, and emotional threat, or immediate demand. Regardless of whether or not the threat is real or imagined, the body’s defenses will immediately kick into gear and initiate an automatic process known as the fight, flight or freeze reaction.
When the body experiences stress, the sympathetic nervous system signals the release of adrenaline. When this happens, the heart rate really gets going. This rush of blood will cause your respiratory rate to increase and more oxygen to be delivered to your muscles and throughout your body.
This response is meant to protect you by preparing your mental and physical systems to react quickly. It’s what allowed our ancestors to survive in the complex conditions of nature and avoid dangerous wildlife. It’s what helps us jump out of the way when a car swerves in our direction.
This is a very sudden response, and once the crisis is over, your body will usually return to the pre-emergency, rest and recovery state associated with your parasympathetic nervous system.
This can also be a natural reaction to a wide range of daily experiences, but these reactions are meant to be short lived. When your stress response is constantly firing every day, it could put your health and sanity at serious risk.
With stress related doctor visits on a steady rise, it is more important than ever to spend some quality time in the rest and recovery process of your nervous system (parasympathetic nervous system).
Have human beings always been stressed?
Dr. Rachel Abrams discusses the evolution of stress and how the changing circumstances of our modern world has had a direct impact on how the modern human being experiences stress:
Full Discussion @ MBV Podcast episode 10 | The Lost Art of Body Intelligence
Healthy Stress and Bad Stress
Stress in itself is not a bad thing. But just like any other defense mechanism, stress can become harmful if taken too far. When we react to stress naturally by identifying our problems and implementing solutions, healthy stress can becomes a great source of motivation and adaptability.
This can also be referred to as the approach or avoid concept. When faced with a stressful situation or scenario, it is often better to consciously approach the situation in order to identify how it can be dealt with as opposed to trying to avoid it and eventually falling victim to the pressure.
Either one of these reactions will deploy completely different aspects of your physiology and mindset — one being that of control and power (approach), the other being one of avoidance and scarcity (avoid).
When properly harnessed, healthy stress can help you stay focused, motivated, alert, and full of enough energy to walk down any challenge that may come your way. It’s what keeps you on your toes, sharpens your concentration and drives you to put those final touches on a project when you would rather laze around and watch TV.
For some of us, the exhilaration comes when pushing against a deadline or performing in front of a crowd. This is quite similar to the rush thrill seekers get when skydiving or bungee jumping. Activating dopamine reward centers through stress can even make us feel good and perform better.
Also, learning to deal with stressful situations can also make future ones easier to manage, according to a large body of research on the science of resilience.
Here are some other common benefits of moderate and healthy stress:
- Helps us remain focused, alert and energized.
- Releases positive brain chemicals associated with learning and memory.
- Boosts performance, productivity, and creativity.
- Flight response that can literally save your life in an emergency.
- Healthy stress can give you a sense of duty, obligation, flow, purpose, and sense of purpose.
- Helps you meet challenges and quickly adapt to changing circumstances.
However, it’s what comes next that separates good stress from bad, chronic and destructive stress.
While healthy stress levels can help you perform at your best and get things done, consider how being tense all day and night can affect your state of mind and your physical systems. When stress becomes chronic and you are constantly running in emergency mode at all times, your mind and body will definitely pay the price.
Being suppressed under deadlines, piles of bills and other triggers will eventually lead to chronic stress. These common causes of stress can then escalate to serious health problems such as social anxiety, chronic fatigue, depression, insomnia, heart disease, depression, weight problems, just to name a few.
This is why it is important to protect yourself by learning how to recognize your stress and the steps you can take to reduce it.
Tips for Managing Stress
These days, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Between juggling family, friends, work, media, household management, and other commitments, stress can quickly become a dominating factor.
Fortunately, there are many ways to manage and reduce these levels of stress.
Nothing helps regulate tension and stress like a nice, intense workout. A few minutes of exercise each day is a great way to relax your body and improve your mood.
Relax Your Tense Muscles
Stress can wreak havoc on the body if left unchecked. Sometimes calming the mind begins with calming the body. The Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique (PMR) is an effective way to relax and release the tense energy of your body and give your muscles a break.
This is why so many people have fallen in love with yoga and meditation. You’d be surprised at how much better and relaxed you’ll feel after bringing your attention to the quality of your breathing, and taking a few deep breaths of fresh air.
Katie McIntyre from MindBody Montreal shows us how to pay attention to our breathing and how to take a proper breath:
Full Discussion @ MBV Podcast episode 9 | Optimize Your Breathing, Change Your Life
Time in Nature
With more research into our connection with nature, science is always there to remind us that not only is spending time outdoors and in nature a perfect way to unwind, but is also an essential component to our mental health.
Generally, a well balanced diet containing plants, grains, fruits, proteins, and lots of water will generally help you feel better by controlling your moods and keeping your hormones in check.
Certain things in excess, like sugar and caffeine, will cause a sudden rush of adrenaline. This will send the body into an agitated stress response before running out of energy and crashing. Keep it moderate. Coffee is okay if you are already well rested, but should not be relied on for energy.
Time is the most valuable resource you have access to; it’s important to preserve some for yourself. Today’s world moves fast enough as it is. Sometimes, it helps to take a step back and chill out.
Meditation is a great way to balance your stress. There is extensive research showing how meditation can not only help alleviate the effects of stress, it can also reverse them.
If there’s one thing that will help you detach from stress, it’s something you actually enjoy doing. Find time to enjoy your hobbies and you will experience more flow and usually won’t even remember what was stressing you out in the first place.
Laugh Out Loud
Don’t take everything so seriously! They say laughter is the best medicine, and it’s also free. Since the brain and body are connected to our emotions, laughing and smiling will really help release some tension and balance out some of your chemicals.
Talk About It
It can get tough out there, but don't think that you are the only one struggling with stress — there is always someone you can talk to and relate with. Start with the people closest to you, like a friend, teacher, or work associate. You may be surprised to find that you are not alone in dealing with some of these common issues. A problem shared is a problem half solved.
More From MBV:
- Using Mindful Meditation Techniques to Manage Anxiety
- Using Aromatherapy Candles for Stress Relief
- The Relationship Between Body Awareness and Emotion
More About Stress
- According to this article from Popular Science magazine, the chronic stresses that we are now exposed to in our socially driven digital age could be causing us a lot of long term harm.
Looking at the latest research, they put together a list of stresses adverse affects from “the cellular level on up to our major biological systems.” From the health of our nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive systems to our cells, immunity, metabolism, and sleep, the effect of chronic stress is devastating.
The Mind Body Connection
- According to a large study conducted at Tel Aviv University, the mind and body are deeply intertwined when it comes to stress. Researchers combined brain imaging with genetic testing to determine which brain functions were responsible for regulating stress. They were also looking at whether these findings could provide further insight into certain mental disorders such as PTSD.
The results showed that our ability to cope with stress are heavily reliant on how efficiently our bodies and minds are able to regulate the response. This is why stress can be interlinked with post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, fatigue as well as other numerous mental and physical issues.
Stressed Men More Social?
Researchers have refuted the common belief that stress always causes aggressive behavior. Rather than showing the fight-or-flight response to stress, the study indicates that men show a "tend-and-befriend" response. Studies in the late 1990s first argued that women exhibited this response as a consequence of stress.
(Psychological Science, June 2012) Read More
Depression and Chronic Stress Accelerate Aging
- People with recurrent depressions or those exposed to chronic stress exhibit shorter telomeres (outermost part of the chromosome) in white blood cells. With increasing age, telomeres shorten, and studies have shown that oxidative stress and inflammation accelerate shortening. Shorter telomere length has also been associated with recurrent depression and cortisol levels indicating exposure to chronic stress.
(Biological Psychiatry, published online November 2011) Read More
Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Explained
- An article draws on the existing scientific literature to explain the positive effects of mindfulness meditation that help deal with the mental and physiological effects of stress.
(Perspectives on Psychological Science, November 2011) Read More
Stress and Success
- Handling stress appropriately in class and on the field can tip the scale toward success for the millions of students, according to new research.
(Emotion, 2011) Read More