We often hear people saying: “I am distressed!”, “My partner stresses me out”, “My job is stressful” etc., but what can cause stress and how does stress differ from anxiety? Any unpleasant experience (a situation, an interaction, etc.) can cause stress, these experiences are called ‘stressors’. Now...our bodies are equipped to handle acute exposure to stressors, it is chronic exposure that results in mental disorders, e.g. anxiety and depression.
HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?
In a study conducted on mice by Rockefeller University (mice are often used in studies because they are genetically, biologically, and physiologically similar to humans), researchers exposed the mice to chronic stress for 21 days. The exposure to chronic stress caused changes in the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions such as fear and anxiety. These changes have been associated with anxiety and depression. When some crucial changes happen in the amygdala, the brain is less able to adapt to new experiences. Effectively, it becomes trapped in an anxious or depressed state.
WHAT YOU CAN DO and WHY
Stress and modern living often come hand in hand. Stress & emotional reactions are an integral part of our being human. We stress, therefore we are!
We cannot always change situations and remove stressors from the equation, what we can ALWAYS change is the way we deal with them. The exciting part about the way our brain works is its neuroplasticity: the ability to alter neurological pathways in order to heal and cope better.
Coping with stress is not always an easy task, but there are many proven ways to reduce stress and channel its power for better productivity.
It can reduce stress and symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as it releases chemicals in your brain like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. Exercise pumps blood to the brain, which can help you to think more clearly. It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.
Sleep deprivation has been proven to lower thinking and problem-solving skills, attention span, memory, patience, and ability to connect with others. The key to a good night's sleep is routine, consistent sleep hygiene can facilitate better, deeper sleep.
3) Go outside regularly if possible:
Stress is relieved within minutes of exposure to nature as measured by muscle tension, blood pressure, and brain activity. Sunlight helps strengthen the circadian rhythms that regulate your sleep-wake cycle, aiding the sleep routine. Time in green spaces significantly reduces the level of cortisol (stress hormone). Nature also boosts endorphin (the body’s natural feel-good chemicals) levels and dopamine (chemical that influences feelings of reward and motivation) production, which together promote happiness.
It releases endorphins, promoting an overall sense of well-being.
5) Engage with your tribe
When feeling overwhelmed, a support system allows us to get through the tough times. Being with friends makes us feel good and the connection and feeling of belonging boost our mood and lead to stress reduction and consequently a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.
6) Listen to or create music:
Music has been shown to lower cortisol (a stress hormone) production. Both listening to and creating music can have various positive effects such as elevate mood and motivation and aid relaxation. More than simply expressing emotions, music can alter them, therefore, make sure to choose the right tunes!
7) Deep breathing:
Empirical evidence based on both objective and subjective measures points to the effectiveness of deep-breathing exercises for improving psychological and physiological stress. Breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing, aim to slow, deepen or facilitate breathing to affect the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls the fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your relaxation response. These two parts of your nervous system can’t be turned on at the same time, which means if you work to activate one, the other will be suppressed. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which sends a signal to your brain to tell the anxious part that you're safe. Several techniques can help you turn down your stress response. Breath focus helps with nearly all of them: Progressive muscle relaxation, Mindfulness Meditation, and Yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong.
8) Reframe the way you think about stress.
Harvard research has shown that we can choose to see stress as a challenge or an obstacle. Reframing stress more positively has been proven to increase productivity and the processing power of the brain. And so much of what we stress about is imagined. The mind is such an awesome resource, and our imagination is best used to rehearse positive outcomes. Why waste our power on negative thinking?
HOW WE CAN HELP
Handling thoughts: We know that life can be challenging. While facing adversity, it is crucial not to identify with negative thoughts, maintain your values and keep living accordingly. During difficult times working on your thinking can be beneficial, as what you think has a massive impact on how you are feeling and how you are coping with the adversities that life is presenting you.
Understanding your emotions: If it hurts, let it flow to let it go. Opening up and making room for difficult feelings allows them to "flow-through" you without a struggle. Learning the precious art of acceptance and surrender to emotions will enable you to learn from them, and when it’s time, you’ll be able to let them go, to make space for new ones.
Coming back to the present moment: If you find yourself spending the majority of your time in your head and disconnected from your physical, present-moment experience, ‘Grounding’ and mindfulness practice can help you access the supportive resources naturally available to you and that restore a natural and holistic balance.