Have you ever noticed your level of productivity goes down during periods of high stress? Perhaps you’ve seen a difference in appetite or mood?
Stress can affect every aspect of your life. High or chronic levels of stress can have both mental and physical effects that should not be ignored.
One of the most common wellness concerns is how to deal with stress.
How can you prevent it, and how can you deal with it when it occurs? While eliminating stress is impossible, some diet and lifestyle changes may lower your overall stress levels.
Read on for a helfpful guide on how to manage the inevitable stress that finds you.
To define stress in a practical sense can be difficult. Everyone experiences and regards stress differently, so it can be hard to pin down an exact definition of what is or is not stress. Most people agree that stress applies to unpleasant tension or strain on a person’s emotional, physical, or mental state due to outside influences.
Stress is overwhelmingly negative. People don’t enjoy it and strive to eliminate it from their lives. Indeed, you’ve had at least one moment in your life where you felt that stress was making everything harder than it needed to be. On a closer examination, we can see ways to prevent and treat stress, thus strengthening physical and mental wellness.
You’ve probably heard about a “healthy level” of stress, where a small amount of daily stress supposedly increases productivity and accountability. Some stress can indeed be beneficial, but it is crucial to determine what kind of stress you are experiencing. Only particular stress triggers can ever be considered reasonable. You don’t want to trick yourself into thinking that unhealthy levels of stress benefit you in any way.
There are four agreed-upon categories of stress; three are negative, and only one has the potential to be positive.
Acute stress comes on suddenly. When a person is in a stressful situation, a fight or flight response is triggered. This is sometimes called a stress response¹. Exactly what triggers a stress response can vary between people. What puts one person in a frenzy may not affect you. The effects of a stress response can take more than an hour to subside entirely.
Possibly the most dangerous kind of stress is chronic distress. Chronic stress is persistent stress from negative psychological worries like debt, health problems, or work concerns.
What makes chronic stress so harmful is that over time, we start to get used to it. People bury chronic stress. Enough time may pass that you no longer remember what life was like before you were chronically stressed. This leaves people vulnerable to accumulated mental and physiological damage from stress over time.
Eustress refers to stressful events in daily life that have positive aspects. You could call this “happy” stress. Examples include weddings, graduations, and new children. These situations provide a lot of nerve-wracking stress, but they also bring with them exciting new potentials. People tend to have an easier time with stressful situations that have these positive connotations.
Distress is the opposite of eustress. Distress is caused by stressful events in daily life that have negative connotations. These can include financial struggles, disciplinary actions, and relationship struggles.
There is a stress hormone called cortisol produced in your adrenal glands, and it functions as a panic button for your brain. High cortisol levels are released in a potentially dangerous situation, which can trigger a fight-or-flight response in your brain.
While cortisol is most known for this reaction, it plays many different roles in regulating your body², such as
● Suppressing inflammation
● Controlling your sleep cycle
● Regulating blood pressure
● Assisting in the breakdown of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates
● Increasing blood sugar levels
Cortisol contributes to a lot of your body’s functions. As listed above, it’s easy to see how chronically elevated cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your wellbeing. And indeed, people who suffer from too much stress are at a higher risk of hypertension, weight fluctuations, and poor sleep³. Many of these conditions contribute to further health problems like depression. Stress can kick off a vicious cycle of mental and physical problems.
It’s easy for people to disregard the effects of stress as “not real” because they aren’t tangible. You can’t always see the correlation between stress and health as clearly as you can see how a blow to the face causes a black eye. Yet chronic stress has a powerful influence over both physical and mental health. Stress may even have the potential to alter your brain physiology.
A groundbreaking study out of Sweden used magnetic imaging to research this possibility⁴. When comparing the brains of people suffering from chronic work stress to the brains of people who reported a more stress-free lifestyle, the researchers found some startling results.
In high-stress individuals, there were several noticeable brain differences, the most alarming of which was a thinner prefrontal cortex, which correlated with worsened emotional regulations. Also, they found discrepancies in the brain matter allocated towards memory and decision making. While not conclusive, this study supports the idea that chronic stress may have lasting effects on our mental and physical states.
No one can escape stress. While some of us may be more burdened than others, no one lives their whole life stress-free. It’s not hard to see why. In surveys, the most common causes of stress are work, relationships, money, and health⁵. These are universal aspects of human life, so it seems apparent that we would all fall prey to stress at various points in our lives.
It can be a relief to commiserate with others in these situations. Sometimes the simple understanding that most people are going through something similar can be calming.
It’s hard to say whether the modern-day is more or less stressful than the past. Stress is better understood now, and we tend to keep closer track of it than we did a hundred years ago. However, there is no denying that today, there are unique stress factors that we are still figuring out how to manage.
According to the Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital, the three significant stressors in the modern age are health, work, and money⁶. Other significant stress factors include world affairs and social relationships, both of which have been exacerbated in recent decades by the rise of the digital age and social media.
It is essential to understand what causes us stress before we can begin to do anything about it.
Stress factors can be different for everyone, so try to find yours. There are two kinds of stress factors, those outside your control and those within it.
Stress factors within your control are the stressors you put on yourself. If you are stressed out by a messy home and put off cleaning for six months, this is an internal stress factor. These can take time to eliminate as they require retraining yourself.
Other people or random occurrences typically cause stress factors outside your control. A nasty coworker is an example of an external stress factor. You can try to put yourself in fewer situations that expose you to these stressors. If someone consistently causes you to stress, try to avoid them. However, this may not always be feasible (as much as we may all wish, avoiding the boss is impossible). In this case, all you can do is change how you react to external stress factors. Try to train your brain to let go of things you cannot control. It is hard, but not impossible.
Your mental and physical health are symbiotic. They affect each other. Poor health is also a leading cause of stress among adults. A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables will help you avoid health-related stress. It will also help reduce stress brought on by weight gain, which is another common stressor.
Exercise is also indispensable in battling stress. Not only will it keep you physically healthier, but exercise releases endorphins and improves your mood⁷. Even mild exercise can have this effect. You don’t need to train like an Olympic athlete to alleviate stress. A brisk walk around the block can accomplish the same feat.
Sometimes you can’t prevent stress. In these situations, take a moment and relax. Learning to de-stress can be difficult, especially when you’re away from home. Be sure you have a few tricks up your sleeve for times when you’re stuck at work, traveling, or otherwise indisposed.
People de-stress in different ways. For some, a long bath might do the trick. Others de-stress by going out with friends. What matters is finding healthy, useful coping mechanisms to help your body ease off on the cortisol. Here are a few suggestions:
Meditation can be a powerful destresser. When you meditate, your brain slows down, and your body relaxes⁸. Even a five-minute meditation can give you a powerful boost. And you don’t have to do “proper” or official meditation by any means. Some people can achieve meditative effects by lying down for a few minutes or listening calmly to their favorite soundtrack. The point is to relax your mind and body.
2.) Take up a hobby
Calm, repetitive tasks can be a great way to de-stress. Sometimes paying close attention to detail (for example, painting miniatures or cross-stitching) can distract your mind from the day’s stress and help you relax.
3.) Talk to someone
You may find yourself unable to de-stress on your own. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, try talking to someone about it, either an official therapist or just a friend. Some people find it soothing to talk with strangers or casual acquaintances who are less involved in their lives.
4.) Cultivate gratitude
Remind yourself of what you have, even if it isn’t much. Train your brain to focus on things for which you are grateful. Try to ground these grateful thoughts in the past, the present, and the future. For example, remind yourself of happy memory, write down a list of people you love, and then spend some time planning a fun trip or event.
Too many people write stress off as an inevitable side effect of life. While some stress is unavoidable, we can mitigate most of it. Don’t let factors outside your control rob you of your mental and physical wellbeing. With a little determination, you can prevent the most common causes of stress. And when stress still comes to you, send it packing with gentle determination. You’ll find yourself feeling happier, healthier, and all-around more balanced.
(1) Harvard Health Publishing (March 2011) Understanding the stress response
(2) WebMD (February 2017) What Is Cortisol?
(3) Kulkarni, S; O'Farrell, I; Erasi, M; Kochar, MS (December 1998) Stress and hypertension
(4) Savic I; Perski A; Osika W (March 2018) MRI Shows that Exhaustion Syndrome Due to Chronic Occupational Stress is Associated with Partially Reversible Cerebral Changes
(5) The American Institute of Stress. What is Stress?
(6) Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital (August 2015) The Top 3 Causes of Stress in Today’s World
(7) Mayo Clinic. (August 2020) Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress
(8) The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (March 2010) Brain waves and meditation