This is a massive topic so sometimes it’s easier to break it down and go back to the beginning. “Stress” can loosely be defined as anything that challenges the body. This can be a good thing, like physical activity that stimulates our body for growth. But most of the time this is a negative scenario for us where the emotional/cognitive stresses we experience can last for days. Therefore this article will focus on the long-term stress we all experience.
It is important to know what is happening to the body when we experience stress, so we will look at some basic physiology. The evolution of the stress reaction happened because it was beneficial for us – the stress response and the hormones released helped us to survive. If you were out in the wild and came across a life-threatening situation 5000 years ago the classic “fight or flight” response kicks in. Adrenaline gets released to give the body a massive boost in energy stores. Cortisol (the stress hormone) also gets released which helps to mobilize our fat stores for energy if we need them, mobilize our immune system just in case we are hurt, modify blood flow to assist working muscles, and form memories about this scenario the help protect us in the future. As this is happening we are literally in a life-or-death situation and we need all the help we can get. No matter the situation it would have only played out a few possible ways; we are killed (or seriously hurt), we fight something off, or we managed to run away. Either way, the whole scenario would last a matter of minutes.
Fast forward to today’s scenario in many areas of North America. When you leave your house to walk out to your car, there isn’t a predator there to hunt you. This is not intended to minimize emotional or physical traumas that many people have experienced, but to bring into perspective the non-urgent thoughts and events that typically cause stress for us; running late for work, worrying about your child’s report card, or any other event that is not life-threatening. The problem is that we only have one stress response and it’s the same one we use when our life is threatened. Our stress is not short-term and finite, it’s long term and we have no idea when it will end. All of the evolutionary processes that help us to survive with finite stress simply break us down in the long term. We end up with weakened immune systems, trouble forming short-term memories, inflammation in the body, and blood flow changes that rob our vital organs of blood.
Some of us recognize that we are under stress while some choose to remain oblivious to it and believe we are not experiencing any stress. Let’s state the obvious – YOU CANNOT LIVE IN NORTH AMERICA AND NOT EXPERIENCE STRESS!! It’s an impossibility. We may have a job or other type of obligation, have to pay for a place to live, have relationships in our lives that are not ideal, or have kids to take care of just to name a few. Even the act of commuting to work can be stressful when you are in traffic. The thing is that all of these current stresses have been happening for so long that we stop acknowledging that they are there. We accommodate to the level of stress and assume that we are not experiencing any stress at all. Seriously ask yourself: if you were to go on a 3 month vacation where you were actually able to unplug and not have to worry about food/money/work/relationships and then come right back into the life you left, would you feel overwhelmed when you reentered?
So if we can’t control the stress, are we stuck here slowly breaking down our bodies until we are no longer able to survive? We can’t control the actions of others, we likely can’t just make more money or wipe out our debts, and may not have the opportunity to change jobs to do something that brings us happiness. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it.
If we can’t control the majority of the things that trigger stress, what we need to focus our attention on is how we manage that stress. Learning to manage your stress will decrease its effects on the body. The key is to utilize several techniques because there is no single silver bullet method to managing stress. Instead we need different management techniques and outlets to match the many different stresses we experience.
The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that stress is a perception. It is something we feel is happening or could happen, but there likely is no lion lurching in the bushes waiting to pounce on you while walking down the street. This is not to minimize the emotions you feel, and actual physical/emotional trauma experienced by individuals is not what I’m talking about. It’s the general stress of making it to appointments on time, worrying about your retirement savings, having too much to do at work and home, worrying about your kids when they are away from the house, etc. These stresses are not life threatening but on a physiological level our body believes that they are and it mobilizes the only stress response we know. We should take a half step back and evaluate the stress and why it is triggering a response inside of us.
The second thing we need are outlets, and many of them. All stress is perceived by the mind and tells the body that we are threatened, but we need to have methods to release the effects of the stress on us. Talking to others (or professionals), physical activity, meditation, hobbies like gardening or painting, listening to or playing music, writing/journaling – these are all methods of releasing stress and emotions that build up in the body and transmute the stress into something that is less damaging to us. These are also functional methods of stress relief; they help process the stress while strengthening our body, mind and spirit. Exercise burns off excess cortisol, the stress hormone, meditation helps to keep us grounded and balanced while facing adversity, talking to someone helps put our thoughts and worries in perspective.
There are other forms of stress relief that are commonly engaged in but are not functional for us in the long term. Alcohol, “comfort foods”, TV, drugs, or anger directed at others are all common methods of coping that simply do not work in the long term. I’m not saying that you can’t engage in these behaviours because we all will to some extent. But these methods only provide a very short-term relief and do not help to build the body or create stability in the long term. In fact, the more we rely on each of these methods, the more they start to hurt us in the long term. The one drink after work can possibly lead to a second or third each night over time and before you know it you are consuming 20-30 drinks in a week just to manage your stress but it will never work in the long term; your perception of stress does not decrease. Getting that immediate endorphin release from consuming sugary foods helps us to feel good immediately but in no way does it actually manage the stress, instead increasing the inflammation we experience in the body.
In a direct comparison of “functional” and “non-functional” stress management techniques it becomes apparent which ones we should choose. Applying them in real life is a personal choice. For some of us it may be more difficult than for others, but we always have a choice. It is our belief at Awakening Health that each functional stress management techniques has a place in balancing your body and we strive to provide you with the tools to learn them and practice them. Each method is appropriate at different times. If you are extremely fired up and feel like you’re ready to blow you probably don’t want to just sit down and meditate. Maybe a round of hard physical activity is more appropriate in that situation so you can burn off the excess cortisol and be able to settle more easily afterwards. If you are experiencing sadness as a result of an emotional loss it might not be the right time to watch something funny to bring your mood back up. Maybe a good conversation with a close friend or professional therapist will be more appropriate.
The outlet has to match the stress or emotion that needs to be released. The more outlets we have – and the better we are at utilizing them – the better we will become at managing our stress. Remember, you can’t eliminate the feeling of stress from your life but you can become very good at managing stress so that you minimize the negative effects it will have on your body.