Stress can be good and bad. Learning ways to maximise the benefits while minimising the detrimental effects of stress can make a world of difference to your life.
First up, an admission. I'm a bit of a stress-bunny. I over-think things. I tend to keep working on projects for way too long, and can get preoccupied if things aren't quite right. I find it hard to relax and just let go of thoughts, worries and my ever-growing list of things to do. Sound familiar?
Stress can be really useful. Our bodies react to imminent danger (a stressful event) in order to protect us, prompting various short-term physiological adaptations to avoid physical harm. This reaction evolved as a survival mechanism, and is often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. But it's not just dangerous situations that provoke stress responses, and it's these responses that provide us with motivation to study for an exam, to work on an assignment, and to perform our best at work. However, when stress is constant (chronic) it can have significant negative impacts on our health.
The perception of a situation as threatening in some way (and therefore stressful) can vary from person to person. A stress response will be triggered when there is a "perceived disconnect between a situation and our resources to deal with the situation". That's why some events will be very stressful for some people, while the same kind of event won't provoke any stress response in others - there can be a huge difference in people's resources to deal with situations. These resources include time, finances, and the various other forms of capital (cultural, social, human and emotional) we draw on to make our way in this world.
Chronic stress leads to the levels of certain hormones remaining elevated for a lot longer than they would be in a short-term (acute) stressful situation. Adrenalin and cortisol are the major hormones involved in our response to stress, and constant elevation of these hormones can lead to systemic inflammation, damage to blood vessels, an increase in blood pressure and appetite, and a greater likelihood the body will store excess energy as visceral fat (fat around the internal organs). It is via these mechanisms that chronic stress can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and some forms of cancer.
Learning to spot the signs you are getting stressed out is the first step.
Maybe it's a headache, or a stomach ache, or getting snappy with loved ones. Maybe you're experiencing heartburn, or muscle aches. Maybe you're just feeling disconnected and generally crappy. With the benefit of age (and hopefully an equal amount of maturity), I am getting better at recognising the telltale signs. But that doesn't mean I have all the answers, or that I even do something about it every time I notice I'm starting to get wound up. However, I do feel that being more able to recognise these situations when they arise is a major step for me, and provides an opportunity to pause and "take stock" of what's happening. Then I can make a conscious decision to do something (or not) about what's causing the stress, or how I am responding to the stress.
So, how can we help reduce the effect that chronic stress has on our health?
There are a few things you can do that may help.
Yeah, easier said than done.
If you really want to chill out when you relax, there are some techniques that can help you do this. Meditation and various breathing exercises can be used wherever you are and take only a few minutes, leaving you calmer afterwards. There are many meditation apps available (some you can find out more about here, here, and here) although often they only have a limited number of meditations for free, then a subscription is required. If you have more time, yoga, reading a good book, listening to soothing music, even just sitting outside in the sun for ten minutes with your eyes closed can help.
Some people are "active relaxers" and like to do things or achieve things. Hobbies can be great for de-stressing; basically anything you enjoy doing that takes your mind off your worries. A task that you can get totally absorbed in, and preferably see progress or a defined result at the end. Gardening, baking (or as I call it, "procrastibaking"), painting, mowing the lawn, having a clean-out in a cupboard that's been bugging you for a while because it's jam-packed full... all of these things require focus, and have a "oh that's so much better!" moment when you're finished.
Anything that allows you to take your mind off what is causing the stress in the first place can help.
2. Get active.
Doing a little exercise can really help de-stress. Just being outside in the fresh air, getting the blood pumping and focusing on a bit of deep breathing can do wonders. Moving your body can also help relieve the muscle tension that often comes with chronic stress.
Be social. Catching up with friends in person or over the phone, joining a club or group that meets regularly, or any other activity that involves connecting with other people can release the calming hormone oxytocin, reducing anxiety levels. Volunteering your time to help others can also help decrease stress, as you tend to focus on the needs of those you are helping, and less on your own stressors. The act of helping someone can even release certain neurotransmitters associated with positive feelings, due to the difference you are making in the lives of others.
The upshot is, there are loads of different situations that can cause us stress, and often we have limited capacity (if any) to reduce or eliminate the stressors in our lives. If we can try and work on developing some coping mechanisms, we can increase our resilience, potentially reducing the negative effects that stress can have on our health.
Noho ora mai (stay well and look after yourself)
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