How To Deal With Stress?
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Let’s begin with, what is stress?
People tend to think of stress as a balloon filling or a formidable enemy, like a cause from the outside factor, they don’t know when it will explode. However, “stress is just a mechanical human response to challenging or dangerous situations.” Have you ever heard the term,” fight or flight?” That’s the stress response and they both are the same.
Let’s imagine when your brain senses a threat, either it’s a falling down piano toward you or inches away from a project deadline, it signals your sympathetic nervous system to release chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. We call them stress hormones, and once they are at work, they fire up our muscles, raise our heart rate, breathing speed, and replenish our energy for quick reaction to the situation. This helps us dodging a falling piano or working faster to meet the deadline of a project.
So, let’s remove the bad image of stress first. As our body perceives stress, our adrenal glands make and release the hormone “cortisol” into our bloodstream. Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol causes an increase in our heart rate and blood pressure. It’s our natural “flight or fight” response that has kept humans alive since our very very first ancestors.
Normal levels of cortisol also are released when we wake up in the morning or exercise. These levels can help regulate our blood pressure and blood sugar levels and even strengthen our heart muscles. In small doses, the hormone can heighten memory, increase our immune system, and lower pain sensitivity. Simply put, we can’t survive without this mechanism inside our body.
What happens when we have adapted fast-paced culture and living in a large global network thanks to our existing technology, however, is that many of us are constantly in high-stress mode due to various reasons.
To understand the impact of stress, we need to know that there are two types of stress: Acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress is short-term stress. It refers to any stress you suffer from for a short time; like a traffic jam, an argument with your spouse, a high volume of workload, criticism from your boss, etc.
But if you’re a truck driver and get stuck in numerous traffic congestions every day, or you’re in a bad relationship and you argue with your spouse constantly, or the work environment you’re in is demanding and you work for a toxic boss, all of these examples of acute stress can turn into chronic stress.
With acute stress, our body is designed to recover quickly, as long as our body is young and/or healthy and in good shape. Because during this period, our eyes will dilate, blood pressure, heart, and breathing rate, levels of muscle tensions increase for a short while. Afterwards, such uneasy stress will return back to normal level.
Whereas chronic stress, the body isn’t good at handling it. Chronic stress gradually increases our resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and levels of muscle tensions for example, so the body now has to work even harder when it’s at rest to keep us functioning normally.
The longer it happens, the sooner this “new normal” will eventually lead to a pool of health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic pain and depression.
So although stress is a normal bodily response, if we don’t try to reduce it, stress will become problematic and turn into long-term suffering. Notice that how chronic stress can creep behind our back when we don’t pay attention to it.
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Having chronic stress can:
I) Harm the brain.
Chronic stress can cause a high number of enzymes release inside our brain, and they act like scissors, to cut the cell proteins in the hippocampus region that are responsible for adhering between two neurons. Overall, they are there to ensure the synaptic function properly, which associate with sociability, memory and understanding.
II) Lead to burn out.
When we experience stress for an extended period of time without being able to alter, change, or ameliorate it, we can begin to feel empty, numb, devoid of motivation, hopeless, and beyond caring. Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
III) Damage our DNA.
Stress can be linked to shorter telomeres, a chromosome component that’s been associated with cellular aging and risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Telomeres are a protective case casing at the end of our DNA strands. Naturally, each time a cell divides, it loses a small percentage of telomeres. Fortunately, we have an enzyme called telomerase that can restore it. However, chronic stress and cortisol exposure can decrease our supply of telomerase. The loss of the ability to replenish our telomeres can set the aging process into motion, as well as associated health risks. As a result, individuals who experience chronic stress have telomeres that look significantly older than their stated age.
IV) Exacerbate physical illness
The most obvious ones are heart disease, obesity, and sleep dysfunction.
Stress can affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk; high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity, and overeating. For example, some people may choose to drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes to “manage” their chronic stress, but these habits can increase blood pressure which can damage artery walls.
To look it closely, the high levels of cortisol (stress hormones) from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These are common risk factors for heart disease. chronic stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries.
This one is interesting because, while it seems evident that stress is a cause of obesity, whether stress is also a consequence of obesity is still debatable in scientific fields.
Obesity is generally caused by eating too much and moving too little.
If you consume high amounts of energy, particularly fat and sugars, but do not burn off the energy through exercise and physical activity, much of the surplus energy will be stored by the body as fat.
But to note that obesity does not happen overnight. It develops gradually over time, as a result of poor diet and lifestyle choices, such as excessive alcohol consumption, too many sugary drinks, eating high large amounts of processed or fast food which are high in fat and sugar, or lack of physical activity due to their demanding work sitting at a desk for most of the day or the reliance of cars instead of walking or cycling.
For relaxation, many people tend to watch TV, browse the internet or play computer games, and rarely take regular exercise. All of these could be the triggers of stress in the first place, as it becomes obsessive. Therefore, it’s important to identify what causes the stress.
While obesity results may come from a combination of inherited factors, with the environment and personal diet and exercise choices, a simple modest weight loss can improve or prevent the health problems associated with obesity.
Continuously being in a heightened state of alertness can delay the onset of sleep and cause rapid, anxious thoughts to occur at night. As a result, insufficient sleep can then cause further stress. That’s how normally stress affects our sleeping patterns and cause us more health problems.
If someone already has sleep disorders, then stress and anxiety can exacerbate the existing problems. So although they’re two separate problems, they usually come hand in hand, and that’s what confuses many people about sleep disorder is stress and anxiety caused. A disrupted sleeping pattern can be the cause first.
One common sleep disorder is insomnia, which can be short-term or long-term on a person. Usually, people who have its condition experiencing difficulty falling asleep, hard to stay asleep, or causing the person to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. Insomnia can sap not only our energy level and mood but also our health, work performance and quality of life. The last thing we want to have is sleeping deprivation, as it’s the main issue that induces many other health problems to come.
With all of these being said, we have our solutions to this trickster.
Whether it’s acute or chronic stress, we have our “built-in” tool to balance it.
§ – – – – – – – – – – -Part 3 – – – – – – – – – – – §
Introducing The Relaxation Response
Just as our sympathetic nervous system signals hormones to help us stay away from a potential threat, our parasympathetic nervous system can activate “rest and digest” mode to help us relax. Here are 4 steps to achieve it.
1) Identify what you’re feeling
Stress is often misunderstood with other emotional problems – anxiety or depression for example, while some other people are stressed without even knowing they’re stressed. It’s because stress elicits physical symptoms like an upset stomach, so people may misattribute the symptoms to something else (For instance: I must’ve eaten something bad.) Therefore, the first step in decreasing the stress level is to recognise it’s there.
Get a pen and piece of paper, and write down your feeling(s):
For your reference, here are examples:
Okay, but how to differentiate between stress and anxiety?
Generally speaking, stress is a response to external factors, such as delivering an important gift or completing the task that you’ve started, while anxiety causes internally due to the person’s preferred reaction to stress. But since both overlap a lot, either mentally or physiologically, so people may get confused. For more information.
2) Locate the source
After we know our discomfort feeling(s), we need to identify the stressors, as stress is always an external source.
Common examples are:
– Noisy environment
– Being underpaid
– Toxic people
– Disagreement with other(s)
– Taking on more responsibilities than you can handle
To pinpoint your stressor, be aware of the moments when you experience the physical symptoms of stress mentioned above, “ muscle tension, sweatiness, shortness of breath, etc”. When you realise those feelings, pause what you’re doing and conduct a quick scan of your surroundings.
3) Address the stressor
Once the source has been located, take a look at the possibility of eliminating or reducing this stressor.
For instance, if this is a communicating issue at work, consider looking for an alternative tool to direct the message, such as setting up a face to face meeting, video call, or email.
Regardless of what stressor is, you have some degrees of control over it. You might be able to eliminate the stressor or at least reduce it.
Though, workplace stressors sometimes cannot be modified easily. For example, a new fashion designer may feel stressed out by coming up with ideas for the next season’s clothing line, before the company meeting starts in one-week time. Since it’s an essential part of his job, there’s no way to eliminate the stressor, unless he quits.
In such cases, he needs to switch his stress response to the relaxation response.
4) Activate our relaxation response
The below five methods are for your reference to activate the relaxation response.
4.1) Deep breathing
It’s the same breathing technique from meditation, active deep breathing with eyes shut helps you quickly calm your mind and body down to a lower level, as it switches back to relaxation mode inside the brain. The important part of doing this though is to not thinking about any stressful event or, simply let it go for the time being.
There is a popular breathing technique you can try out, it’s called 4-7-8 breathing.
Inhale a breath for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, and then exhale for eight seconds. A good thing about breathing technique is we can do it anywhere!
4.2) Physical Exercise
To understand why we need to do physical exercise to reduce stress, we need to look at the adrenaline. The stress response pumps adrenaline into the body for “fight or flight”. As workplace stressors typically don’t require us to physically fight off danger or run from a pursuing predator, this stress hormone builds up in our system with nowhere to go, leaving us shaky and irritable. This is also known as an adrenaline rush.
A good way to blow off the steam over our head after a surge of stress? Exercise! Our brain produces endorphins during exercise, which can make us feel good and help us fend off feelings of stress.
This word is super trending in our modern age because many have turned themselves to this practice to find their inner peace or other reasons. The meditating practice is helpful because it helps bring one back to the present moment, for there to erase “what if”.
4.4) Progressive muscle relaxation
To counteract the tensed muscles, we need muscle relaxation. Here is a simple clip to help you kick start. It’s simple as you lie down on the floor with a mat and try to relax with some easy exercises.
4.5) Direct stress and anxiety elsewhere
Lend a hand to a relative or neighbor, or volunteer in our community. Helping others will take our minds off of our own anxiety and fears.
After all, it’s advised to seek professional help if you’re unsure about your stress level, or don’t know how to cope with these matters. Remember, stress is only the reaction of us reacting to the external world, so therefore, we can always take control of it.
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Thank you for reading this article, is this article helpful? How do you deal with stress? Please let me know in the comments, I would love to hear yours! 🙂
photos by Victor Garcia, Max Böhme, Paweł Czerwiński, Bruno Aguirre, Omid Armin, Anders Jildén on Unsplash