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The Science Behind Stress

Editor’s Note: If you’re a frequent SST reader, you know that we speak from experience. I’m grateful that Caitlin has joined the team with exactly the same intention in mind, to share from experience and learnings so that we can all live a more balanced life. This week, Caitlin explores the science of stress – how it impacts us physically, mentally, emotionally, why, and how we can change our way of living (when necessary.)

Stress, in general, has increasingly become more present in my life over the past few years.  So much so, that it’s a topic I have found a growing need to understand, intercept, or dodge.

I hear about stress almost everywhere I go. I hear about my friend’s and family’s stress with work or personal affairs, I pass by other students on campus who are clearly experiencing stress, I see stress in others at the grocery store and in traffic.  Heck, I definitely get stressed from time to time, too – there’s no way to avoid it completely!


Stress can be a natural part of life, within reason. Breach the sweet spot, and you might find your body and mind in one sour state. That’s why I’ve started to make understanding stress and countering its effects on my body and mind a priority in my life. And in my studies, here’s what I’ve learned…

What is stress?

  • I understand stress as a state our body enters into at a chemical, physiological, physical, and mental capacity.
  • Some believe stress occues when pressure, demand or change is placed on the body or the individual.
  •  It is a naturally occurring process that all humans experience in some capacity, at some point in their lives.
  •  In sum, it’s something our body does to help us respond better to our ever changing world

Stress can be experienced in a number of ways, but I like to think that there are two different “types” – acute and/or chronic.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is the kind of, “oh, sh*t, I just dropped my favorite earring down the sink drain!” stress.  This type occurs fairly infrequently (hopefully) and almost in a burst of a moment.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is more frequent, consistent, and becomes a more prolonged state. It could be result of many acute stress instances happening regularly throughout the day, or due to a looming, lurking, more mild stress that is constant. Chronic stress is persistent. 

Regardless, both of these kinds of stress can take a toll on your mind and body!

What happens to us when we are stressed?

Stress can have a dramatic impact on our bodies and minds.  While a little bit of stress is good to experience, because it means that we’re pushing up against our previously created boundaries, extreme stress can rarely be positive.

While we’ll highlight some methods you can utilize to relieve the effects of stress, some of the responses physical and mental impacts you might experience include…

Body

Almost all parts and systems of our bodies respond to or have their functioning affected when stressed, including our:

  • immune system 
  • cardiovascular system 
  • nervous system
  • endocrine system 
  • digestion
  • metabolic systems.

While stress is typical to experience to a certain degree, too much too often can cause a multitude of issues.

  • Chronic stress could be integrated into the genetic coding of an individual, leaving the individual at risk for illness later in life.
  • This also suggests that stress could even be passed down from one generation to the next, without having to be directly experience, but still ensuing the same effect on the body.

Mind

It’s no question that the mind and the body are connected. So, when our bodies start to respond to the stress, our minds will, too.  (Or vice versa.  Honestly, researchers are not too sure about which comes first.) 

  • Stress leads to issues focusing our attention and concentrating on tasks at hand.
  • Stress also impedes on memory functioning.

The sudden expression of stress in our minds causes almost every part of our brains to change direction and become suddenly overwhelmed, thus eliminating our sense of usual thought.

Why do we have stress?

One may ask, “if it’s not good for us, why do we have it?”, and that’s a damn good question!  But here ya’ go…

The Ancient Importance of Stress

It turns out, there is a theorized, ancient purpose to our stress response; this wild thing called survival.

Our bodies have a stress response system in place to respond to a stressor or any threatening stimuli. These systems are activated quickly to help our body prepare to fight, flight, or freeze in response to the threat or stress. When a saber-tooth tiger jumped out from the snowy pines, this system would activate and aid in the individual’s means of survival against the threatening tiger.

Though studies of this ancient purpose of stress have also highlighted that It is critical for our stress response to also have periods of recuperation after periods of stress. 

The New Age of Stress

The issue is that, while we still have the networks in our body for that same ancient stress response, we’ve been placed into a completely different world of stressors. We are no longer dealing with acute instances of stress such as the saber-tooth tiger.

Rather, we are dealing with more types and constant channels of stress – Emails, social media, work/peer conflict, technology not working, noise, near traffic incidents and abrasively threatening news titles.

Our bodies are not naturally equipped to keep our stress response system running frequently or constantly, with no time to recuperate.

Well great.  So what do we do about it?

In the instance of the saber tooth, the stress response system was important for us to survive. But for phone calls, missing a deadline, scary news articles, and credit scores, the stress response system is built to be a little too intense.

But there are a few methods that have proven to be successful in alleviating stress and allowing our minds and bodies to properly recuperate.

Methods to De-Stress

Disconnect (as much as you can)

Visualize Physical Space

This is an exercise that’s beneficial to transition out of a stressful situation.  Visualize yourself disconnecting from the stress inducing person or situation. This can be done in a number of ways, adapting to fit the bill of the stressor at hand.

  • Visualize the stress, using whatever image to represent any kind stressor, standing on the beach of an island.
  • Then visualize yourself physically moving away from the stressor.
  • Be sure to recognize that you are now away from the stress at hand, visualizing physical space between yourself and the stressor in mind. Sometimes it may help to literally picture a body of water or a glass wall. 

Try Introspection

There are a variety of different introspective activities that will help you to disconnect from stressors and connect back to yourself.  These are particularly beneficial when you feel as though I have a lot of stress-focused thoughts in your head, and just need some time to sort through them a little bit. 

  • Journaling about your stresses without caring for structure or making sense – just let your thoughts and feelings pour out. This is helpful in letting whatever stressful stuff is in there out so you can see it and start to sort through it all. 
  • A personal favorite introspective activity is weaving dream catchers, because they require such attention to detail and precision while using your hands.  From my experience, it has become a great to help me take my mind of my stress.
  • Cooking a new meal can help you to connect to yourself and remove your mind from stress. Allow you cooking to become a form of artistic, creative expression.  However, if cooking is an area of stress for you, you might want to substitute in an artistic activity you find personally enjoyable!

Connect with Others

As social beings, we value the safety and security we find within the social connections with others.  In times of stress, it’s especially beneficial to call upon these connections to remind yourself you are not alone in this.

  • Feeling connected to your network of people will also help your build your feelings of perceived resiliency, while working through your stressors.
  • This connection may also help you to gain perspective on what is important, shifting where your stress lies.  

Get Moving

Aside from the production of happy hormones as a result, moving your body can also help your body to regulate through some of the stress lingering in your body. 

Literally, Just Move

Sometimes, just being in an environment, a particular situation, or around certain people can make you feel stressed. That is okay – while it’s not comfortable, it’s okay that it happens, it’s okay to recognize that, and it is definitely okay to move away from it, that, or them. That may be a simple but huge key in diminishing the stress you feel.

Just take a walk, ground yourself, and return to the situation with a fresh start and heart.

Dance it Out

Have you ever notice how powerful an experience like dancing is for both your mind and body. I have found when I’m stressed, so stressed my world is starting to look and feel bleak, I can bring the color back into my life by getting my groove on. I don’t worry about looking pretty or what moves I’ll do next. I focus on my body, the rhythm of the music, their connection, and let the flow emerge out of me. It’s a physical way to just let your stress go

Drink Water and Eat Something Delicious

I leave this method for last because it is seemingly the most simple, yet it’s the one that most of us forget.

Both dehydration and hunger mimic the states of stress in our bodies. Because, well, our bodies actually are getting kind of stressed out that our basic needs for survival aren’t being met (i.e. thirst and hunger). 

To give yourself the best shot at working through feeling stressed, make sure its needs are met! Your   body will be much more willing to work towards overcoming stress if you are hydrated and have eaten.

So, go get a glass of cold lemon water, grab your favorite snack, take a deep breath, and write away your worries. You can do this!

 

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