None of us really like feeling stressed. We don't enjoy the tension. We don't enjoy the thoughts and feelings. We don't like the way things tend to go wrong or being prone to making more mistakes. We'd like to do something about it but often feel stuck or trapped. The good news is we can change this.
We can make a two-pronged attack on stress. We can work to reduce stress, and we can learn to make stress work for us rather than against us.
What Is Stress?
What is going on inside us when we feel stress? We feel something physically. We also have a few characteristic emotions, and we tend to have certain kinds of thoughts. These are all related to our fight-or-flight process.
Our stress response starts in our brain in the amygdala. The amygdala is one of the main parts of the brain that deals with very quickly recognizing things that are dangerous, threatening or unpleasant. It's a bit like a smoke detector. It doesn't look at the details. It can't tell if the house is on fire or that you just burnt the toast. It just fires off an alarm to the hypothalamus next door.
The hypothalamus is one of the brain's command centers. It's highly connected to the autonomous or automatic parts of your nervous system including the sympathetic system which is responsible for ramping your body up when you need to really pay attention or deal with something. (The parasympathetic system calms things back down.)
The hypothalamus sends signals out to a variety of places including your pituitary gland which signals your adrenal glands. They respond by pumping epinephrine (also called adrenaline) into your blood. As it moves through your body, it makes your heart beat faster, sending more blood to your muscles and your major organs. Your blood pressure goes up and you start to breathe faster. The smaller air passages in your lungs open wider, so you can take in more oxygen with each breath. The extra oxygen goes to your brain making you more alert. Your vision, hearing and other senses get sharper. More blood sugar (which your body stores as glucose) and fats from the temporary stores scattered around your body are released to supply extra energy. You are ready to go in seconds.
How you think about what is happening in this process is colored by the sensations that you feel as your body ramps up as well as how the memories that are primed and triggered interact with the things you are aware of around you. You interpret or construct an understanding. You start to tell yourself a story.
Now, just because you're telling yourself a story doesn't mean that it's not at least partly true. The problem isn't that it's partly or even mostly true, it's that you don't recognize your story's limitations. You almost always stop thinking about stuff once you have a story that "makes sense." It's rooted in your experience. It's rooted in your memories. If you go any further with it, you usually only look for evidence that confirms your story and you ignore, downplay or dismiss evidence that doesn't until you can't anymore. This enhances your stress because you see "here we go again" not "I can change this".
Your body always does the same thing. It reacts the same way, whether something "good" is happening or something "bad" is happening. Getting your body ready for action is always the same. It's only a matter of degree. You experience stress when you interpret what's going on negatively and you don't see how to change it or work with it. If this happens a lot, you may develop chronic stress.
Effects of Chronic Stress
Although how we respond to chronic stress varies from person to person, here are some common symptoms: moodiness, anger, irritability, fatigue, headaches, trouble concentrating or focusing, thoughts that won't stop, memory problems, worrying, ruminating, feeling agitated, trouble sleeping, digestive problems, overeating, comfort eating or not wanting to eat, feeling helpless, feeling like you're losing control, impulsivity, poor judgment, procrastinating, nervousness and getting sick frequently.
There are also a number of health problems that can develop over time. These vary widely, too. Each of us has our own physical weak spots and they develop problems first. Here are a few: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, a weakened immune system, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal disorders, skin irritations, permanent hair loss, respiratory infections, autoimmune diseases, insomnia, burnout, brain shrinkage, depression and anxiety.
The Most Stressful Things in Life
According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the top ten stressful life events for adults are: the death of a spouse, divorce, marriage separation, imprisonment, the death of a close family member, serious injury or illness, getting married, losing a job, marriage reconciliation and retirement.
Kelly McGonigal's Stress Master Mindset
- Acknowledge your stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice and feel it. How is it affecting your body?
- Welcome the stress by recognizing that it's a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What's at stake here, and why does it matter to you?
- Make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting all that energy just trying to manage it. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values? Channel the stress.
Some Easy Ways to Start Reducing Stress
Doing a few simple things to help your body be healthier reduces stress and makes you more resilient when more comes your way. Here are five simple ways to get started. Remember, you don't have to do a lot. Just paying attention and doing a little more, more often, makes a surprising difference.
- Eat a little better. Eat more vegetables, less sugar, bread, potatoes, rice and pasta, less fat and salt.
- Get the right amount of sleep. Work on getting 6 to 8 hours of good sleep every night. You know sleeping too little makes you tired and stressed but sleeping too much can also be a problem and add to stress and depression.
- Be more active. Get a little more exercise. Walk more. Get up and move around throughout the day.
- Pay more attention to how you think and feel. Notice how you are thinking and feeling regularly. Are your feelings driving your thoughts? Thoughts and feelings aren't reality. They're data. You decide how true they are and how much weight to give them in any given moment.
- Take a few minutes to meditate. Practice a few minutes of meditating every day. This has two benefits. It helps your body discharge accumulated stress and start to recover from high levels of cortisol and muscle tension. It also lets you slow your mind down and be less reactive.
Questions for Journaling
- How much stress do you experience in an average day? What are the biggest sources?
- How does stress usually affect you? Where do you feel it the most? Does it usually feel more energizing, draining or overwhelming?
- How do you tend to cope with stress? How do you channel it or cope with it?
- What have you thought about doing to handle stress better or to reduce some of its sources in your life?
Kelly McGonigal, How to Make Stress Your Friend (TED)
Christian Conte, How to Handle Crisis-Prone People
Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2016)
Mithu Storoni, Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body – and Be More Resilient Every Day (2017)
Quotes of the Week
[F]or there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. [Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2]
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
Verses of the Week
For as someone thinks in their heart, so they are.
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. (New Living Translation)
Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. (Good News Translation)
Prayer for the Week
Help me this week to begin to pay attention to the stress I experience. I want to take better care of myself, so that I can have more and be more in my relationships. Amen.
Learning mindfulness often starts with simply paying attention to yourself breathe. You'll quickly find out that that's not as easy as it sounds, but you will also find it worthwhile with practice. Let's get started.
When you have at least a few minutes to be quiet, find a comfortable place to sit. An office chair or even a good kitchen chair will do. A little padding on the seat can help. You'll want to be able to sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor, so you can breathe freely. I like to let my hands rest open in my lap. If you wear glasses, you may want to take them off and set them aside.
Once you're seated, take a few moments to relax your muscles. Pay particular attention to your face, neck and shoulders. We tend to collect stress there.
Take a moment to check for tension around your eyes. Let them relax. Let your eyes close because you're letting them close, not forcing them closed. Take your time.
Take another moment and check for tension in your cheeks and jaw. Let them relax. Move on to your neck. Gently move your head slightly up and down and side to side a few times.
Scan the rest of your body and let any other tense muscles relax. When you feel balanced, you're ready to start.
As you breathe in, notice the sensation of the air flowing into your nose and say to yourself "in". As you breathe out, notice the sensation of the air flowing out though your nose and say to yourself "out". Just let yourself breathe naturally.
There's no need to speed up, slow down or do anything to change how you're breathing. Just let it happen while noticing the sensation of the air flowing through your nose. Continue to say to yourself "in" and "out" each time your chest rises and falls.
When you recognize other thoughts happening or anything distracting you, refocus on your breathing. There's no need to waste time analyzing why you got off track or wondering about how bad you are at doing this. Those are just more distractions. It takes time and practice for your mind to quiet down. If you notice more tension anywhere in your body, let it relax and refocus on your breathing.
Shoot for about five to ten minutes a time once or twice a day for the first week or two and increase it from there. It's very important to keep in mind that this isn't just a relaxation technique, even if you often feel more relaxed after you do it. It's the beginning of developing your ability to pay "quality attention" to yourself.