You know the feeling. Your busy life just got even busier and now you're overloaded and struggling to cope with the demands of everything that's going on. In a word, you're stressed.
Work, relationships, home life, annoyances, anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to your wellbeing can cause stress. It's simply the way we have evolved to survive.
For 2.6 million years we lived as primitive tribes, always alert to sudden and life threatening events. Thankfully most of us now live in more stable, settled societies. However, the primitive part of our brain is still constantly scanning our environment looking for threat, ready to fire with the hint of anything alarming.
And our bodies will react the same way regardless of whether the threat is real or in our heads.
What exactly is stress?
Stress is the body's natural defense against predators and danger. It injects your body with hormones to prepare systems to evade or confront the perceived attack, also known as the "fight-or-flight" mechanism. Your brain fires the panic button and things start to happen. First your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) dumps chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol in your blood stream, then pumps this blood into your muscles for energy to help you run faster.
This reflex tactic diverts attention away from anything but short-term survival, so your digestion and immune system are neglected until the threat is over, whenever that is.
The dangers of stress
Stress can be a motivator, essential to survival. But if these mechanisms are triggered too easily, or when there are too many threats or challenges at a time, it can become harmful.
The long terms effects of stress on our bodies have been well documented.1 We know that ongoing chronic stress causes muscle tension, heart conditions, sleep problems, and digestive issues to name a few. Recent research also shows that chronic stress can speed up the aging process by shortening the length of each DNA strand.2
It's also important to understand how feelings of stress affect the brain. Chronic overproduction of cortisol can damage brain structure and connectivity.3
Alarmingly, it can actually damage brain cells and prevent new ones from forming, which can prevent new learning from happening.4 Our brain can become overactive, which can leave us feeling anxious, nervous, stressed and even depressed, limiting our resilience and creativity.5
Ways to reduce stress
So how do we stop ourselves becoming overstressed? There are lots of techniques and options, many of them very easy to implement:
- Get some exercise - a little exercise can have a profound impact on your mood, so schedule some time in your busy day to get moving. Even a walk around the block can make a big difference.
- Make plans - if juggling work and home life is overwhelming you, stay one step ahead by sitting down on a Sunday night to make a plan. Set a roster for family to help out - knowing you've already got the week ahead covered will help you de-stress considerably.
- Stop multitasking - rapid task switching puts more demand on your brain than focusing on one single job. This quickly deprives your brain of nutrients like glucose, making you tired and confused. The increased demand also triggers your "fight or flight" mechanism, leaving you anxious and permanently on edge.
- Know your enemy - identifying the key things that cause you stress can help you manage them better. Dealing with them head on can also be liberating, and take away their power to stress you out.
- Listen to music - enjoying music leads to the release of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. It also boosts levels of dopamine, a chemical linked to feelings of happiness.
- Eat healthier - proper nutrition is a great way to fight back against stress. Be sure to cook healthy meals at home, and eat healthy snacks when you're at work.
Stress might be part of modern life, but it doesn't have to rule you. Taking steps to understand what stresses you out - and what relaxes you - will help you respond better to what's around you. And ultimately guide you towards a healthier, happier life.
- American Psychological Association (n.d.) Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association
- Bergland, C. (2014a) Emotional Distress Can Speed Up Cellular Aging. Psychology Today
- Cortisol Is an Associated-Risk Factor of Brain Dysfunction in Patients with Severe Sepsis and Septic Shock, Duc Nam Nguyen et al, NCBI, 2014
- Bergland, C. (2014b) Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. Psychology Today.
- Chaskalson, M. (2011) The Mindful Workplace, Wiley-Blackwell, NJ.