Stress less, live better

As National Stress Awareness Month, April marks an important time to evaluate our stress levels.

Bronwyn Miller

 

With the semester winding down and workload cranking up, many of us hardly need a reminder about stress. But although stress may at times be a necessary evil, it does not have to be a crushing inevitability. What’s more, our reaction to it matters. National Stress Awareness Month provides an important opportunity to put a check on our life stressors and hone our techniques for managing them.

Historically, our body’s response to stress — the notorious “fight or flight” response — kept us alive. Given that the majority of the stressors our ancestors faced were physical, the body’s response for confronting threats was perfect. The mobilization of the sympathetic nervous system prepares us to face the danger or be able to outrun it. The adrenal glands pump hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. Pulse rate and blood pressure increase and extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Blood flows away from any body system not absolutely essential in that moment; the digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes are suppressed. This all happens so quickly that we aren’t even cognizant of the changes.

The problem today is that because our primary stressors are psychological rather than physical, the body’s keen ability to mobilize to help us fight off threats or flee to safety is no longer so advantageous. Our bodies are reacting to our ever-increasing amount of stressors in the same way as always but at no benefit to our immediate survival. What was once lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), threatening our very physical existence, is now a traffic jam, school or work pressure or a relationship issue threatening our psychological well-being. Because these are not urgent matters of life or death, “fight or flight” becomes erroneous — but our body cannot so carefully distinguish among stressors. Moreover, according to Mayo Clinic staff, “when the stressors of your life are always present, leaving you constantly feeling stressed, tense, nervous or on edge, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.”

Outrunning a predator was relatively short-term; after the threat disappeared, our sympathetic nervous system would return to its normal state. But we are not able to flee today’s stressors as easily. Our perceived threats, like a challenging class or a dismal job search persist, and we resign ourselves to “dealing with it.” But constantly activating the stress response and being in a stage of high alert wears on the body and disrupts its normal processes. Research suggests stress contributes to sleep problems, high blood pressure, digestive problems, worsening of skin conditions, memory impairment, artery-clogging deposits and heart disease, as well as anxiety, depression and addiction. Increased cortisol is also associated with Alzheimer’s disease, insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Despite its devastating effects, stress is ubiquitous among us. New survey findings from the American Psychological Association indicate that we are the generation that should perhaps be most concerned about quelling stress. After all, we report the highest stress levels and simultaneously say we are not managing it well. All generations surveyed reported experiencing stress at levels higher than they believe is healthy, so combating it should be a top priority for everyone.

In my personal challenge to handle stress, the following techniques have been helpful; I hope they inspire your own discovery of how to best control your stress levels.

Use your resources

While this suggestion can refer to relying on friends and family during stressful times, it can also be very beneficial to consult nonjudgmental, nonbiased experts trained not only to listen but to guide stress management. University Counseling and Consulting Services offers individual and group counseling, as well as self-help materials for dealing with many issues, including stress (available online). Boynton Health Service and the Mental Health Clinic also offer help for stress and related health issues.

Have an “in the moment” rescue

When anxiety and tension feels unbearable, knowing how to calm yourself down is imperative. Many different relaxation techniques exist, but what’s most crucial is discovering one you can actually see merit in and don’t find pointless. One of my personal favorites involves breathing in and saying “I am,” then breathing out and saying “at peace.” When my heart is racing, I repeat this process until I feel calmer. If it’s too much to say these phrases out loud, think them instead, but the key is to clear your mind and focus on nothing but that affirmation.

Walk it out

Going for a walk outside can instantaneously re-center your spirit and enhance your mood. A short walk allows you to shift your attention from current pressures and challenges and appreciate the moment. The scenery can do wonders for reminding you that life is bigger than a bad grade or a fight with a loved one.

Laugh it off

Growing up in the digital world certainly has its downsides, but I am eternally grateful for the never-ending wealth of hilarious material at our fingertips made possible by the Internet. When you’re feeling frantic, use BuzzFeed or YouTube to your advantage. Laughter lowers cortisol while also releasing endorphins, resulting in a double whammy of delight.

Remember the journey

So much of what we do these days is goal-oriented, but we often spend so much time thinking about the future that we discount our daily experiences and lose touch with what matters on a day-to-day basis. Nothing is certain, even our most well-planned goals. All we have is the present — and there is peace to be found in that.