Healthy Ways to Handle Stress
Stressed about stress? It may be affecting your brain. Avoiding stress feels impossible. Humans will inevitably face challenges. From pandemics to parenting, life has real hurdles to deal with that aren’t going away anytime soon. The good news is that managing stress has less to do with avoiding the things that are stressing us out, and a lot more to do with how we deal with it.
At Aviv Clinics, we understand that brain health requires a holistic approach. Wellness practices that help reduce stress can be useful complements to medical therapies. The science-based Aviv Medical Program is centered on the innovative hyperbaric oxygen therapy, plus nutrition coaching and supportive practices, such as meditation, to create a wrap-around approach to enhancing cognitive and physical performance.
What is stress?
Stress is really our body’s automatic response to what it perceives to be a threat. When we encounter potential stressors, the body releases a hormone called cortisol that quickly travels throughout the body and prepares us to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of whatever stressor is threatening us.
Generally, that’s a very good thing. The system evolved to protect you from threats and keep you alive, whether you’re being chased by a sabertooth tiger, running away from an avalanche, or about to be clubbed on the head by an enemy.
The only problem? While humans have made huge advancements in terms of society and technology in the last 40 or 50 thousand years, that’s a blink of the eye in terms of our biology. Our brains are operating on outdated software that doesn’t understand how threats to our survival have changed. An argument with a spouse or a looming work deadline isn’t actually going to threaten our survival, but our lizard brains don’t know that.
Sometimes we need to engage the higher parts of our brain to understand that making a difficult phone call won’t kill us. It only feels that way and it’s okay to shut down the alert system. The problems start when we’re not able to turn off our internal alarms.
How does stress affect the body?
Stress can have both immediate and long-term effects on the body. In the short term, you may experience signs like shortness of breath, insomnia, digestive issues, brain fog, and more. There are many ways stress can affect the body in the short term.
How does stress affect the brain?
As the cortisol hormone surges throughout the body, it affects many different areas. Most of the cells in our body have cortisol receptors, but the brain is particularly packed with them. Stress primarily affects three key areas of the brain:
- The amygdala: controls your fear response and could make you feel constantly on-edge.
- The hippocampus: affects memory and learning, potentially clouding your thinking.
- The prefrontal cortex: the command center of the brain, used for problem-solving and regulating emotions.
The effects of stress are so pronounced that they can be seen in brain scans.
What’s going on during a stress response?
Once your body turns on the cortisol, several systems essentially go into “emergency mode.” Let’s say you’re hiking and out pops a big bear. Immediately, cortisol floods the body, reallocating resources as needed in order to prepare you to fight, flee, or freeze. Utilizing your nervous system, cardiovascular system, metabolism, and more, cortisol helps to supply oxygen and nutrients to areas in need, suppresses the immune system, and modulates things like appetite and satiety, attention, mood, arousal, and vigilance.
However, cortisol conveniently works as a negative feedback loop, meaning that it effectively shuts itself off when levels reach a certain point. Under ideal circumstances, your physical response to stress should reduce or stop once the threat or stressor is removed.
This means that the physiological systems in the body that work together to respond to stress have two jobs:
- to prepare the body to meet the stressor.
- to return to normal conditions when the threat is gone.
If it fails to do either of those correctly, then the body can be subjected to excessive stress that could have long-term effects on the body.
A landmark study in the 1990s by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was done to look at the long-term health effects of adverse childhood events (ACEs). Examples of ACEs were things like experiencing or witnessing abuse or neglect, witnessing violence, having a loved one die by suicide, or having family members with mental health or substance abuse problems.
The study found that the number of ACEs one accumulated throughout early life directly corresponded to risk factors for a number of what are now typically referred to as stress-related diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and depression.
Stress can be good
Stress in itself isn’t inherently bad. It mostly represents a heightened state of arousal brought on by the response to stimuli, which can be negative or positive. Stress is “your body’s response to anything that requires attention or action.”
Test anxiety, for example, can improve performance in the right “dose.” If one has so much anxiety that they’re puking on their test, clearly their performance will suffer. On the other hand, someone with zero stress about the test may neglect to study at all. But just the right amount of anxiety can prompt us to take needed action.
In this way, stress can be a motivator, encouraging us to do something about a situation we want to change.
Change, as it happens, is one of the biggest causes of stress that often goes overlooked, especially when it’s a positive change.
Imagine that you just got a big promotion at work—you landed your dream job, which means a move to another state. Your long-term partner decides to go with you and thinks you should get married, so you start looking for houses. Life couldn’t be better, right? So why are you suddenly getting panic attacks?
Any major change to your routine is inherently stressful, even if it’s exciting. New jobs, big moves, and major life events like weddings and babies may be full of joy, but they still put stress on the body. That means that managing stress means managing all of its forms.
How can you treat stress?
Stress itself may not cause as many health issues as previously thought. Instead, how you react to stress may have a big impact. While some responses are considered adaptive and have positive outcomes, sometimes we may think we’re handling stress well when really it only seems that way. According to this paper on stress, “what we consider to be an adaptive short-term response may subsequently provoke long-term pathophysiological consequences.”
We all respond to stress in different ways, and we all have varying tolerance levels for stress. The same stimulus can provoke a variety of reactions from various people–what angers some people may cause sadness in others; a stressor that provokes despair from one may inspire perseverance and courage in others.
When it comes to stressful events, how you choose to think about them can impact your health. If you see a potentially stressful event as a negative situation with no possible positive outcome, it’s possible you’ll suffer more adverse health effects than if you view the situation as a challenge or opportunity to learn and grow. Thought really can affect your health.
In a study done by Harvard and UCSF, researchers sought to prove the idea of “mind over matter”; that reframing how one thinks about a situation can actually change one’s physiological response to stress.
In this experiment, three groups of people were exposed to a stressful situation and monitored before and after to judge how well they responded physically to the stress. Before the task, each group was prepared according to the experimental condition:
- One group read information explaining that stress is a natural, adaptive, and harmless response to
potential threats and that stress can actually improve performance or response to the stress. It was
emphasized that while stress was “functional and adaptive,” it was still stress.
- Another group read information stating the benefits of ignoring or distracting oneself from a stressful
situation, effectively instructing them to suppress the anxiety.
- A third control group was given no instruction.
Not surprisingly, the first group showed better outcomes in terms of cardiac and vascular function.
A massive related study of almost 30,000 people confirms this data.
Your perception of how stress affects you can affect your health.
The best health outcomes were observed in those people who did encounter stress but did not consider stress to be harmful; even better than people with no stress at all. Conversely, those who encountered stress and did worry about stress affecting their health showed a 43% increased risk of premature death.
Preventing and managing stress
Although we can’t avoid many of the slings and arrows that life hurls at us, we can cultivate the conditions that help us mitigate stressful situations. One of the best and still often overlooked strategies is maintaining good self-care. If we’re optimized physically, mentally, and emotionally, we put ourselves on a much better footing for dealing with challenges.
Self-care and stress have an interesting dynamic. Isn’t it strange that when we are under stress and need self-care the most, it seems to become the lowest priority? Imagine you have a ton of work to get done, all before the weekend, and I suggest that getting more sleep could help you be productive. “Get more sleep? I can’t do that, look at all the things I have to do!”
Real self-care is not wine and Netflix binges (even if they are fun in the short-term). True self-care means actively doing the things you need to do in order to maintain a happy, healthy life: watching your diet because the gut and brain are closely linked; getting enough physical activity; even simply paying your bills on time. It’s all of the less-than-fun responsibilities that come along with being a functional adult.
So how do you manage to do all of those self-care life chores without sacrificing productivity or recreation? It’s all about balance. Try this counterintuitive trick to combat stress and too-much-to-do syndrome:
Take a day or even a few hours and commit to doing everything slower by 20%. Work 20% slower. Walk 20% slower. Read 20% slower. Talk slower, breathe slower, think slower. Meditation is a great way to slow down and focus your mind also. More than likely, you’ll end up accomplishing more and enjoying yourself more in the process.
The bottom line.
The way we deal with stress matters. Stressing about stress becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more you worry about stress affecting your health, the more it can affect your health. Seeing stress for what it really is–an adaptive response that evolved to protect you from threats to your wellbeing–and practicing proper self-care can ultimately lead to better long-term health.