What is stress and 3 FREE tools to Manage it
Stress is stress is stress. We are familiar with stress in general, and we know it takes a toll on us physically, chemically and emotionally. However, the body doesn’t know the difference between different types of stressors. Our bodies do their best to keep up with the demands we place on them. In this article, we look to give you a better understanding of the functions and mechanisms of stress and give you a few tools you can start using immediately to help relieve your stress. The best part about this is it won’t cost you a dime, it will only cost you some time.
First, What is stress?
Stress is your body’s reaction to a demand or a need also known as a stressor. This demand or need can present as physical, chemical or emotional or in some form that involves all three. When these stressors present themselves it requires an adjustment or response within our body. The body’s response comes in the form of the release of two hormones; the first is adrenaline and the more commonly known one is cortisol, these stress hormones prepare your body for action. Stress is normal. It’s healthy. It’s part of life, and it gives you your ‘get up and go’ energy. Stress is meant to be positive, but for many of us, it can become an overactive response leaving us feeling helpless with no way to combat it. This then becomes our new ‘normal’ state.
What triggers this response?
The autonomic nervous system regulates all of our unconscious processes within our body. Think of autonomic like automatic. This system automatically takes care of things so we don’t have to. Things like breathing, digestion, heart rate, urination, etc. There are two divisions within this system. The first is the sympathetic division, this controls our fight or flight response. A good way to remember this to always have sympathy for the fighters and flighters. The second is the parasympathetic division, this controls our feed and breeding responses along with rest and digestion. Both are integral to maintaining balance within the mind and body. When we are off balance is when we start to see issues arise.
Most of us spend our day in a sympathetic state. Daily our brain is encountering what it perceives as possible threats from every direction. These potential threats trigger the fight or flight response. Back in caveman and woman times, this threat was usually something along the lines of a saber tooth tiger and other scary predators. Today there aren’t many sabertooth tigers running around but we still have situations that our brain perceives as a threat. These fall in line with chemical, emotional, and physical stressors. Things like work, traffic, coworkers, bills, friends, family, the foods you eat, exercise, noise, temperature. What I’m trying to say is that stressors come in many different forms.
When a threat is perceived by the body it will always react the same way as it did with our ancestors. Cortisol and adrenaline are released to kick us into action. We see problems start to arise when we have too much of these hormones floating around in our bloodstream. Adrenaline is something we’ve all felt at one time or another- think of driving and almost getting in an accident. Your heart rate increases, breathing increases, we utilize carbs more, our appetite is suppressed, and blood is sent away from our organs to our muscles in order to prepare them to throw down or Forrest Gump our way out of the situation (if you don’t understand the reference, run Forrest run!)
Cortisol, on the other hand, is released once the “threat” has passed. It tells the body it’s time to replenish energy, causing most of us to crave snacks in the form of high sugar and high fat. This, in turn, increases sugar into the bloodstream and enhances the brain’s use of glucose. Cortisol is important; otherwise, our bodies wouldn’t make it. It’s involved in regulating blood sugar, metabolism, reducing inflammation, and even memory formulation. Cortisol also maintains hormone balance- it must remain balanced with the hormone DHEA in order for the body to function properly and handle stress effectively. If your cortisol levels are too high, your body robs you of progesterone to make more DHEA. This can create a host of other problems, with estrogen levels rising and progesterone levels crashing. Men and women can experience these hormone imbalances. Cortisol has a cycle where it’s higher in the morning (get up and go) and lowers at night. When we become continuously stressed and the body begins releasing more cortisol than we actually need, sleeplessness, fatigue and many more symptoms follow.
High levels of cortisol are related to the following:
- weight gain
- high blood pressure
- muscle weakness
- weak immune system
- difficulty healing wounds
- thinning skin, easy bruising, and flushed face
- Difficulty concentrating
- hormone imbalance, high estrogen levels
3 free Tools to combat your stress and 1 that is an investment
Perception is how we perceive a situation. Let’s say you wake up late. Now you’re feeling rushed. Your body automatically goes into fight or flight and it sets the tone for the entire day. Kids are annoying you. Significant other burnt your toast and the OJ has pulp in it. Traffic happens to be slower, every driver is making you mad and cutting you off, the fast lane is too slow, everybody at work is getting on your nerves, traffic is slower yet again on the ride home, now your significant other didn’t wash the dishes. You’re just stressed out and everybody was against you today! But let’s step back and look at things.
Out of this whole situation, what was in your control and what wasn’t? The one thing in your control is was waking up on time and the other is how you respond to the events that occurred. You can’t control other drivers on the road, so why get upset about how they drive? Maybe you’re the one driving poorly in your haste to be on time. They are the same drivers that were out there yesterday, and they will be back again tomorrow. Why get annoyed with your coworkers- maybe they are having a rough day. Be part of the solution, not the problem. The dishes- well, maybe your significant other had a long day too and is thinking you never wash the dishes. Maybe you could wash the dishes together and listen to music. Maybe you could kindly ask them to do the dishes. Also, and this is a fact- no one has ever said on their death bed, “If only the dishes were done more…” Ok, I can’t guarantee that, but I’m pretty sure it’s a fact. The world wasn’t out to get you, you just chose to view it in such a way. Why? Because according to your hormones, you were being chased by a saber tooth tiger. Your body doesn’t know the difference, and it leapt into action.
Ask yourself, is the traffic worth stressing about? Is wasting mental time and energy on burnt toast really the best use of both? Or are there other things you could be spending your time on? Earlier I stated your body subconsciously doesn’t know the difference when it comes to dealing with a stressor but consciously, you do know what a real threat is. Know that traffic isn’t something you can control. How you respond to it is. Spend your time doing something more effective, like breathing.
Change your perception. Change your life.
What if I told you that your body has a built-in stress-reducing, pain decreasing, anxiety getting rid of mechanism and you have complete control over it?
You would probably call me a liar because it sounds too good to be true. It’s something so simple and overlooked many of us take it for granted. You probably guessed it by the heading of this section. Breathing is the only automatic function in the body that we can consciously control. Controlling our breathing has the potential to help us manage our stress, boost our immune system, improve our mental game, control our energy output, and even improve our decision making. The rhythm of our breathing alone has a direct effect on neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgment. It’s even starting to be used as a treatment in a multitude of mental health issues from panic disorder, anxiety, to depression. Another study recently showed that breathing influences pain processing with the ability to reduce our perception of pain. Breathing to better oxidize the body reduces oxidative stress and free radical formation, which is what causes degenerative processes and illness, including aging and most chronic diseases. Breathing deeper can even reduce your risk of heart attack.
All of this by learning to control our breathing through proper breathing mechanics and techniques.
One of the best ways to get the benefits of breathing is through the utilization of 8-4-7-8 breathing. This is where exhale first for 8 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds through your nose, HOLD your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale through pursed lips (like you’re trying to blow up a balloon) for 8 seconds. Do this 2x day for a total of 5-10 breaths. Especially before you go to sleep. Intently focus on each part of the cycle. So, for those 4 seconds, you’re focused on the inhale and slowly counting to 4.
This focus and intention to the present and tuning into your body by calming your mind is another great way to relieve stress and turn off that warning signal in your brain.
Green exercise is physical exercise done in natural environments. This involves things like gardening, biking, running, hiking, walking, camping, skiing, and even yoga. Take your shoes off, get in the grass, marvel at the trees and plants around you, the clouds, the animals, and take it all in. Your sensory organs are meant to perceive the world. Your senses essentially emerged from immersion in the world.
Being present in nature has a multitude of positive effects on the mind and body such as decreased tension in the body, reduction in confusion and anger and a decrease in cortisol and adrenaline. Exposure to the sun and being outside also has been shown to increase serotonin which is a mood-enhancing neurochemical. A deficiency in serotonin is a potential cause of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even impaired cognitive function. This tactic, like breathing, is one of the most readily available therapies with no side effects besides feeling amazing. Studies have shown it brings you more in touch with yourself and helps to remind you of what is important in your life… and it’s not the traffic you sat in.
Most of you have nature deficit disorder. To get even more benefits from this activity, leave your phone at home. Just be in the moment and be one with nature. If thoughts start to creep into your brain about your schedule and to-do list, simply acknowledge them and allow them to exit your mind. Return to the present moment and choose to stay there.
The conclusion from the study linked below on green exercise and it’s benefits:
“To summarize, outdoor natural environments may provide some of the best all-round health benefits by increasing physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion, altering physiological functioning including stress reduction, restoring mental fatigue, and improving mood and self-esteem and perceived health. Thus, exercise within green spaces and the great outdoors may be a useful natural medicine to address health challenges facing developed countries. Alongside the social aspect which some individuals crave, it may also increase enjoyment and adherence to bring about positive behavior changes in a large proportion of the population.”
While those first three tips are free, this next one does cost some money. But try to change your perspective and view it as an investment in your health and well being. Massage therapy is a means in which stress can be reduced significantly on both physical and psychological levels. There is considerable research that validates our experience.
In a study on the effect of trigger point therapy, there was a significant decrease in heart rate, systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure. Measures of oxygen consumption, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol levels were all lower after only a 10 to 15-minute chair massage in controlled studies.
In a handful of other studies massage has been shown to alter EEG activity (brain waves), increase parasympathetic activity and decrease cortisol levels. This alone will calm the body and brain during stress. It can also improve attention, enhance the body’s immune response, and reduce anxiety. There are few safety issues or side effects when done by a trained therapist. Here in the state of Ohio, we are licensed by the state and our license must be visible when you come to our clinic.
We recommend adding a massage 1x a month to your health routine.
The best way to manage and control our situation is to understand the why. Many of us say we are stressed but often we don’t know what that means. Now you do. Knowing what stress is and what causes it gives you an advantage over it. Equipped with these tools, you can now own your stress and not have your stress own you. Please reach out to us with any questions in regards to how our services can better serve you and inspire you.