Managing Stress in Everyday Life
I love taking hikes. Most of the time, I’m excited when I see wildlife in its natural habitat. However, in the back of my mind, during some of my more remote hikes, a tiny fear hovers. A bear. What if I come across a bear? Do I run? No wait, I’m supposed to get loud and big. These are all of the fast decisions that I would need to make should I ever encounter a bear during one of my excursions. And this is where the acute stress response comes in.
What’s really going on when you get stressed out?
Stress is not bad. However, there is healthy stress and unhealthy stress. Our stress response is like an alarm. It’s your brain’s way of telling your body to prepare to take action to get your body to safety. In fact, the stress response can save your life. The acute stress response allows your body to respond quickly when you are in a dangerous situation. However, chronic stress can be harmful to your mind and body.
Let’s dig into what happens.
When you come face to face with a bear in the woods or a car racing towards you in the street, a chain reaction is set off in your brain. This chain reaction starts when the amygdala, the emotional processing center, senses danger and sounds an “alarm”. This alarm triggers another area in your brain, the hypothalamus, to send nerve impulses to the adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands are located all the way down on your kidneys! When the alarm sounds, the adrenal glands send out stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. These stress hormones give your body a set of instructions to get ready for action. This is known as the “fight or flight” response.
Luckily, the “flight or fight” response allows your body to leap into action before you’ve had a chance to think. It’s what allows you to automatically jump out of way of a car coming towards you.
Epinephrine tells your heart to pump faster and increases your blood pressure. This sends more blood to places like your arms and legs allowing them to move quickly. Cortisol helps your body prepare for stress by releasing glucose stores for energy and calming other non-essential functions, like digesting your lunch.
The acute stress response helps us act quickly when time is an important factor in keeping us safe. However, not many of us face bears in our everyday lives. Most of us are battling chronic, everyday stress. Chronic stress can negatively impact our mind and bodies.
When stress becomes a problem.
Chronic stress comes becomes an issue when the brain continues to perceive stress, even if the danger is small or absent. It’s as if the sensor is broken and the alarm bell won’t stop ringing.
Long term stress triggers cortisol release from the adrenal glands. Prolonged elevated cortisol levels in the body can be harmful. Here are a few harmful impacts of chronic stress:
• High blood pressure
• Higher blood sugar
• Suppressed immune system
• Heart disease
• Decreased sex hormone production
• Kidney problems
You can learn to manage long term stress better.
How do you know when stress has become unhealthy? Our bodies often send out warning signals. Here are some things you might notice:
• Sleep changes
• Eating changes
• Decreased motivation or energy
• Persistent depressed or sad mood
• Lack of interest
• Persistent feelings of nervousness or anxiety
• Social withdrawal
• Aggressive behavior
• Drug or alcohol misuse
Care for yourself when you find yourself in stressful territory.
In the best case scenario, we can remove the source of stress from our lives. Unfortunately, some stressful situations just won’t budge. At those times, we have to practice self-care so we can live better through the stress.
There are a lot of things you can do to care for yourself when you are stressed:
• Get a good night’s sleep (7 to 8 hours, uninterrupted)
• Eat a well-balanced diet (think fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds and lean proteins)
• Spend time in nature
• Hang out with a supportive family member or friend
• Take a walk
• Focus on your spiritual life
• Help someone else
• Do something fun
Now you know that stress has an important role in keeping us safe. Unfortunately, it can also have a negative impact on our physical and mental well-being. When you are experiencing unhealthy stress, recognize where you can take control. Grab an apple, phone a friend and go for a hike.
But, don’t forget to pack your bear spray.