Stress in general is a reaction to a challenge or to change.
Types of stress can include:
· Routine stress related to pressures of work, family, and daily responsibilities.
· Stress from a sudden negative change like a major illness, loss of a job or relationship.
· Traumatic stress brought on by a major threat to life or body such as a major accident or natural disasters.
Acute (short term) stress can be helpful, making a person more alert and readier to react to and deal with the stressful or potentially dangerous situation at hand. Many of us are familiar with the “fight or flight” response. This response is mediated by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is our body’s way of responding to an acute stressor by releasing hormones that get our body ready to either fight for your life or run for your life, hence the name “fight or flight.” Your heart beats faster, blood pressure and blood sugar increase, your muscles tense, your senses become acutely aware of your surroundings; everything is geared up to make sure you survive the stressful event. In a life-threatening event, this is essential and in a non-life-threatening event, it can still help us rise to the occasion such as in a challenging meeting or a job interview, for example. But the key point is that there is an end to the stressor, followed by a period when we recover, or there should be. During the recovery time, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kicks in and just like the SNS is associated with “fight or flight,” the PNS is associated with “rest and digest.” Heart rate and respiration slow down, blood pressure comes back down, intestinal activity increases and muscles relax. The SNS and PNS work together like a symphony in ideal circumstances. However, in todays overstimulated, busy world, our SNS becomes chronically stimulated. The problem with chronic stress is that the body never really gets the signal to recover and return to normal functioning. Chronic stress upsets the beautiful balance between the PNS and the SNS. The same SNS hormones that elicit the above lifesaving response, if chronically elevated, can cause problems in a person’s cardiovascular, immune, digestive and reproductive systems to name a few. It can disrupt sleep which can cause even further disruptions to mind and body. Chronic stress has been associated with increased risk of many disease states such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and mental disorders. This is not something we should take lightly. This is not something that just affects the “weak” either. None of us are immune to the far-reaching negative effects of chronic stress. I know that many of us can feel overwhelmed by the many stressors in our lives and some of us even know things that we can do to help ourselves, but those “things” that we know we should do can almost feel like a stress in and of themselves as they can seem like just another thing to do. I totally empathize with this. It is very difficult to stop and take a step back and disengage for a moment from our fast-paced lives. We are not taught to prioritize self-care and culturally, it is not valued. Hard work and success at the expense of our health is the common theme. A person is looked at as strong if they work while ill, or while grieving for example. People are rewarded for never taking a vacation day or looked at as less than committed or not as hard of a worker if they do. While resiliency is very important, there is nuance here that is sadly often missed. We need to change our thinking. We need to stop looking at self-care as self-indulgence. They are not the same thing. Let me say that again. Self-care is not self-indulgence. Nor is it selfish or negative. Knowing how (and when) to take care of yourself, your mind, body and spirit is in my opinion one of the most important forms of intelligence that one can strive to attain. This intelligence is dynamic and so what it looks like will change as we grow physically, emotionally and relationally. We need to learn to value this and seek it. Learning to manage stress on a regular basis is essential for health and if we do not, we are sabotaging all of our best health efforts.
Stress management can take on many forms. Physical activity, baking with my daughter and long leisurely walks outside with my family are some of my go to methods. It might be a relaxing bath, reading for pleasure, spending time with a loved one, turning off your phone for an hour, deep breathing or gardening. Giving yourself the time and space to be creative in your own way and/or let down is essential. Sometimes it only takes a couple moments, others require more time, it is very situational. Learning to know yourself and what methods help you personally relieve chronic stress is absolutely necessary for present and long-term health.
What are your favorite ways to relieve stress? Comment below!