The American no-pain-no-gain, can-do attitude is slowly but surely killing us by way of the stress we cause ourselves.
Stress's effects on mood are well known. Anxiety, overwhelm, restlessness, agitation, irritability, lethargy, sadness, depression. What's less widespread knowledge is its physiological effects, like lowering your immune response and shortening your lifespan.
In evolutionary terms, stress is an environmental response to danger. When you live through chronic stress, your body does all sorts of things that it's built to endure for only short bursts. When these reactions persist, all kinds of physiological systems begin to break down. Just to take a few salient examples:
YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM GOES BANANAS
Shifting to a fight-or-flight response signals the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which raises heart rate and blood pressure, changes digestion, and boosts glucose. Obviously, these are not great things to persist over hours, days, weeks, etc.
YOUR MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM GETS WRECKED
Stress will cause your muscles to contract for extended periods, which triggers neck and shoulder tension, headaches, and migraines and exacerbates the pain of previous injury or dysfunction.
YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM GETS SUPREMELY CONFUSED
When experiencing acute stress, your blood vessels dilate to move blood around more efficiently, but chronic stress can inflame the coronary arteries, which very likely increases your risk for a heart attack.
Stress affects us all differently, but these effects are well documented. Luckily, modern research, in-born behaviors, and ancient practices can help us combat stress and regain our health and sanity.
Don’t write off the idea of stress relief as unproductive. You can’t chew by clamping down as hard as you can in the hopes that you’ll wear down that steak through sheer force of will. Everyone needs tension and release.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. But as we mentioned in our last post, taking time to yourself to do “unproductive” things can actually increase your productivity in the long run. You’re doing your body and mind a favor when you spend time with friends and family, read a “useless” (read: “non-actionable”) book, go for a long walk in nature, or play games.
If you need a scientific basis to have fun, here we go. In physiological terms, fun is the act of stimulating the brain with novelty. The brain processes information in the hippocampus. It's here that the brain attempts to match new information with long-term memory. When it comes up short, you get a shot of feel-good dopamine. Your brain then associates positive emotion with the new memory for better long-term storage. And also, novelty stimulates creativity.
You know how your breath gets quick and shallow when you get freaked out? Well, it works the other way around too: breathing quick, shallow breaths will cause stress. Because of our deskbound lifestyles, people adapt by chest breathing. Instead, take deep breaths to your belly, which will help you relax and control your heart rate.
Don Delillo, author of White Noise and Libra, said it best:
“Writing is a concentrated form of thinking...a young writer sees that with words he can place himself more clearly into the world. Words on a page, that's all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions.”
And it’s not just writers who think so; the psychiatric community agrees:
“Writing about anger, sadness and other painful emotions helps to release the intensity of these feelings. By doing so you will feel calmer and better able to stay in the present.”
Feel weird about journaling? Don’t know what to write about? Check out The School of Life’s decks of “prompt cards” to promote self reflection. (If you’re dealing with stress, then maybe start with the one called Calm.)
Meditation is not just some bald man sitting on a cushion not thinking thoughts. Meditation is the practice of recognizing thoughts as thoughts. If every thought that passes through your head were interpreted as dispassionate facts, the way you might watch clouds pass, then — short of being physically attacked — there would never be any reason to feel stress.
Sleep and stress are related in a feedback loop the same way breathing and stress are. If you don’t sleep, you’ll experience some physiological and psychological symptoms of stress, like inflammation, muscular tension, and rising blood pressure and glucose levels. To get better sleep, start winding down at least an hour before bed. Get away from bright screens and bright lights that throw off the production of melatonin. Make your room a pitch-black sanctuary dedicated to the worship of unconsciousness.
There’s much more information on sleep than I can fit in this article, so for more information, check out Sleep Smarter by writer and podcaster Shawn Stevenson.
Like sleep, exercise done correctly offers more benefits than will ever fit in a blog post. The benefits also interrelate with much of what’s already been said. Morning exercise has been strongly correlated with better sleep (thus less stress). Proper strength training, yoga, and/or mobility work can improve posture and thus breathing mechanics (and less stress). Exercise also pumps up the production of feel-good hormones like endorphins.
For a range of free exercise protocols that can fit any schedule, check out Fitness Blender.
Don’t let all these stress-combatting options stress you out. Just pick one new behavior to focus on at a time, and gradually incorporate it into your lifestyle. Then pick another. Your body, mind, family, and friends will thank you.
And if you’re dealing with a stressful situation that meditation and exercise just can’t help, maybe the Alliance can help. We offer discounted legal services, 24/7 access to qualified doctors, tuition assistance, and more. Check out our plans.