When we experience stress our body does a number of things. Stick with me here. When stressed our hypothalamus tells our brain there is a danger present. Next, our adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline gives us more energy and increases our blood pressure and heartrate. Cortisol allows our brain more glucose as well as better functionality in using glucose, this allows us to repair any damaged tissues. Most importantly however, cortisol also 'switches off' all non-essential functions in our body. Anything we wouldn't immediately need to deal with a life-threatening situation is turned off including immune responses, reproductive systems, and our digestive system. Additionally, the part of our brain that controls our fear response, moods, and motivational responses is altered.
So what? Who cares? Well, this entire response of our body to stress is carryover of more primitive times. These responses are specifically tailored to situations involving imminent danger. These are the reason you're able to correct your car after getting cut off rather than falling apart and panicking. These are the reason you can survive severe injuries or outrun a bear (actually, I think you shouldn't try and run if you see a bear). However, these responses were not designed to manage deadlines, relationship issues, and bills. The body's response to day-to-day stress is largely overblown (sorry body) and when we experience stress regularly without knowing how to cope our health is negatively affected. With adrenaline constantly increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, and all of those bodily functions that keep switching off thanks to cortisol, it's no wonder prolonged stress is detrimental to your physical health. The mood, motivation, and fear responses which are dramatically changed due to stress lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. In fact, even procrastination is linked to this stress process in the body. When you wait long enough to do something and become thoroughly stressed out by it your body's stress response will kick in and suddenly your motivation, triggered by fear, kicks in and you can accomplish the task.
So how do we manage stress in order to protect our physical and mental health? It's all about coping skills. Many of us were not taught coping skills growing up. We were taught to "get over" things, or "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", or perhaps most lucratively, "just do it". We weren't taught that we had to respond to our feelings just as much as we had to respond to stressful situations. However, when we can effectively learn to cope with the feeling of stress we can actually retrain our brains to respond more appropriately to any given situation. Below are some of my favorite coping strategies which can be practiced and employed when experiencing stressful life events:
1) Deep Soothing Breaths
When we take deep breathes we work to slow our heart rate down which, in response, begins to decrease our other stress responses. This exercise is also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing. We take slow deep breaths in through our nose until our stomach is inflated. We then slowly release the breath through our mouths. We do this several times until we begin to feel calmer and feel our heart race decrease. As we breathe we pay attention to the sensation of the breath through our nose, in our stomach, and finally out of our mouth.
2) Coloring, Doodling, or Drawing
It may seem silly, but there is a reason there's such a market for adult coloring books. When we are able to slow our minds down and focus on an enjoyable or meditative activity our body follows suit. Just taking a few minutes to give your brain a break can make a world of difference in being able to manage stress and protect against stress-related conditions.
I may sound like a broken record with this one, but journaling an extremely helpful practice for coping with a variety of emotions or emotional responses. You could write a gratitude list to remind you of all the things you are enjoying in your life. You could write a letter to yourself with advice or positive thoughts to get through what you're experiencing. Or, you could simply free write whatever you're thinking or feeling. Whatever you choose to write, self-expression is a wonderful way to manage stress and other emotions.
4) Write A List
This one is simple. So many of us experience pro-longed stress because of feeling overwhelmed with our various roles and responsibilities. Writing out a list of things that need to be accomplished in a day, a week, or a month can allow us to prioritize our time. The process of physically crossing things of our list is incredibly therapeutic and stress relieving, not to mention satisfying. Completing our lists also grants us a sense of accomplishment which can help build self-esteem and confidence. A simple list has a myriad of benefits.
This one is more of a time management skill, but when combined with other coping strategies it can be an essential part of reducing stress and positive habit-forming. Unless we're in the military very few of us are given rigid schedules we must follow on a day-to-day basis. For some that's a relief and freedom they enjoy, but scheduling our days actually has immense benefits for our mental health. When break our day down by the hour we find that we may actually have more time available than we think. I know that there are times for me at work when I don't have a lot going on, or my lunch breaks runs longer than I need. Rather than dedicating every second of that time to emails, phone calls, or paperwork I choose to incorporate some coping strategies into my day. I take time to write a list of what needs to get done. I take deep breaths, I even doodle. Through writing myself a schedule I am able to give myself as much time as I need to do various tasks including self-care. Most of us, when we do this, can find 10-15 minutes here and there to just prioritize our own needs.
How do you manage your stress? Have you tried any of the above strategies? However you choose to manage your stress keep in mind that you, your health, and your wellbeing, are more important than anything else that is stressing you out. We can't be effective employers, employees, students, partners, parents, siblings, and children without taking care of ourselves first. Remember that it isn't selfish to put your own oxygen mask on first and if you ever need more help with this counseling can be a great resource.