From work, to school, to family, to friends, nearly all aspects of our lives can cause us a bit of stress at times. Is this bad? Is this normal? And what exactly happens when we start to worry for a little too long?
What is stress, exactly?
Stress is the reaction to situations we perceive to be threatening. This can be changes in lifestyle, news, or health and can be both positive and negative where people can get stress from marriages, births, or academic excellence, or financial worries, job complications, or medical concerns.
Our bodies are actually equipped to handle stress in small doses, but once it becomes long term or frequent, stress affects all systems of the body, and can become detrimental if not kept in check. Psychologically, how does it affect us?
Mechanisms - how do our nervous systems cope?
To handle small bouts of stress, the nervous system utilizes all its divisions to aid the body, but specifically, the mechanisms of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the automatic function of our body like breathing, heart beat, blood pressure, etc. It consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions that play a critical role in the face of stress.
You’ve heard of flight or fight? Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for that shifting of energy to allow your body to respond to danger by either preparing to flee (flight) or taking on warding off a threat (fight). The SNS does this by signaling the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol which work together with automatic nerves to make your heart beat faster, blood vessels to dilate, digestive processes to take the backseat, and respiration rates to increase, among other things. This response happens very quickly in order to prepare the body for danger, and short term stressors. Once the time of emergency is over, the peripheral nervous system (PNS) takes control and counteracts the changes of the SNS, bringing the body back down to base level. The nervous system works hard for the body to be able to deal with stressors, but the problem lies within facing stress over a long period of time. This can result in a long-term drain on the body as the autonomic nervous system tries desperately to compensate. Regular stressors force the SNS and PNS to regularly continue to trigger and calm the emergency responses of the body, it causes a wear and tear of the body, leaving it with decreased immunity, and other matriculations of problems.
Stressed out symptoms
Stress can manifest in a person psychologically as irritation, aggression, feelings of hopelessness, loss of control, insomnia, fatigue, sadness, and memory problems, and the list goes on. Continued stress can lead to the worsening or maturation of problems such as burnout, anxiety, or depression. If a person goes through an intense period of trauma, it could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What should we do?
The levels of stress vary from person to person, but we should strive to keep one thing constant, which is the awareness of yourself and how you may react with stress. Analyzing and understanding how you feel or felt about a specific situation could be able to identify triggers that can cause stress and be able to help manage stress, and increases quality of life and aids mental health.
Stress be gone!: Management techniques
The first step when tackling a lot of things is an understanding, stress is no different! Starting with an understanding of what can cause you stress allows you to find ways to prevent or reduce it. For example, reevaluating relationships that bring more irritation than joy, delegating more tasks to colleagues at work, or taking more time to rest.
But the thing is, since stress and its stressors vary from person to person, it’s a matter of perception. This means that for a thing to become a stressor, it relies on how a person perceives it. So another tactic to manage stress is to rework how you view things. When you learn to downplay various situations or accept things out of your control you can now divert your attention to concrete action and response to situations, rather than worrying or getting caught up in stress. Of course, this may be easier said than done, and help from a specialist, such as a therapist, could be useful in aiding a person reframe the way they perceive stressful situations.
Along with the mental aspect of tackling stress, it’s also helpful to be able to partake in some activities that aid in taking stressors away. For instance, indulging in hobbies such as arts and crafts, or reading, can take your mind off stressors and relax. Even reading thrillers can help you reduce stress! When you read a thriller, your heart beats faster, your muscles get tense, and you’re on high alert (… uhhh this doesn’t sound stress free) it’s actually what happens AFTER reading the thriller that causes the stress reduction mechanisms, where once you’re done reading, your brain is able to take a deep breath, relax those muscles, and get that heart rate back to baseline. (oh thank goodness) This returning back to baseline is what provides the stress relieving mechanisms that help you relax down the line.
Additionally, physical activity like exercise, running, walking, biking, and much more, has numerous benefits for your health both physically and mentally! The expanding of energy allows you to release stress and actually remodels the way our brains think, where it increases and rewrites the neurotransmitters that make us happy, dopamine and serotonin, causing them to fire more frequently. This makes us happier, and the more you exercise, the longer the effects will be!