WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Stress At Its Most Basic:
Stress is defined as a “change or pressure in the environment. Most people think of stress as a bad thing, but in reality most people need some of it” to help them overcome those changes (Ossola).
Acute vs Chronic Stress
Acute stress arises from a specific event or situation that is unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as learning you have a test coming up or not knowing how your presentation is going to go. This kind of stress can be beneficial as the hormone released (cortisol) can help the body and mind deal with the situation. You might feel your heart pounding in your chest or throat, become hyper-aware of your surroundings, and you could also get jittery. Those symptoms prepare you for any other changes and allow you to adapt more easily.
Chronic stress results from the repeated release of cortisol due to being in constant stressful situations. Scientists believe our bodies were not designed to deal with chronic stress, which is why it can and does cause countless problems, including cardiovascular issues and mental illnesses. Chronic stress creates long term health problems that are not always easy to cure, meaning it is imperative that we try to lower our stress as much as possible.
But Wait…What’s Cortisol?
The adrenal gland releases multiple hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol helps to regulate the balance of salt and water in our bodies, which is part of the reason why our sweat is salty (we sweat when we stress). Too much or too little salt affects the functionality of the human heart, demonstrating that cortisol is an essential hormone to regulate. Since the functioning of our heart is so dependent on proper salt levels to stimulate the electrical currents that cause our heart to pump, too much stress will overwork the heart and potentially shorten one’s life. By reading this, I’ve probably just stressed you out more, so I’ve linked a video below as well as summarized it to try and present this information in the least stressful manner possible.
This short video will provide a visual description of what exactly happens to your body when you are continually stressed:
A Summary of Stress and the Body:
- When stress is activated too much or for too long, your natural fight or flight response changes your brain and other organs in your body.
- As stress hormones travel through your bloodstream, they can cause your heart to beat faster as well as clog your blood vessels.
- These changes increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
- When your brain detects stress, it notifies many different systems in the body, including the intestinal system. This communication can affect digestive as well as overall health.
- High levels of cortisol cause cravings for comfort foods (carbs and sugar), and those comfort food are digested as deep belly fat, which is much harder fat to lose since it is beneath the surface of your body. Basically, stress can lead directly to weight gain.
- Telomeres determine how long cells live. When they become too short, cells can no longer divide, causing our body to stop functioning properly. Cortisol has been proven to shorten people’s telomeres, which means our lives become shorter if we’re more stressed.
A Summary of Stress and the Brain:
- Chronic stress can affect brain size and how it functions.
- When your brain senses a stressful situation, your body is immediately primed for action via cortisol.
- High levels of cortisol increase the number of neural connections in the amygdala, which is the part of your brain that deals with fear and your reaction to fear.
- To make matters worse, as cortisol rises and creates more connections in the fear center of your brain, activity in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning, memories, and stress control, deteriorates.
- If the hippocampus is weaker, your ability to control your stress decreases.
- Chronic stress can also cause the pre frontal cortex to shrink, meaning the part of your brain that regulates decision making, judgement, and social interaction also stops functioning properly.
- Less brain cells are made – chronic stress can make it harder to learn and heighten risk for depression and Alzheimer’s.
- High cortisol can be passed down through generations, meaning if a parent has higher levels of cortisol due to chronic stress, their kids probably will too.
A Summary of Stress and Daily Life:
- Stress affects your ability to focus. When our brains focus on how stressed we are, we stop thinking about whatever we need to do.
- Sleeping restlessly, feeling irritable, lacking focus, or feeling overwhelmed are all side effects of stress.
- Stress affects our general happiness, meaning it changes our daily lives. Even though heart attacks seem like they’re years away, they might happen sooner due to stress.
- The way we react to stress shapes our experience with it. Our brain naturally reacts to stress by releasing cortisol, which causes most of the issues mentioned above.
- If we learn to approach stress as an obstacle that we can overcome rather than something impossible, we will start to change the way our brain and body naturally react to stress. That shift will lower our risk of getting heart and digestive issues, as well as increase our overall health in the long run.
I’m not telling you to eliminate every bit of stress in your life. There’s no actual way to do that (and if there is, you are magical and I need you to contact me right away).
MY RESPONSE: WHAT CAN WE DO?
Drinking, drugs, and giving up sometimes seem like the only easy options. But there are others. It is up to all of us to change how we deal with our stress and then encourage our friends, family, and everyone we know to do the same.
Since this whole project has been about stress and all of the horrible things it does to your body and brain, I invite you to watch this hilarious video (I mean, you might think it’s not that funny, but you’re wrong):
If you did watch the video, you’re probably wondering why I picked it. I’m sure almost everyone has gone through a day where literally nothing goes how we want it to go, just like Ellen describes. And no one I’ve ever met actually likes to talk about their stress.
Ellen brings humor into a stressful situation. Think about this: if you actually went through that scenario where you bought new clothes and they got soaked in soda and you couldn’t return them and you had to go home and make dinner and you still had hours of work to accomplish, you wouldn’t be laughing. But Ellen demonstrates how, even though these situations might feel like the end of the world, if you change your mindset and think more positively, they take on an entirely different meaning. You could go home and be more stressed out and cause yourself more pain. You could also go home and be annoyed but find yourself laughing about how ridiculous that shopping trip was. You can decide to make your day better.
Being in a better mood will increase your ability to actually get things done, so you’ll probably go to bed feeling more accomplished if you allow yourself to laugh about it. Furthermore, injecting positivity into your reaction to stressful situations will increase your overall health and help you avoid serious problems like heart attacks. However, I also understand that you can’t always laugh about every stressful situation.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Find a balance between work and doing stuff that you love.
- While this might feel like one of those “easier to say, harder to do” moments, it actually isn’t!
- Practice time management skills
- Make lists and prioritize your tasks…there might be some that you don’t need to do that day or that you can delegate to someone else.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself
- Don’t make a list with 20 things to accomplish in one day. Start with the 5 most important things and do those to the best of your ability. This should hopefully help you feel accomplished and allow you to find time to do something other than work.
- Include things you’ve already accomplished on your list (this is a tried and true trick of mine that always makes me feel more productive and less stressed…I can promise you that you’ve done more than you think!)
- Practice S.E.L.F care (I bet you’ve never seen it capitalized like this before!)
- S.E.L.F care stands for serenity, exercise, love, and food. This idea comes from a Time article linked below in my Works Cited and Consulted, and I think everyone should start practicing this!
- Taking just five minutes to find serenity through listening to music, meditating, or any other calming activity will re-boost your body and brain. We can all take five minutes to find our serenity.
- Exercise never fails to lower my stress. Some free apps that you can use for short workouts that I have used before and love include: 30 Day Workout Challenge (for those of you who like to commit), WorkoutWomen (this is an app composed of free workouts focussing on specific parts of your body/your whole body and that are under 20 minutes – it has a lot of emphasis on the booty and abs, so that’s why it has “Women” in the title), Seven – Quick at Home Workouts (this app has a seven minute workout that hits every part of your body), and Ab Workout (which has a variety of ab workouts ranging from easy to difficult and from 5 to 30 minutes).
- LOVE! I know it might sound stupid, but hear me out and then do it. Look at yourself in the mirror and list (out loud) five things you are grateful for (this can be about yourself or in general), five things you are proud of about yourself, and five things that you love about yourself. If this is difficult at first, do not fear. If you need to start with one of each and build up to five, do that. If you want to do more than five, go for it. If you can’t make eye contact with yourself, keep going until you can and then keep going after that. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, then don’t say it! It’s hard to start with “I love myself,” and I wouldn’t recommend starting there anyway (unless you do love yourself in which case go you!!!). Saying something like “I love how my laugh sounds” is a much easier thing to say and believe. You can build up to “I love myself.” There’s no deadline for this.
- And finally, probably the best thing, food. For this one, eat what makes you feel good. Cook your own food to give yourself that boost of accomplishment; bake your own sweets so that you know exactly what you’re eating. If you know you’re going to regret eating half of a cake later, then only eat a quarter of it. You get the point.
To focus us again: all of these things are about finding balance. We need these breaks to get through the day. If you allow yourself to do even one of these things, it will hopefully lower your stress, allowing you to look at the situation through a more rational mindset. Your reaction to the stressful situation will have changed, meaning you will have lessened your risk for heart diseases and your brain will be less likely to shrink.
If you are around your peers and can feel your stress rising, here are some things to do.
- Be conscious of how you speak about stress. Saying “I’m so stressed” will put that at the forefront of your mind rather than what you need to accomplish to overcome that stress. Also, if you think you’re stressed, you’ll be telling your brain that you’re stressed, and then you’ll most likely become even more stressed as your brain releases cortisol in response to that message.
- Encourage your peers to use constructive and productive language surrounding stress. Don’t talk about how stressed you are for the test. Talk about what the quadratic formula is or how blood flows through the heart.
- Try not to compare answers. If you’re like me and need to know the answer to a question, encourage your peers to start by describing how they did the problem rather than what they got. It will be more educational for everyone and hopefully less stressful. (You also might be listening and realize that peer made a mistake and your answer might be correct after all.)
- Eliminate the phrase “I’m so stressed” as much as you can from your vocabulary as well as your friends. You’re allowed to be stressed. You’re not allowed to make yourself more stressed than you need to be. As we’ve seen, that only causes more problems.
- Understand how your words could be affecting someone else. Besides, giving your peers pointers and reminding each other about what you need to know is WAY more useful than talking about how stressful this test or presentation is.
- Encouragement. If you say good luck to someone before a test, mean it.
- Last but not least for this category: respect your peers. If someone doesn’t want to talk about their answer or their presentation, don’t laugh at them. Also, make sure they’re out of each shot before you start discussing (if that’s something you do…you can always find me discussing answers the minute I step out of the classroom). Allow your peers to make that choice and don’t judge them for it. We’re all just trying to get by.
My final, general advice for how to lower your stress:
- Change your mindset by directing your feelings towards a more positive place. Stress is not the enemy. It isn’t something you have to defeat to get to the boss level. Stress is something everyone deals with, and approaching it with genuine feelings of compassion and ease will create an inner harmony that no one will be able to break.
- Find a confidante. Sometimes the only cure is to tell someone else about it.
- Take care of yourself. Do a face mask, go for a run, or spend an extra five minutes in the shower.
- Find an activity that you enjoy and try to fit it into your schedule.
- Only try to control what is controllable. You can’t change the weather, but you can change your coat.