How understanding stress can help you handle it better

We’ve all felt stressed at some time in our lives, and likely you’ve been stressed many times, probably even today or this week. From hunger to worry, stress is a response to challenges your body and mind face. But what’s happening to your brain and body when you feel stress?

To determine the proper coping skills to handle stress, you need to understand what causes it. “Although many different challenges can cause stress, there’s a similar pattern in the brain response to these varied stressors,” says Alicia Walf, a senior lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a neuroscientist who’s been studying the hormonal mechanisms of stress as they relate to behavior and cognition, and the health of the body and brain. Let’s delve deeper into your stress response, so you can develop your own stress response system.

The science of stress

So what happens internally when you feel stress? Our EXOS recovery philosophy considers the impacts of the stress load on one or more biological systems, neural, mechanical, metabolic, and psychological. According to Walf, the response to these stress loads will trigger three interacting components: hormonal, cognitive, and physiological.

“A typical way to think about the stress response is that it’s triggered by what you sense,” says Walf. “Through external and internal senses, specific areas of the brain are activated – many of which are in different regions of the cortex that are specialized for external senses or the limbic system for internal senses.”

In addition to the parts of your brain that work with your senses, one of those activated areas is the hippocampus, which is related to memories and thoughts. The memory, thought, and sense regions then send signals to the hypothalamus, a brain structure that’s involved in hormone responses.

“The hypothalamus then triggers a cascade of hormones that are released from your pituitary gland,” says Walf. “These hormones enter the bloodstream where they signal the adrenal glands to cortisol and adrenaline into the blood supply. These hormones have physiological effects in your body, such as quickening the heart rate, and effects in the brain to alter cognition.”

The stress response tells us when we’re unbalanced, and when we rebalance that stress response ends.

For short-term stress, there’s a feedback mechanism to tell the stress hormones to cycle through and the hypothalamus shuts down the stress response. So the stress response tells us when we’re unbalanced, and when we rebalance that stress response ends. However, chronic stress is different. “Situations of chronic or unrelenting stress are associated with premature aging, emotional disturbances, and other negative health consequences,” says Walf.

Understanding stress in your daily life

Now that you know the science behind stress, it’s easy to see how uncontrolled stress can take a toll on your life. These hormonal, neurological, and physical changes can manifest as outward signs that you need to take more time for relaxation and recovery.

For many people, the emotions associated with stress are the most noticeable sign. “Unrelenting stress and trauma can produce dysregulations in emotions,” says Walf. “We’re hard-wired to pay attention to these negative emotions because they can keep us safe at the moment.”

High stress can also make it difficult to make decisions. “High levels of stress over time can damage and diminish the hippocampus,” says Tiffany Grimm, director of recovery at EXOS. “During acute stress, the amygdala will deactivate the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that remembers right versus wrong and makes rational decisions.”

Stress can also come into play in relationships. “Stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones puts you in a fight, fight, or freeze situation where you’re not able to make rational decisions or think clearly,” says Grimm. This may cause you to have a hard time communicating or you may project underlying emotions onto partners, friends, co-workers, and others around you.

The good news: Bad reactions to stress aren’t set in stone. With the right preparation, you can develop skills to avoid fight-or-flight. “Though a performance mindset, you can consciously interrupt these detrimental patterns of fight, flight, or freeze and implement new neural pathways,” says Grimm. “It takes conscious interruption and a library of strategies to manage patterns that you’ve been stuck in for some time.”

One alternative option to use is the tend-and-befriend model, according to Walf. This means you deal with stress by turning to others for support (friend) or taking care of others (tend). “Having positive social interactions is key, though, for these to be helpful in reducing stress, says Walf. “Research shows having negative social interactions, and even ambivalent ones, can increase stress.”

Healthy stress

How often have you thought, “I’m so glad to be stressed”? Never? Get ready, this may just change your perception. While most people think of stress as a negative, it can actually have a helpful purpose.

Even positive experiences can produce stress. Think of things like moving to a new city, planning a big vacation, getting married, or having a baby. These are all major changes to routine that can be stressful, but you still view these things in a positive light because they’re rewarding or important. This type of stress is called eustress.

Major changes to routine that can be stressful, but you still view these things in a positive light because they’re rewarding or important.

“Many situations that produce stress are unavoidable and there are even ones you seek out,” says Walf. “If you only focus on how to avoid or reduce negative stress effects, then you’re missing out on the growth potential that eustress can provide or the warning signs that stress provides you to keep you safe.”

Eustress can cause the same hormonal, physiological, and cognitive reactions as other stress, but it’s about context. If you view the stress as worthwhile, your brain differentiates and this leads to different cognitive and behavioral responses. “This is exciting because it reminds you that your cognitions provide a major source of context, and you can have some control over whether you may experience distress or eustress,” says Walf.

Practical ways to keep optimal stress levels

Living a stress-free life isn’t practical, but there are ways to respond to your stress when it’s too high. It’s all about building resilience, finding ways to minimize the negative effects, and taking full advantage of the positive effects.

“Finding your optimal stress zone is a way to focus on the good aspects of stress,” says Walf. “Your optimal stress zone is where you’re in a good flow to perform tasks. This zone varies between people, and even varies depending on how you’re feeling that day.” When you’re in this zone, you’re challenged enough to be inspired to tackle your to-do list without being burned out. 

When you’re not in your optimal stress zone, use these tips from Walf and Grimm to center yourself:

  • Connect with yourself. Work on your self-awareness so you can better recognize times that you’re stressed, and, even more importantly, when you’re not stressed. That way you can maximize the things that reduce your stress. Try this body scan exercise to turn your focus internally.
  • Connect with others. One of the most powerful ways to reduce stress is to reach out to others who provide a positive impact in your life. Send someone a quick text, call a loved one on the phone, or do something for someone to bring a smile to their face (and yours).
  • Connect with nature. It’s been scientifically proven that putting your bare feet on the earth transfers surface electrons from the earth into the body, which in turn helps to settle the nervous system, create better blood flow, and induce a parasympathetic response.
  • Reframe your thinking. Your stress response can be largely based on present context and past experiences. If you’re able to reframe your thinking and change your focus, you can change your stress response, too.
  • Shift the stress. Need a quick reset? If you can’t get in a quiet place to center yourself, don’t worry. You can still find ways to shift your focus by moving your body, even if the TV is blaring or there are kids making noise in the background. See the moves.
  • Be creative. Our brains are wonderful tools of creation. But that doesn’t mean you need to paint the next Mona Lisa to get the benefit. It can be as simple as taking a new route on your walk or trying a new recipe.
  • Try breathing exercises. The way you breathe can calm you down and improve your health and performance. Certain breathing techniques can help you take control of your stress by calming your mind, like this one.
  • Take care of your body and brain. Responding better to stress can also be preventative. Eating right, hydrating often, exercising regularly, and sleeping well provide a healthy foundation for you to be in balance and better equipped to deal with stress.
  • Go narrow, go wide. Feeling overwhelmed by your emotions? Try this meditation to get a handle on how you’re feeling by turning inward, and then shifting to focus outward to reconnect with yourself and the world around you.
  • Be BOLD. This resilience strategy turns on your parasympathetic nervous system with four steps: Breathe deeply, observe, listen to your values, decide and take action. Follow along with the exercise here.
  • Attack it from all angles. Stress doesn’t come from just one source, and that means there are multiple ways to combat it. Add stress-reducing foods to your meal plan, or try a supplement like Onnit’s New Mood.

Looking for other ways to better handle your stress while working from home? Learn how to get better sleep and improve your recovery.

About the Author

Kelsey Webb

As an editorial assistant at EXOS, I'm eager to help others improve every aspect of their lives through healthy living. I enjoy bringing effective strategies and information to light by working with experts in all fields.

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