Stress is rush hour traffic when you’re late, an argument with a family member, or persistent employment worries. It’s the unknowns of a medical diagnosis, the demands of caring for an aging parent, or the looming stack of overdue bills.
While the triggers may be different, any situation we perceive as threatening, or that requires us to adjust or change, can set off stress. It often creeps in quietly through the back door and before we know it we feel overwhelmed with the burdens that have seemingly mounded up from nowhere.
Researchers are beginning to understand the long-term effects of stress on our physical and psychological health . While stress may be inevitable, it is possible to control the way our body reacts to the toxins of stress.
Deep breathing and sleep are the two things that our body needs most to recharge, yet stress keeps us from making them a priority. It is a natural tendency for us to either hold our breath or take short shallow breaths when we feel stressed. Breathing deeply is a cleansing process that helps to lower cortisol levels and redirect our focus – both of which can help reduce stress and anxiety. Sleep, on the other hand, increases brain function and our ability to problem solve. Studies show that the recommended 8 hours of sleep allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to refresh resulting in improved memory, judgment, and mood.
The average person spends about 16 hours a day plugged in to electronics. Whether it is the TV, social media, or a smartphone the research links increases in stress to screen time. Lowering your stress can be as easy as flipping a switch. Start tracking your media time to see if it’s a real contributor. If the thought of being without your phone causes your heart rate to spike it may be time for a media detox. Start small with ditching the TV for an evening, skipping social media for a day, or having a cell phone-free weekend. See how it makes you feel. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Write it, say it, but find a way to express it. Whether you prefer to record your feelings on paper or use your partner as a sounding board; letting those bottled-up feelings have a voice alleviates negative stress, improves our ability to let go of our anxieties, and brings clarity to our thoughts. And while you’re pushing those negative thoughts out, try replacing them with feelings of gratitude. Gratitude is shown to help us become more resilient to stress. People who are grateful recover more quickly and cope more effectively with life’s difficulties.
Stress becomes toxic when we imagine or anticipate a threat that most likely will not happen. Accepting the toxic worry leads to a negative stress cycle that can be self-perpetuating. Recognizing what is imagined worry and what is reality is key in creating a healthy stress balance. Good stress helps us anticipate what really might happen and come up with possible solutions so that we are prepared. Toxic worry only creates additional problems.
Spend time reflecting on the real problem – what is rational and irrational – and finding practical solutions. Meditation or prayer allows us to organize our thoughts and sluff off what is non-essential. Some solutions may consist of strategies to break stress down into manageable chunks and setting realistic expectations. Sometimes just having a plan to tackle the stress makes a world of difference.
Stress is part of life, but we can choose how to handle negative stress when we encounter it. Accepting what you can’t change and work in healthy ways to resolve stressful situations is often the best course to follow.
 “Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).” [“Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. March 18, 2016. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response]
 Moin, Kate. “23 Science-Backed Ways to Reduce Stress Right Now.” http://greatist.com/happiness/23-scientifically-backed-ways-reduce-stress-right-now
 “Stress in America 2013.” American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep.aspx
 Mozes, Alan. “Your Smartphone May Be Stressing You Out.” Every Day Health News. January 12, 2012. http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/0112/your-smartphone-may-be-stressing-you-out.aspx
 Thorpe, JR. “6 Ways Gratitude Affects Your Brain.” Nov. 13,2015. https://www.bustle.com/articles/123590-6-ways-gratitude-affects-your-brain
“Stress Management.” Harvard ManageMentor. Harvard Business School of Publishing. 2007
This article was originally published in January on Make It Ultra Psychology.
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