Stress has been around since the beginning of human civilization. Just like people, stress has evolved over time, as our society has grown and advanced. It seems like stress typically has a negative connotation because it can often feel uncomfortable to be “stressed out”. However, stress was originally, and still is, a mechanism to keep us safe. When our ancestors had to hunt and gather for food, the feeling of stress could protect them from a life or death situation, like being eaten by a bear. Can you imagine perusing the local grocery store while having a bear chase you, navigating all of the people and carts and trying to ward off the shock of high grocery prices? It makes me sweat just thinking about it. Luckily, today, the threat of being eaten by a bear is less common, but stress does still exist to protect us and help motivate us to get things done.
Stress isn’t always “bad”
It is important to note that stress is not inherently “bad”, but when we do not have the proper tools to manage stress or stress becomes chronic, that is when it can have a negative impact on our health and well-being. Stress serves a purpose to help us survive, function and thrive. It is a normal biological and psychological response to a perceived threat, real or imagined. This response requires mental, physical, and emotional resources to adapt to the new, unexpected and/or challenging situation.
What’s the science behind stress?
A perceived threat, real or imagined, initiates the stress response also knows as “fight, flight or freeze” which is started by the sympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic nervous system works to restore balance. It is important for you to understand that these systems operate automatically. When a person perceives a threat, their sympathetic nervous system takes control and the higher functioning (logical thinking) areas of the brain are hijacked and unable to function well. Simply put, the more we react to threats, real or imagined, the more the sympathetic nervous system develops and the more the parasympathetic nervous system is pruned. As the survival response strengthens and the calming response weakens our “fight, flight or freeze” response happens more frequently with more intensity, even to smaller stressors. While this can seem overwhelming, the good news is there are many way to manage stress!
Stress prevention vs. stress relief
When thinking about stress management, I often think about it in two ways – stress prevention and stress relief. Stress prevention includes things we can do on a daily basis that help prepare our bodies to take on stress and manage it in a healthy manner. For instance, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and getting physical exercise. Stress relief refers to tactics we can use in the moments when we feel acute stress, like when we are trying to get dinner on the table, finish one last work email and the kids need help with their homework or driving on I-485 during rush hour or when we are called into the boss’s office unannounced. Acute stress is an inevitable part of life, so it is important to know how to deal with it when it happens.
Tips to prevent stress
I think of stress prevention as an investment. You are investing in your well-being to help protect yourself from accumulated stress and increase your ability to cope. Ways to engage in stress prevention include:
- Take care of your body (eat well, exercise, get enough sleep)
- Stay connected (spend time with people who are enjoyable, low-stress and supportive)
- Find community & belonging
- Make time for enjoyment & play (you do not always need to be doing something considered productive)
- Take time away (UNPLUG)
- (Learn to) Say “no”
- Practice gratitude
- Engage in expressive practices (journaling, creative writing, art, dance, music)
- Practice mindfulness & relaxation (breathing exercises, mindfulness & meditation)
Stress relief (things you can do when you experience acute stress) include:
- Take a deep breath. Just five minutes of breathing exercises a day has been shown to improve mood and anxiety. To help regulate your breathing, practice box breathing – inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold for four counts.
- Move your body. Going for a walk or jog can be meditative.
- Don’t suffer in silence. Talk about it, even if you feel like the problem can’t be solved. When you talk about the stressors, your body releases hormones that help reduce negative feelings associated with stress. If no one is available to talk, write it down.
- Prioritize your basic needs first, and then examine the next steps. Set small manageable goals.
- Keep a balanced schedule and avoid throwing all of your attention into managing the stressor. Being able to step away from a stressful project or situation is necessary to maintain a healthy balance.
- Be aware of irrational thoughts. If you are assuming the worst possible outcome, chances are there are other less extreme outcomes that could possibly happen. Sit down and break down the different scenarios. Or put the thought “on trial” by examining the evidence – not your feelings – for and against the thought.
So during Stress Awareness Month, remember there are many things you can do to combat stress and prevent it from becoming problematic. You have the power to reshape your brain and it is never too late to learn new things or change old patterns.
How to get involved with HopeWay
- Follow HopeWay on social media (@HopeWayCLT)
- Spread the word about HopeWay
- Donate time, services, or money
- Attend a HopeWay event
For More Information: HopeWay is located at 1717 Sharon Road West in Charlotte. For more information, visit hopeway.org or call 1-844-HOPEWAY.
HopeWay is an accredited nonprofit mental health treatment center for adults in Charlotte, N.C. that serves clients from North Carolina and across the nation. HopeWay’s continuum of care meets the needs of adults living with mental illness and their families with residential care and outpatient treatment options as well as after-care planning, with a goal of helping clients live healthy and fulfilling lives. In addition, HopeWay offers evidence-based PTSD treatment for Veterans and has an outpatient clinic, HopeWay Psychiatry & Associates to provide services to children, adolescents and adults. To learn more, visit www.hopeway.org