Here’s how to cope with stressors many of us are facing.
This year has been stressful for most of us, and you’ve likely found yourself on edge more often than usual.
While the body’s stress response is often helpful in the short term, chronic stress can cause trouble in our relationships and contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
As we bid this stressful year adieu, checking in on your body’s stress burden and learning coping strategies to manage this burden could be the best thing you do to ensure your well-being in the year to come.
Stressing: What’s the point?
The stress response improves our mental and physical performance when we’re in danger. When faced with a tiger, for instance, our instincts kick in to either fight the beast or flee.
The sympathetic nervous system rapidly releases the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline, and the stress hormone cortisol is released upon activation of a neuroendocrine network called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This increases blood flow to the muscles, increases heart rate, and dilates the pupils to take in more of the scene.
But in modern-day life, most of our tigers overstay their welcome and come cloaked in the guise of a heavy workload, mortgage payments, and caring for kids and aging parents. While these repeated and chronic stressors don’t necessarily stir up fear for survival, the body responds as if it were in danger.
Despite the fight-or-flight response enhancing performance during an acute stressor, we don’t have a physiological mechanism that’s as effective for dealing with episodic and chronic stressors. In fact, prolonged activity of the HPA axis during ongoing stress has negative impacts on body function and is associated with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Acute stress is immediate and quickly resolved—think getting into a fender bender, giving a work presentation, or sustaining a minor injury.
Episodic stress repeats itself (for example, having a never-ending to-do list from a demanding boss). This can make you feel tense and like you’re constantly putting out fires.
Chronic stress arises from serious, ongoing problems that might be outside of our control, such as processing childhood trauma, being subjected to racism, or caring for a parent with dementia.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of stress is your secret weapon for getting a head start on addressing the problem. Research has shown that stress affects the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems, as well as the brain, causing myriad emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms.
When you’re stressed, for instance, you might feel more irritated by minor inconveniences than usual, notice more hair on the shower floor, and find comfort at the bottom of your favorite vintage. Stress looks different for everyone.
For predictable stressors, such as a yearly performance review or a visit from your less-than-cordial in-laws, prevention really is the best medicine. Putting a plan in place for how to deal with a stressor can help you weather the storm.
But for the stressors that crop up without warning, it’s our coping style that makes the difference. If we magnify a problem and make it out to be more than it is, ruminate on it, or feel helpless, these negative coping strategies may actually intensify cortisol secretion and condition us to have an exaggerated physiological stress response the next time we’re faced with a stressor.
We can minimize the extent to which an unforeseen stressor causes us stress by addressing it directly, adopting healthy coping practices, and asking for help. These techniques minimize cortisol secretion and prevent stress from turning into a chronic condition.
Reaching for junk food, caffeine, alcohol, or cigarettes is a common but detrimental coping mechanism. Stress is a key risk factor in the development of addictions, which is partially mediated by cortisol’s interactions with the brain’s reward system.
Keeping caffeine intake to a minimum is a good starting place, as caffeine use is associated with higher stress and anxiety, and both stress and nicotine encourage higher alcohol use.
Be mindful of your food cravings as well—high levels of stress change eating patterns and increase consumption of highly palatable foods, such as processed foods loaded with sugar, fat, and salt, which are often detrimental to health.
Enjoying regular, nutritious meals is foundational for preventing and managing stress. When you sit down for your meals, feel and express gratitude for the meal you’re about to enjoy.
Once you dig in, check to see if you’re chewing your food well or swallowing after a few cursory chomps. Chewing has been shown to lower cortisol and promote stress relief.
Call in backup
Supplements and herbs can also help your body cope with stress. Insomnia is a common sign of stress, and it can be caused by changes in the HPA axis that hinder melatonin release.
Supplemental melatonin may help re-establish a natural circadian rhythm and improve sleep onset. B vitamins help reduce stress and improve energy production.
Herbs known as adaptogens are also helpful for adapting to stress and may reduce fatigue, decrease depression and anxiety, and enhance cognitive function by bringing the HPA axis back into working order. Some of the best adaptogens are <Panax ginseng>, ashwagandha, and <rhodiola rosea>.
Panax ginseng has been shown to reduce the subjective perception of stress and improve performance and memory.
Ashwagandha can reduce cortisol, stress, and anxiety and might be indicated for those who also struggle with depression, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and male infertility.
Rhodiola rosea is traditionally used to help cope with psychological stress and is helpful for managing symptoms of burnout.
To optimize concentration at work, consider keeping bacopa or L-theanine at your desk. Bacopa is a nootropic herb that may enhance memory. L-theanine is a compound found in tea leaves that improves cognitive performance and alertness while reducing heart rate during acute stress.
As always, consult with your health-care practitioner to determine what’s safe and effective for you specifically. Working with a practitioner can also help address stress-related diseases such as thyroid disorders, hormonal imbalance, autoimmunity, and gut dysfunction to ensure you’re facing your body’s stress burden head-on.
Can stress ever be good for you?
- The fight-or-flight response is a built-in survival mechanism that increases mental and physical performance to fight dangerous animals, avoid car accidents, and even rock a work presentation.
- Certain stressful situations, such as taking a test, can improve memory.
- Positive stress at work, like a “good challenge,” is associated with reduced fatigue, increased happiness, and a better sense of meaning.
Your body on stress
|Emotional symptoms||Cognitive symptoms||Physical signs||Behavioral symptoms|
low sexual desire
high blood pressure
|reliance on alcohol/substances