Stress can be many things, and according to The National Institute of Mental Health, stress is “the brain’s response to any demand”. This means that it’s not all bad, and that it is a natural process.
It can be the feeling you get after walking straight into the road without looking, automatically jumping back when you hear the sound of a car horn. That’s a good kind of stress – adrenaline, that keeps you alive. You can also feel stress before a presentation, you can’t sit still, you are sweating and shaking. This helps you focus, and might actually be a good thing. What these two have in common is that the stress is short term. It goes away the moment you are safe back on the pavement, or the moment the presentation is over and you can finally breathe again. But what about that other kind of stress? The one that stays for days. What does it do, why is it there, and how can we make it go away?
Our body and mind develop slowly, evolutionary speaking. The fact that our work routines, economy, technology and lifestyle have changed radically in the last hundred years does not mean our survival instinct has changed just yet.
Our primal instinct is to survive. That’s it. So when you stress about work, stress about bills, stress about school, your body can’t tell the difference from a report not being delivered on time and a wild animal coming to attack you. But if the report keeps swimming around in your mind for days, it can actually cause harm.
Our primal instinct is to survive
It starts with the amygdala, that sends a signal to the hypothalamus, then through the nervous system your brain sends a signal to the body that says “fight or flight”. This is when your heart rate is up, cortisol is released and you feel the rush of adrenaline. Cortisol is often named the bad guy in this process, and when we are talking chronic terms, then yes, that is correct. Cortisol has many functions, but in regards to stress, it helps the body to get back to a normal state after the “fight-or-flight” kick. But when you never come down for days, cortisol can affect your brain, and actually make you predisposed for the “fight-or-flight” response. This sounds like a bad cycle.
So what can you do to break the cycle of internal stress?
If you are constantly stressing, be aware of what is happening, and make a personal choice to try to improve it
Luckily, both the brain and body are amazing at recovery after chronic stress. What helps a person to be calm and relaxed is very individual, and there is not one way to recover from stress. The main thing is to be aware of your mental state. If you are constantly stressing, be aware of what is happening, and make a choice to try to improve it. That is step one. Step two is where the personal preference comes in, and in my experience, the following are the top five things that helps reduce stress. Read through, choose what speaks to you, and try it for a duration of time. Sometimes it takes more than a day or a week, but don’t give up on yourself, that is the most important thing:
- Snap out of dwelling on the past or worrying about your future. Allow yourself 10 minutes each day to plan the week or do necessary planning for the future, but then stop and start to focus on today.
- Meditate. Give yourself ten minutes each day to just lie/sit and breathe. Focus on your breathing. Every time during the day that you feel your heart starts racing, take ten deep breaths.
- Take a walk or exercise. Movement can reduce stress, and you will also feel better with some endorphins running through you. However – someone might feel more anxiety from heavy workouts that makes your heart go very fast, because the physical feeling of stress is the same for your brain. Choose an activity that makes you feel good, and for some that might be to take a slow walk or do yoga, for others it might be CrossFit or running.
- Write a list with everything that worries you or causes you stress. See if there is anything you can do something about right now and then do it. If there is something that you can’t do anything about right now, then leave it on the paper, don’t take it back into your mind. Let it stay on the paper until you can so something about it. But remember: if you have a to-do list, start small and be happy with doing just one thing. Don’t feel like you have to do it all at once, which will leave you overwhelmed and paralyzed. Maybe just do one think each day, or give yourself a 15 minute window to be productive each day. It’s all about the small steps and not having to do it all at once.
- Listen to music or call someone. Both music and socializing can reduce stress. The important thing is to choose the one you feel is right for you, and not the one you think you “should” do.
It all comes down to taking care of yourself and listening to your own needs. Be kind to yourself. Also, make sure you try to stay in the moment if the future worries you, that you let go of some of the self-made pressure and all the “should haves” and that you prioritize time for your wellbeing.
And remember, the feeling s you are feeling are just an over-active amygdala that thinks there is a lion chasing you for days. Maybe it’s time to tell it that you are safe.
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The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain, Health and Human Services.