If you’ve ever experienced any kind of stress, you know that it can have detrimental effects.
The initial results of stress, while generally temporary, are unpleasant. Tight muscles, racing heart, headaches, neck pain—these can all be alleviated fairly quickly.
It’s when the stress becomes prolonged or ongoing that it can become a major problem. Those little effects turn into bigger ones, creating more extreme reactions in our bodies.
Virtually all systems in our bodies are affected by stress.
But we can’t live our lives in a bubble. Being completely stress-free may sound nice in theory; however, stress is a part of life that can actually be harnessed in a productive way. Our aim is to learn how to manage stress daily so that we become more resilient and effective as we learn what stress has to teach us.
Thankfully, we can find ways to cope with stress and prevent it from accumulating in our bodies, resulting in negative long-term effects.
Let’s take a look at the body’s response and how to overcome stress.
Stress and Physical Symptoms
When our bodies are faced with stress, they react as if we are under a life-or-death threat even though most of the time the situation isn’t that dire. Sometimes we may not necessarily feel stressed, yet symptoms that our body is in fight-or-flight mode will manifest in one way or another.
It’s virtually impossible to experience mental stress without having physical symptoms as well. Our bodies are designed in such an interconnected way that the mental affects the physical and vice versa.
That being said, each person processes stress differently.
When under stress, the brain sends a signal to your body that there is a threat. This sends your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, releasing an excess amount of stress hormones.
You may have heard of cortisol, often called the stress hormone. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that helps regulate blood sugar and metabolism, control blood pressure, and reduce inflammation.
When cortisol levels are balanced, the body can function properly. But when in fight-or-flight mode, cortisol shuts down systems in the body that are unnecessary in crisis, like digestion. That’s why we sometimes don’t feel hungry during times of extreme stress.
Prolonged Fight-or-Flight Mode
When cortisol and other hormones are consistently released due to long-term stress you are at risk for a host of further health concerns:
- Digestive issues
- Memory and focus issues
- Heart disease
- Weight gain
Stress itself is bad enough, but when it’s ongoing, the constant fight-or-flight response takes it to another level. Issues like depression and anxiety cause even further stress, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
It’s best to pay attention to signs of stress in your body and stop these issues before they start. But just how do we go about that and learn how to overcome stress?
How to Overcome Stress and Keep it from Winning
When you are aware of your body’s responses to stress, you can effectively nip it in the bud. No one wants to be overcome by anxiety or depression, so how can you prevent it?
Your brain and your body can be re-trained to react differently to stressful situations. Did you know that you can actually change your brain chemistry to teach it a different response to stress?
When you are in a stressful or anxious situation and believe that it won’t change, you’re telling your brain that you’re stuck. Having that “stuck” mindset only causes you further anxiety.
But if you tell yourself that your situation is a challenge, a learning experience, you’ll be able to view it as a growth opportunity. Tell yourself it’s not a threat, and your brain will begin to believe it.
There are also physical practices, such as breathing techniques, that literally shift your body out of fight-or-flight and into rest-and-digest mode.
In initiating this mental and physical switch, you begin to transition from the sympathetic nervous system—which prepares your body to run or fight—to the parasympathetic, which allows your body to “rest and digest.” This calls upon the part of your nervous system that is responsible for processing stress so that it doesn’t shut your body down now or in the long term.
If you’re experiencing stress, don’t let that fact add to your worries. Just like any tough situation in life, what you go through will make you stronger as long as you process it well.
Take your stressful situation and learn from it; use it to grow. Learn from it for the next time something comes up—and remind yourself that you are building your capacity to use stress effectively.
Methods to Transform Stress
Once you’ve changed your thinking, you can move on to other coping mechanisms that will help you deal with the effects of stress. Let’s take a look at a few practices that will relax you and help you transition.
- Deep Breathing
Taking slow, steady breaths is the most immediate way to calm yourself down. Stress and anxiety can actually tighten muscles in the abdomen, leading to shallow breathing. Concentrate on taking deep breaths into your lower lungs, watching your stomach expand (click here for a video tutorial).
We know that exercising causes the brain to release endorphins, among other “feel-good” chemicals. These hormones not only make you feel happier, they counteract the effects of stress hormones! Plus, you’ll maximize the positive impact of exercise if you do it in nature.
In addition, exercise can help your body balance its hormones, which improves your mindset and outlook. The slow, steady movements of yoga not only provide exercise but improve your breathing as well.
There’s a reason why loved ones have the inclination to hug us when we’re down. Hugs can stimulate oxytocin, which not only makes you feel happier but also reduces cortisol levels. Even hugging a pet can help!
Creativity and artistic expression are stress relievers as well; so is taking a warm bath. Reading and listening to music can help take the edge off as well.
Acts of kindness take the focus off you and release oxytocin and serotonin. Do something nice for someone even if you’re not in the mood, and you’ll show others how to overcome stress.
These are just a few ideas to help you deal with stress. Find something you enjoy that relaxes you and make that your go-to when you feel the tension.
Stress is unavoidable, but its effects aren’t.
Stress and its effects can be prevented and overcome. Since stress is a certainty in life, process it before it lingers and turns into something worse. Your mind and body will thank you.
Photo credit: Ben White