What do you think of when you think of stress?
Sleepless nights awaiting important test results? Tension headaches and coffee to survive work?
Stress is tough to define but you know it when you feel it.
Researchers describe stress as any situation that would cause most people to feel stressed. Situations that cause these feelings are defined as stressors.
Stressors: Acute vs. Chronic
Stressors generally fall into two categories, acute and chronic.
Acute stressors include things like traffic jams, job interviews, or public speaking.
Once your brain perceives a situation to be stressful, hormones are released that increase your blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood pressure.
In the short term, these changes are good.
They fuel your heart, brain, and muscles more efficiently. As a result, every sense sharpens. Your muscles prepare to react. You slam on the brakes, ace the interview, or rock the presentation.
The stressful situation ends, and everything in your body returns to normal.
Unlike acute stressors, chronic stressors don’t have a clear end in sight. Consider the stress of saving for retirement, managing a health condition, or caring for aging parents.
Some of the most common stressors are related to finances, work, relationships, health, and politics.
Feeling chronically stressed activates your stress response for much longer than nature intended. And this constant state of being on guard is no good.
It triggers your immune system in ways that might erase years from your life.
What Stress Does to Your Immune System
Your immune system is a complex collection of cells, tissues, and organs working to protect you from illness, injury, and/or death. When threatened, your immune system responds to keep you healthy.
Remember the last time you had a paper cut?
The painful swelling and redness you likely experienced are thanks to your body’s immune response. As soon as your skin is injured, your immune system goes on the defensive. White blood cells are released. Your body temperature increases. Inflammation occurs at the site of the injury.
These changes happen to prevent infection and promote healing. So once the threat passes, everything should return to normal. Well, what happens if the threat never passes?
Enter chronic stress.
Under stress, the hormones your body releases trigger the immune response described above. Except for this time, inflammation happens throughout the body.
And it continues as long as you feel stressed.
Chronic stress also suppresses other parts of the immune response. Stress could be making your immune system less effective at warding off infections, allergies, and/or illness.
Scientists continue to debate the specifics of how stress influences the immune system. However, many researchers agree chronic stress is making most US adults ill. Up to 90% of doctor visits are for stress-related symptoms or illnesses.
Therefore, learning to manage stress is an important tool for dealing which chronic stressors before they deal with you.
What are Effective Ways to Reduce Stress?
While you can’t always get rid of the circumstances that stress you out, you can choose how to respond to them.
Read on for four simple suggestions for better managing stress.
Did you know that physical activity can reduce stress’s effects on your body?
Exercise can lower blood pressure and inflammation, two side effects of a chronic stress response.
Other benefits include:
- Improved sleep quality
- Elevated mood
- Increased energy
- Enhanced insulin sensitivity
30 minutes of cardio most days and strength training two times per week is recommended for best results.
But any physical activity is better than none.
A quick walk after dinner, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking further away are all ways to squeeze in more steps.
Even 10 minutes of walking has been shown to decrease blood pressure. If it works better for your schedule, break up 30 minutes of cardio into 10-minute bouts throughout your day.
To make a new exercise habit stick, pay attention to how you feel when you exercise and when you don’t.
Connect your activity levels to specific benefits, and you will find more motivation to keep it up.
Make Time for Quiet
With the non-stop pace that many of us are accustomed to, it can be easy to overlook the importance of creating time and space for quiet and reflection.
Even in the midst of stressful seasons, finding time to pray, meditate, and/or journal can do wonders for stress relief.
Journaling may also help reduce negative emotions about stressful situations.
Whatever approach works for you, fostering more positive emotions is a great tool for coping with life’s greatest stressors and leading a healthier life. In fact, studies show that optimists live longer and have a lower risk of certain health problems.
Aside from boosting mood, meditation and prayer reduce the effects of stress on the body.
These practices help your body cope with stress, so it doesn’t wear you down as much.
You can pray, journal, or meditate anywhere, anytime. Like physical activity, the more you do it, the more likely you are to reap these impressive benefits.
Self-care describes personal practices that help you meet your basic needs so you are better equipped to handle stressful times.
So what does self-care look like?
While we all have the same basic needs, how we take care of ourselves to best meet them varies from person to person. For some people, getting enough sleep means turning in early instead of staying out late when they know they need rest.
Perhaps you practice self-care by packing a healthy lunch instead of hitting the drive-thru. Nutritious eating can protect your body from some of the harmful effects of stress. For example, fish oil, rich in omega 3’s, has been shown to reduce stress levels.
Many people respond to stress by doing the exact opposite of what their bodies need the most. They sleep less, make fewer healthy food choices, and cut back on exercise.
Prioritizing these areas of your life, even during high-stress times, can better equip you to cope with life’s challenges.
Invest in Healthy Relationships
Social support is one of the greatest buffers against stress. But often when high-stress moments kick in, relationships are the first to suffer. Many people respond to stress by withdrawing from friends and family.
But in an increasingly disconnected society, it's important now more than ever to invest in healthy relationships.
Having positive relationships and maintaining them helps you cope with stress. You may enjoy a better mood, lower blood pressure levels, and find it easier to stick to healthy habits.
Phone a friend. Join an exercise class. Plan a weekly walk or dinner night with someone you care about. Volunteer for a cause that moves you.
These are all ways to cultivate those important connections in your life and boost your ability to deal with stress.