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  • Writer's pictureElise Johnson

6 Ways to Avoid Chronic Stress

Updated: 3 days ago

We generally think of stress as a blanket term, but in reality, stress shows up in many forms and can impact our well-being in more ways than we realize.

First off, let’s define stress. Put simply, stress is a reaction to a change or challenge.

In more detailed terms, stress happens when you experience a stimulus that triggers your brain enough to send specific signals and chemicals throughout your nervous system. When this happens, your adrenal glands which sit on top of your kidneys release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which set off a series of events that alert your entire body that “danger” is present. As these hormones course through our bodies, they can cause an array of side effects.

Sweaty palms, an uneasy stomach, and general nervousness are all symptoms that we recognize. They might pop up on a first date, before a presentation, or as you’re about to get on a rollercoaster. These are all forms of acute stress, or short-term stress. Our body is equipped to handle acute stress because it’s only temporary.

Chronic stress is what can cause issues. Poverty, discrimination, abusive relationships, and stressful jobs can all be sources of chronic stress. In fact, even if you experience acute stress frequently enough, it can turn into chronic stress.

Why is chronic stress so much worse for the body? Basically, the longer and more frequently you experience stress, the more your body has to adjust to keep functioning normally. Over time, your resting heart rate will increase, as will your blood pressure, breathing rate, and levels of muscle tension. In other words, chronic stress creates a new “normal” inside your body, which can lead to serious health consequences.

How do you feel like stress affects your life? What about your physical health? Do you feel like you regularly experience symptoms of stress?

Let’s explore how stress manifests in your body. Our bodies are equipped to handle stress in small, temporary doses, but when that stress becomes frequent or hangs along for too long, it can have serious effects on your body.

A graphic of a young woman holding flowers. The graphic has a Fred Rogers quote in the middle: Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feeling, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.
World Mental Health Day

Here are some ways that stress can present itself:

Sore Muscles - When the body senses danger, it gets tense and muscles brace for impact. When the body experiences frequent or chronic stress, muscles are constantly on guard, staying tense and taut for long periods of time. This can trigger many reactions in the body, including chronic pain and musculoskeletal disorders. If you’re feeling tense and sore more often than not, take steps to reduce tension. If massages are available to you, get them frequently. Otherwise, spend time stretching, using a foam roller, or just staying active in a way that can help melt some of that pent-up tension away. Another note: if you feel like you’re jumping at every sudden sound or movement, that’s a good sign that you’re dealing with too much stress.

Skin Conditions - The cortisol released by the stress response can prompt an immune response that leads to skin sensitivity. This can cause a flare-up in many inflammatory skin conditions including acne, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and hives.

Digestive Issues - Stress hormones can affect how quickly the food moves through the body and what nutrients the intestines absorb. This means that issues like stomach pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea can often be a side effect of excessive stress.

Weight Gain - Did you know that eating foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates can actually temporarily create feel-good hormones in the body? When we’re stressed, our bodies crave foods that can give us quick and easy energy, like a candy bar or a bagel. Unfortunately, these foods are only a “quick fix” and don’t fill us up, so we can eat more and more without feeling truly full. Oh, and did I mention that cortisol (the hormone that’s released when you’re stressed) also slows your metabolism? So even if you’re actively working to lose weight, stress can interfere with weight management.

Heart Disease - The heart and blood vessels work together to provide nourishment and oxygen to the organs in your body. When the body experiences stress, the heart rate increases, the heart contracts more rapidly, and blood vessels dilate, elevating blood pressure and triggering the “fight or flight” response. If the body is frequently experiencing a state of fight or flight, aka chronic stress, it takes a toll on the body and can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.

Here are six ways you can avoid chronic stress becoming your new normal:

1) Understand the “stress cycle.” Stressors are the triggers in the world that activate the stress response inside your body. Stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens inside your body when you encounter a stressor. Due to survival instinct, the stress response makes our hearts beat faster, pushes blood into our muscles, and helps us breathe more quickly. This complex, multi-system response has one goal: to move oxygen and fuel to our muscles and help us escape the threat. Over the years, those threats have changed. Instead of being chased by boars, we react to the stress of sitting in traffic, resenting our jobs, or battling low self-esteem. In the modern-day, our stress is much more nuanced, and our methods for coping with stress are far less cut and dry than “slaughtering a boar.” As a result, our stress builds up and we make a habit of sweeping it under the rug, thus not completing the stress cycle that will effectively communicate to our body that it’s okay to calm down. This means that we have to find ways to communicate with our body and let it know that we’ve “outrun the boar” and we’re out of danger. The most efficient way to complete the cycle is to engage in physical activity enough to bring your body to a point of breathing heavily (like you're outrunning that boar) then returning to normal. In other words, physical activity is what tells your brain that you’ve survived the threat and your body is safe. Ideally, 20-60 minutes of physical activity daily is what you should aim for.

2) Catch your negative patterns in action! We all have negative thoughts. Probably more often than we even realize! From the sigh of disappointment we might give our reflection in the mirror to thoughts of not being “good enough” for a career opportunity, we all struggle with self-esteem to a degree.

While you might believe that a little bit of complaining about your weight or a quick- handed insult about your intelligence is practically harmless, those negative thoughts become formulas for processing information you have about the world around you. In other words, when you think about yourself in a hateful way, you’re beating down a path for your brain to take as a shortcut next time.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop talking and thinking negatively about yourself overnight, but you can begin to dismantle the toxic cycle by studying your habits.

First, pay attention to what you think and when you think it. Do you pick apart your body when you get out of the shower? Do you find yourself randomly thinking “I’m not a good partner” while you’re driving home from the store? By paying attention to the content and timing of your thoughts, you’ll be able to start pinpointing your triggers and learning about yourself and your needs.

Maybe you’re extra judgmental about your body after scrolling through your social media feed. Maybe you’re feeling fear and sadness because you saw a couple grocery shopping together and overheard their conversations about dinner plans - triggering a sense of loss for romance in your own partnership.

If these hypothetical examples were to be relevant for your particular situation, you would have two new action steps at this point: stop following people on social media that make you feel “less than,” and talk to your partner about amping up the romance in your relationship.

3) Make gratitude a daily practice. Practicing and expressing gratitude is an important part of coping with stress because it helps you build emotional resilience and optimism.

Experts have found that people with greater levels of gratitude tend to have stronger personal relationships, appreciate their loved ones more, and overall have a more positive take on life. Because those who are happier, sleep better, and enjoy healthy relationships tend to be healthier overall, grateful people are usually healthy people.

If gratitude isn’t part of your daily thought process, that’s okay. Here are some easy steps you can take to gently shift the needle toward a more gracious life:

Catch your negative thoughts - When you find yourself grumbling to yourself about work as you get out of bed on a Monday morning, stop and think of at least 4 things for which you are grateful.

Be careful with comparisons - From the home makeover shows we watch on television to the social media feeds we absentmindedly scroll through, it’s easy to fall into the trap of social comparison. Thoughts like, “Why can’t I have a house like that?” or “Why can’t my hair look more like the model’s?” are likely to pop up without you really registering the fact that you’re comparing social worth and feeling stressed by “not measuring up.” To combat this habit, remind yourself often that what you see online and on television isn’t real. Also, remind yourself that what you see in person is only a fraction of what is going on behind closed doors.

Keep a journal - Some people get overwhelmed by the idea of keeping a journal because they think of it as homework. If writing down your thoughts of gratitude each day at a set time doesn’t appeal to you, dedicate a specific activity to pair with the practice. For example, washing dishes, brushing your teeth, shampooing your hair, walking your dog, or folding laundry are all good trigger activities to remind yourself to list off a few things you’re grateful for.

Remember that the habit of performing and expressing gratitude won’t happen overnight - it will take a couple of weeks of steady practice. However, soon enough, practicing gratitude will become second-nature, and you’ll start seeing the many ways that it will improve your stress levels and perspective on the world.

4) Draw the line. You can’t pour from an empty cup. A critical step in maintaining healthy stress levels is deciding how much effort and energy is worth sharing with the people and situations around you.

Consider these tips:

a. Cut out the toxic people.

Have you ever had a friend or family member who just feels draining to be around? Maybe they continuously talk about negative subjects, or they have a habit of making crude comments; perhaps it feels like they’re too judgemental. Exposing yourself to these types of people on a regular basis can take a toll on your health because they start playing a more significant part in representing how you see the world and the people living in it. Take a minute to think about the five people you see and speak to most regularly. How do you like them? Is there anything about your relationship with them that bothers you? If so, dig a little deeper and consider how you might be able to mend or spend less energy on those relationships, for your own sake!

b. Cut out the toxic situations.

Are you spread too thin? Do you find yourself dreading work every day? Have you signed up for more responsibilities than you can handle? If so, be realistic about how you want to live your life and make some changes.

c. Cut out the toxic messaging.

Do you ever find yourself feeling extra jealous, judgmental, or irritated after spending some time scrolling through social media? If so, it is probably time to do some social media housekeeping. Hide or unfollow people and accounts that make you feel like you’re “not enough” and start following more accounts that post uplifting messages and relatable content.

Of course, cutting the toxicity out of your life is easier said than done. If you have questions or want support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

5) Nourish your human needs. Since we’re here to talk about stress, let’s take a moment to think—when you’re stressed, which one of those basic needs (rest, security, safety) is put at risk? Likely all three of them! So in order to help bring your body back to a state of equilibrium, it’s worthwhile to play around with fulfilling the other needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Here are some ideas:

a. Positive social interaction - Casual and friendly social interaction is a great external sign that the world is a safe place. Smiling at someone on the street, making small talk with your barista, or complimenting someone on their earrings are all simple and effective ways to reassure your brain (and body) that all is well.

b. Laughter - Neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists agree that laughter is something that mammals have evolved to do as a way of making and maintaining social bonds. So take time to amuse yourself, and expose yourself to humorous videos, movies, people, or situations that can trigger some real, belly-aching laughter.

c. Affection - Hug someone for 20 seconds, or enough time for each of you to relax into each other’s arms. Research shows that a 20-second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve your mood - all of which are reflected in the post-hug increase of social-bonding hormone oxytocin. This moment with someone can teach your body that you’re safe and surrounded by the people you trust. No one around to hug? Spending time with an animal can be effective, too.

6) Reframe your thoughts. Can stress be helpful? The technique of cognitive reframing can be helpful for managing stress.

Here’s how it works:

Instead of letting your mind wander to negative thoughts of fear, inadequacy, unattractiveness, etc., actively challenge yourself to find the most positive perspective in order to promote a greater sense of peace and control.

Practicing cognitive reframing can change the way you perceive a situation and your experience of it. For example, if you’re nervous about your first day at a new job, your mind automatically starts thinking of all the things that could go wrong—your coworkers are rude, your boss will be mean, your workload will be too hard. With cognitive reframing, you would start challenging yourself to think of all the positive “what if’s” that could happen: What if this job ends up being the coolest job you’ve ever had? What if you make a new friend at work? What if you have a workload that is challenging in a GOOD way and pushes you to learn and grow?

When you start reframing your thoughts, you’ll actually begin to change your physical responses to stress too. This is because the stress response is triggered by stress itself, which is entirely perceived.

I hope that our time together allowed you to gain some insight and perspective into what stress is and how you can more effectively cope with it. Share your thoughts with me!

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