In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he couldn’t define obscenity, “but I know it when I see it.”
For many of us, the syndrome of “stress” is similar. We don’t know exactly what it is or what it does inside us. But we do “know it when we feel it.”
But to best avoid the very-serious effects of stress, it’s worth your time to understand a little more about what it really is and how it works. And thus, how you can more successfully prevent and/or respond to it, man.
I know, I know. You may be thinking, “yeah, I know stress is bad; nothing new here.” But are you really doing anything about it?
If you’re reading an OlderBeast article, you’re determined to take care of yourself, to maximize the 2nd half of life. And though it’s not as obvious as being overweight or out-of-shape, being over-stressed is a BIG problem that will impede your progress toward this goal. A problem you should deal with head-on.
So please read on. We’ll define stress in a simple way, summarize a (scary) list of the negative health impacts stress can have, and discuss three basic approaches to combat stress (including exercise, of course).
At the simplest level, stress is any external event or set of conditions (or internal chain of thoughts or emotions) that causes your body to react with a millennia-old “fight or flight” response.
Before civilized times, most stresses were from physical dangers or needs. So the body’s physical reactions were useful to take appropriate action. Actions like: escape, catch, fight off, stay warm, conserve energy.
In such situations, the body’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) responded without conscious awareness. It slowed the digestive system, increased breathing and heart rates, and slowed higher brain processes (which weren’t needed for survival).
There are about 1,400 different bio-chemicals released in this process. Notable among these are adrenaline, cortisol (a.k.a. “the stress hormone”) and catecholamines, which deactivate the brain’s pre-frontal cortex (our center of concentration, planning and decision-making).
In today’s world, things like job and money concerns, relationship issues, and even health concerns themselves cause the same “reptile brain” and chemical reaction. But this often happens in situations where it’s not needed. Unneeded stress responses harm our performance in whatever we’re trying to do, and harm our health.
Yes, a little stress can be motivational and increase our performance, but beyond a certain point, it’s all bad.
IMPACTS OF STRESS
Numerous mental and physical problems are linked to stress including:
- Heart attack
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Increased susceptibility to certain cancers
- Gastrointestinal issues including ulcers and colitis
- Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis
- Reduced immunity to infections ranging from the common cold to AIDS
- Skin problems
- Weight gain (via reduced metabolism, and common “comfort food” response)
People usually talk about “mind/body” connection in a good way. For example, how aerobic exercise releases positive-emotion neurotransmitters in your brain, improving your mood.
But this list of stress effects shows how mind/body connection can take a negative direction, too. When your mind perceives dangers – accurately or imagined, it doesn’t matter – it creates a physical reaction that, over the long term, is really bad for your bodily health.
APPROACHES TO PREVENT OR MANAGE STRESS
To limit the effects of stress, there are three basic approaches. Many people who manage stress successfully use some mix of these.
1. Avoid the stress stimulus to begin with
You can limit your exposure to the situations and environments that cause stress. For example, my father-in-law gets incredibly anxious and aggravated watching Philadelphia Eagles games (he’s a lifelong fan, the poor guy). He eventually realized, often, it’s better to not even watch.
Another example: I realized “wallowing” in political news coverage and opinion media (beyond the point of being sufficiently informed) was causing me to feel stress. Not to mention using a lot of time unproductively. So I’ve reduced this use of time (lowered stress and found time for other things — a double win!).
Obviously, it’s not possible or advisable to avoid everything that might cause us stress, though. If you need to commute to work, you need to, regardless of traffic. Or if you need to do something stressful, but you just need to do it…well, there’s no choice. We’re not going to just stick our head in the sand, after all. But looking for instances of “discretionary stress situations” – which you can avoid without material downside – is a good place to start.
2. Prevent the stress response
When you are hit by stimuli (be it external or internal), you may be able to change how you “process” the stimuli hitting you. It’s not always as simple as “deciding to not let ____ bother me.” But you CAN make strides on this dimension, by recognizing what causes you stress, and during calm times orienting and preparing yourself to react differently, mentally, the next time the stimulus occurs.
Example: Colleague X’s way of acting in meetings always really bugs me, and makes me mad. I recognize that, and think ahead: “S/he is going to do or say ____. I’m expecting it, though, and when it happens I’ll just think “yep, I figured…” instead of getting annoyed.”
3. Dissipate the stress response’s impact
No matter how well you execute on approaches #1 and 2 above, stresses are always going to occur. Most people have some amount of stress response occur every day, usually multiple times. So the question becomes what to do about it – how to “blow off steam,” to use an old-school phrase.
You’ll want to have a variety of anti-stress physical and mental practices, such as:
- Focusing on positive, peace-inducing feelings (e.g. gratitude)
- Eating well (avoiding things like refined sugars and flours, and artificial ingredients…and letting good nutrition help your body work well…these steps start that mind/body connection working in a positive way again)
- Getting sufficient sleep (the tired mind more-easily falls prey to stressful thought loops, and the tired body is less able to “process” the release of stress hormones)
- Meditation, massage and other “relaxation inducing” activities. Favorite recreational pastimes can be therapeutic by refocusing the mind away from a stress loop – e.g., music, watching comedies, working on hobbies
- Deep, controlled breathing exercises (which are great because you can do them anytime, anyplace)
- Walking in nature (which blends some physical movement with a meditative environment)
- PHYSICAL EXERCISE, dude
To some degree, all of these approaches rely on self-awareness. You can avoid, head-off, or respond to stress much better when you can quickly recognize its occurrence in your mind and body. So, start noticing more about how your breathing feels, what your pulse is doing, and whether you feel that “anxious energy” feeling.
HOW EXERCISE COMBATS STRESS
Physical exercise, especially aerobic kinds, hits the stress response from a few angles at once.
- Body chemistry. Exercise provides good use for those “fight or flight” hormones. Then it releases endorphins, dopamine and other “well-being” neurotransmitters in their place.
- Your breathing. Out with the rapid, shallow breaths and in with the deeper, rhythmic breathing your muscles demand. This is where moderate-intensity, sustained aerobic exercise is particularly good.
- Your environment (usually). If being on the that late-day work conference call was a stress producer…getting outside for a run afterward not only attacks the internal stress reaction you may be feeling, but it replaces a stressful circumstance with a tranquility-inducing one. Note, stress-reduction is one area where outdoor exercise, on your own, usually is better than the indoor equivalents. Especially if indoors means blaring TV’s, crowded class conditions, etc.
- The subject. As in, one thing that both causes stress and is a symptom of it is the mind’s tendency to “brood” on anxiety-producing thoughts (or anger, or fill-in-the-blank with some other negative emotion). Changing focus to a workout often breaks that mental cycle.
How much stress do you think you’re subject to on a day-to-day basis? Since being “mindful” of stress is the first step in fighting it, you may want to take a free online self-assessment. Here’s one I think is pretty good (you’ll need to create a free account at the HeartMath Institute to use this).
Remember, stress is our bodies’ ancient, biologically programmed response to danger or deprivation. But in the modern world, it has other, negative consequences. In fact, the word “stress” to describe the symptoms we’ve discussed here wasn’t even coined until 1936.
So indeed, stress is a “disease of civilization.” To combat it, call on mind and body practices from long ago – which take us away from the sometimes-suffocating impacts of the modern world.
“Take it easy, take it easy. Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.” (The Eagles*, Take It Easy – click to listen. *Written mainly by Jackson Browne, finished by Glenn Frey who at the time was his upstairs neighbor in the Echo Park area of LA, then recorded by the Eagles in 1972. Jackson himself recorded this a year later…and here he is talking about the collaboration with Glenn, then performing it on acoustic!)
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