Stress Can Make You Stronger
Are you hearing more people around you label their stressful experiences with phrases such as their ‘cortisol levels’ that are spiking or feeling the rush of ‘fight-or-flight’ lately? What does that really mean? And is all stress harmful? While stress is responsible for taking a toll on our health, the right amount can be beneficial.
Stress: A universal response, our bodies and brains are built to react to stressful situations, allowing us to handle life’s demands on a daily basis. When times are particularly challenging or traumatic, elevated levels of stress can negatively impact our mental, physical and emotional health. Chronic, heightened levels of stress can erode our well-being over time, especially when it continues without relief.
Prolonged periods of stress can activate muscle tension, exhaustion, headaches, panic attacks, digestive issues, insomnia, weakened immune system, inertia, anxiety, and irritability among other things. If you find you grind your teeth at night, hold your shoulders to your ears, have trouble focusing and feel noticeably overwhelmed, you could be under a significant amount of stress.
Fight-or-Flight: Our autonomic nervous system is part of our primal survival mechanism, responsible for managing our vision, breathing, and heart rate, all of which respond to stressful situations. We have evolved to react quickly to perceived danger, and while we are no longer running from dinosaurs, our modern stressors of work and family obligations, financial pressures, threats of a global pandemic, decline in health and changes in social connections evoke the same response. Our physiological response allows us to fight or escape the particular situation and if this happens too often our health will decline.
Cortisol: Known as “the stress hormone,” cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid hormone that plays a role in regulating our response to stress. Our brains regularly release a moderate amount which helps keeps us functioning, but too much in the bloodstream has a long-term negative impact on our body and brain. Usually, cortisol is lowest and night and highest in the morning and can have positive effects in healthy doses. For the very purpose it serves, a healthy amount heightens our awareness, energy, strength and offers a burst of immunity. Alarmingly elevated levels contribute to many consequences such as a decrease in bone density, weight gain, higher blood pressure, slow wound healing, lowered inflammatory and immunity responses in the body, impaired cognitive performance and concentration, decreases in muscle tissue, and blood sugar imbalances. Want to avoid these? Try to keep your stress and subsequent cortisol levels in check.
Managing your Stress: When your Fight-or-Flight response kicks in, control your response by activating relaxation techniques. Should you encounter (and are even bitten by) a rattlesnake on a hike, your most effective response is to stay calm and keep your heart rate from elevating, which sounds counter-intuitive and nearly impossible. Cortisol maintenance is similar. With practice your body can adapt to stress with calmer responses rather than the habitual, subconscious, primitive fight-or-flight reaction. Consciously choosing to stay calm becomes easier with repetition.
Remember to breathe throughout the day, even if it is reminding yourself to take deep breaths periodically. Find the activities that you are drawn to, being outside in nature, exercising, practicing yoga, writing, meditating, listening to music or playing an instrument. Note what you accomplish each day (not what you missed), set daily goals, strengthen your social connections and take time to appreciate even small aspects of your daily existence. Recent research shows that being in the “flow,” or immersing yourself in an activity or hobby (uninterrupted) to the extent that you lose track of time can significantly lower your stress. When you practice stress management on a regular basis it is easier to access when it is show time.
Healthy Stress: Have you ever felt more alert, productive and motivated when feeling a moderate amount of stress? Does your time management improve, and your clarity sharpens? Recognizing stress and channeling it can prevent it from taking over and you will fortify your response to challenging situations. A healthy amount of stress may push you to fine-tune your diet, motivate you to exercise, practice gratitude and put boundaries on responsibilities that could become overwhelming. Recognizing stress before it recognizes you allows you to take control of your reactions and use stress to your advantage. In some cases, the right amount of stress can be enjoyable, and the reward for conquering it is even better.