Shake the Hold of Chronic Stress with 10 Simple (Mostly) Approaches

Chronic Stress

Jacquelyn Ferguson

Author Jacquelyn Ferguson

From an article by Jacquelyn Ferguson

Do you know where you’d be if you had absolutely no stress? If your answer is, “dead,” you’d be right.

Every day we all experience some stress. Most of it is normal stress that comes and goes in your life, often called acute stress. According to Helena Popovic, M.D., an expert on improving brain function this milder version of stress builds your resilience by switching on your adrenal glands to release performance-enhancing chemicals. Without these chemical releases you would have little energy to get out of bed in the morning…your days would feel flat and you would be listless.

The problem with stress as we have come to understand it is when it becomes chronic. Heightened normal stress that goes on day after day, month after month, and even year after year becomes toxic. Care giving, recovery from a disaster, living in a toxic relationship, and other similar lifestyles can push your eustress to dis-stress. Chronic stress damages your performance and your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Chronic stress is a contributing factor to every major disease. Chronic stress can lead to brain function loss, depression, and body fat accumulation. Chronic stress is costly. In an article published in Forbes (Jan. 20, 2015) Michael Blanding reports that stress from the workplace alone costs $125 to $190 billion dollars a year.

Chronic Stress at WorkHere’s why. When you face a threat, an impediment to what you’re wanting at the moment, such as you want the car in front of you to go faster, you experience it as stress. This triggers a specific set of responses in the brain and body (the fight/flight response) and your brain sends a message to the adrenal glands atop your kidneys to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream. The role of adrenaline is to trigger the fight/flight response. Your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle strength, arousal, concentration and speed of information processing increase dramatically.

Additionally, the adrenal glands release cortisol to reduce inflammation and raise blood sugar levels, fueling immediate action. The release of both of these hormones provides a substantial surge of energy to deal with the threat. How much energy do you really need to curse out the driver in front of you? The threats of the modern world, for the most part, do not require the response that fleeing a snarling cheetah required. Hence, our body provides an overload of hormone response. It isn’t in the least bit necessary for the threat to be real to the rest of the world for your body to respond as it would have to the snarling cat or a neighbor one cave down chasing you with a club. As long as your body perceives a threat the fight/flight response will activate.

“Understanding whether you find something stressful is the first clue in effectively managing it. Some people find public speaking highly stressful. Other people love it. Some people thrive on deadlines, others panic. In some instances, increasing your skills or improving your time management is a first step in stress management,” Popovic says.

Not all stress is created equal nor is it equally damaging. Acute stress (eustress) revs you up, improves your focuses at the same time your abilities increase and interestingly, your hunger decreases. This performance-enhancing stage can bring out the best in you, like an athlete preparing to compete. Chronic stress that is too intense and/or continues too long overwhelms your brain and body and you hit a tipping point, called allostatic load, when performance declines turning eustress into distress.

Woman stretching and relaxingPopovic says, “Effectively managing stress is about understanding what happens at your tipping point . . . where you start to feel you are losing control of a situation. You may not always recognize that loss of control is the basis of feeling stressed, but if you drill down to the core of an issue, lack of control is often a key factor.”
Understanding this can allow you to turn distress into success. The following acronym is adapted from Dr. Popovic’s work:

LESS STRESS

L = Look at things differently (reframe the problem)
E = Evaluate if something really matters…how important will it be a year from now
S = Sleep on it, a rested brain might produce different perceptions and solutions
S = Share it with a trusted person

S = Step out into nature – a nice hike will often help put things in perspective
T = Thank people, be grateful
R = Read
E = Exercise your body and your mind
S = Still your mind through meditation or listen to your favorite, calming music
S = Stay in the present moment, deep breathing will help you do so.

All great advice. Now you just have to practice it when you’re at that tipping point.

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