Stress is Part of Life
Stress is a natural part of biological life. In this article we’ll cover different types of stress, how we can manage our response to stressful situations, and tools we can utilize to strengthen our stress resiliency. It’s important to know that there are simple techniques to handle the response to stressful events.
Causes of stress can be environmental, social, or psychological. Our automatic nervous system is designed to mobilize other neuroendocrine systems in the brain and body for various stress responses. Our bodies feature a sympathetic nervous system, which balances our chemistry for fight-or-flight situations, and a parasympathetic nervous system, which balances our chemistry for rest and recharge.
Did you know short term stress can be a good thing? The body’s generic stress response is triggered by the physical stress of hunger, cold, lack of sleep, or threat of predators. This activates the body to move by increasing the heart rate and sending blood to the large muscles in the legs. It says, “Do something!” It allows you to narrow your focus, evaluate your environment and do what you need to do. It primes your whole system for better cognition. It primes your immune system to fight infection. This is the stress response in the sympathetic nervous system.
In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is designed to calm the mind and body. When this is activated, blood flows to hands and feet and breathing slows with long exhales. Visual and mental attention expands to include peripheral details. Thoughts are slower and calmer. Fainting is an extreme form of this relaxation response.
Controlling the Stress and Relaxation Responses
Sometimes our body goes into emergency mode (sympathetic stress response activated) in non-emergency situations, such as an interview, exam, or new social situation. The best way to reduce stress at these times is to activate the hard-wired relaxation response in the body. You don’t need to go offline to meditate. A simple breath technique called the “physiological sigh” mimics a natural calming response. It can be done in the moment. Three quick inhales through the nose, followed by a long exhalation from the mouth.
You can also use your body to increase your capacity to deal with a period of ongoing, predictable stress, such as a college semester or a work project or planning a wedding. Yes, positive life events are sources of stress as much as undesirable life events. Medium-term stress lasts between several days to several weeks. A simple technique to increase stress resiliency is to purposely elevate the heart rate with exercise. This is because “physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function” (Princeton). Simultaneously broadening your visual field by un-focusing your vision and calming the mind while exercising can be beneficial as well, because it trains the brain to balance tranquility in stressful situations.
Stress can be sourced physically, psychologically, and psychosocially. Physical stressors are universal and tend to be acute. Psychological stressors vary for different people. They can be triggered by subtle interactions such as a perceived criticism in the workplace, a cold glance from your spouse, or a piece of news on television. These stressors tend to be acute or medium-term stressors. The psychosocial stress of losing loved ones, betrayal, and isolation from the group is what is most likely to contribute to chronic stress.
Chronic stress or long-term stress is dangerous. It creates heart disease, chronic hypertension, inflammation and autoimmune disease. The foundation of stress inoculation includes a healthy diet, exercise and good sleep. The keystone to stress resiliency is social connection based on the promotion of serotonin. Serotonin is enhanced with meaningful social interactions with family members, friends and pets.
Stress and Addiction
Often, the onset of addiction can be traced to a stressful event or period in life. The immediate effect of alcohol, a drug, food, sex, gambling, etc. can distract from or relieve the experience of stress. However, soon the cycle of craving, seeking, intoxication, withdrawal and hangover becomes a source of physical stress contributing to psychological stress of poor work performance, relationship conflict and isolation. Legal and disciplinary consequences pile on.
Learning and practicing stress management tools are essential to successful sobriety and long-term recovery. Some of the stress management tools taught at Soberman’s Estate include but are not limited to physical exercise including working out, yoga and hiking, good nutrition, sound sleep, meditation and breathing techniques. These practices assist in navigating changes in lifestyle and relationships. Ongoing social support with recovery mentors or sponsors and fellowship in social groups provide not only immediate relief of stress but also long-term prevention of the buildup of chronic stress.