Ponder the tail lights you see ahead of you. Your alarm didn’t go off this morning, and that Sunday driver constantly tapping his brakes in rush hour traffic is bringing you about as close to your boiling point as an egg doomed for poaching. Hopefully you’re not actually reading this from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, but this scenario represents one of about 237 different events today that had you clenching your jaw, your body temperature rising, your fists tightening, your shoulders hunching, your breath becoming shallow and your stomach beginning to churn into tiny knots only a Machiavellian fisherman could untie.
Stress as the Rule Instead of the Exception
Overcoming stress is a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. Do our thoughts cause stress, and then the body becomes dis-eased in the aftermath, or does the challenge of having a body cause stress? Sadly, in opposition to the infrequent stress of our ancestors—when sometimes fighting a tiger, or running from an arrow were the main stressors of life—we’ve become a constant quagmire of stress. Instead of the physiological responses that accompany a dire situation, as a means to save our lives, we are now stressed out as a rule, not the exception.
When the American Psychological Association conducted its annual survey on stress in 2015, nearly a quarter of respondents reported their levels of stress as “extreme.” Almost half of the respondents said their stress levels had gone up in the past year. The most commonly named stressors were:
- Family responsibilities
- Personal health
- The health of a family member
- The Economy
Women and people with disabilities said that they were more stressed out than men, but this could simply be the result of cultural programming that tells men to hide their feelings, and to ‘man up’ in the face of challenges.
Though the stress response can be a good thing, since it evolved as a coping response over hundreds of millions of years “to help our ancestors avoid sticks and get carrots,” explains Rick Hanson, PhD, a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger, 2009), feeling stressed constantly takes a serious toll on our health.
Modern life exposes us to constant stressors. We are bombarded with information, always feel as though we have to multi-task, and our brains and bodies are rarely given the opportunity to unplug from constant over-stimulation. This lifestyle creates chronic stress, and it eats away at our happiness and health slowly, yet insidiously.
The Physiological Stress Response
The fight or flight response directs huge quantities of energy to the brain and the large muscle groups while shutting down non-essential activities (like digestion and the immune response)—rapidly consuming the body’s resources while inhibiting their ability to be replenished. Stress is responsible for so much havoc in the body and mind.
Furthermore, just commuting to work every day has been proven to increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone synthesized from cholesterol by enzymes of the cytochrome P450 family in the zona fasciculata, the middle area of the adrenal cortex. Regulated via the HPA axis, cortisol is the primary hormone responsible for the stress response. In English, this means that when you secrete cortisol, a whole cascade of hormonal and physiological responses begins in the body. For example:
- Cortisol weakens the immune response by blocking T-cells.
- The hippocampus, where memory is stored in the brain, is affected by cortisol secretion, literally making you less likely to report past events accurately to yourself or to others. Cortisol kills your memory.
- Cortisol is part of an inhibitory feedback loop, which can block the secretion of corticotripin-releasing hormone, preventing the HPA axis interactions central to glucocorticoid secretion. Many experts in the scientific community believe that chronic levels of high stress disrupt the delicate feedback balance, resulting in the failure of feedback inhibition to operate and the continued release of cortisol. (Chronic stress makes it nearly impossible for your body to turn off the stress-response.)
What happens next?
In order to deal with this cortisol dump in our bodies—with the extreme stress we face every day—we try to cope. We are likely lacking on sleep, since stress affects our circadian rhythms and sleep cycle, so we turn to caffeine. Consuming caffeine several times a day increases our cortisol levels yet again.
As does the consumption of alcohol. We try to numb the pain of stress, but after the initial euphoria, alcohol actually causes the adrenal cortex to release more stress hormones.
The same is true of sugar and processed foods. Cortisol causes us to feel hungry more often, and it also affects our food preferences. It is likely that cortisol interferes with ghrelin, a "hunger hormone," which tells us that we are full. When we are stressed, we overeat. We don’t feel like being active, and we get fatter, causing more stress.
Chicken and Egg Stress
You can start to see where chronic stress causes an almost inevitable feedback loop, which forever creates more of the very same thing you are trying to overcome: STRESS!
- The digestive system and metabolic function (including imbalances in body weight)
- The cardiovascular system
- The musculoskeletal system
- The nervous system
- The reproductive system
- The immune system
- Our mental health
- Our skin, hair and bones
Stress tends to wear us down on a systemic level, so even though it is a contributing factor in a countless variety of ailments, its influence is easily overlooked. Even if we think we are only slightly stressed, it is likely that we are producing cortisol, and the sympathetic nervous system is responding in ways that are not supportive of a fully functioning, vital body and mind.
How to Stop Stress NOW
In order to renew the body and mind from years of chronic stress and the challenges of living in the modern world, there are a number of things we can do that are inexpensive and effective:
- Slow Down – Be Still. In any way you can, stop multi-tasking. Slow down. Delegate. Let go. It can take courage to slow down in a world that is constantly telling you to go faster and faster, but you can do it, and you’ll be more effective at what you do by following the rhythms of nature. This is called Wu Wei, the Taoist philosophy of effortless effort.
- Spend Time in Nature – Scientists still don’t understand how, but spending time in nature reduces stress hormones. It restores feelings of calm and well-being and reduces depression. Spending time in nature also increases our ability to connect with others on a meaningful level, which leads to more fulfilling relationships. Spending time in nature even increases our empathy.
- Take a Warm Bath– Filling a tub full of hot water and aromatherapy can do wonders to melt the tensions of the day away. A little baking soda in the water can help to detoxify the body and ease tense muscles.
- Get a Foot Massage - Any massage is healing, but the feet contain acupressure points, which are associated with every organ in the body. When pressure is applied to these points, not only is relaxation induced and stress relieved, but the organs which have been taxed by our modern lifestyles can begin to heal themselves.
- Turn off Your Cell Phone– We consume about three times the amount of information that we did in the 1960s. If you turn off your cell phone, your tablet, your computer and your other electronic devices, you actually give your brain a chance to reboot.
- Meditate– Just ten minutes of meditation a day can help to defend against the stress of life. Meditation also improves sleep, reduces anxiety, helps to relieve physical pain and increases your productivity, so that when you are working, you’ll be more effective.
- Laugh - Got a funny friend? Spend time with them. See a comedy at the movie theater. Tell jokes at the office. Laughter heals, and it reduces cortisol levels by as much as 50% with one good, mirthful bought.
Stress is built into life. This is the world we live in, but your ability to recover from stress has never been more important. Try these stress-reducing methods to stress less the next time you are caught behind that Sunday driver. Heck, you might even become one.