How to handle stress
Stress is a natural response to the world, so how do we differentiate between healthy stress and unhealthy stress? Without some stress we would not be challenged, our muscles and minds would atrophy, and we would be weak and bored. On the other hand, too much stress can cause our lives to be chaotic; as a result our health, relationships, and quality of life suffer. So how do we deal with stress?
Stress is a nervous system response called ‘fight or flight’. When we are presented with immediate danger, it makes sense for us to avoid it using this short-term strategy. In those moments, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol, moving blood to the muscles and preparing us for action. Once the threat is gone, our systems go back to a relaxed state (called ‘rest and digest’).
In our modern society of pressure and change, there are often constant low levels of stress hormones in our systems. As a result, many of us are low energy, irritable, and tense. Having these stress hormones in our bodies long-term can actually weaken our immune function. In some cases, long-term stress can contribute to serious illnesses and can even be deadly (see When the Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Maté).
So, how do we manage stress? One of the best ways to manage stress is to reduce exposure to overly stressful situations (although some exposure to stress is inevitable). For some people it may not be possible to avoid long-term exposure to stress such as work or family challenges, so we need other tools to help us deal with these situations. What are some available options?
Regular breaks outside the office or away from the stressful situation are essential. Proper posture and breathing are also important and can be learned through yoga or pilates classes. Regular exercise (stretching, strengthening and cardio) is vital. One simple way to add exercise to your daily routine is to walk 30-45 minutes everyday. Activities such as gardening or a sport you find fun are also good ways to stay in shape and reduce stress.
It is important to manage the mental and emotional effects of stress as well. Going for a massage can be a great way to reduce tension and increase an overall sense of wellbeing. Other ways to reduce emotional stress include spending time with friends, and maintaining social connections. For more serious concerns, speaking to a trained counsellor can help manage negative emotions and find positive solutions to life’s challenges.
There is good research to support the benefits of reducing stress. Often, it can be easy to ignore the warning signs of stress (such as irritability), and many of us are better at taking care of others than taking care of ourselves. If we ignore our own stress levels, the long-term effects can lead to burnout—leaving us unable to help ourselves, or others. Don’t let stress get the best of you.