Stress is a part of life. Stress is defined as “a normal response to situational pressures or demands, especially if they are perceived as threatening or dangerous. Stress is the result of brain chemicals, called hormones, surging through the body,” according to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health.
The earliest response to stress occurs in the brain within seconds of recognizing a ‘stressor,’ scientists have discovered. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and adrenaline, the chemicals signaling between nerve cells, are released. Then the stress hormones are released, which target the brain areas central to memory and regulating emotions. “Repeated stress changes how well these systems are able to control the stress response,” (Mental Health Research).
While not all stress is bad—for example, the stress that helps you meet a deadline or excel in competition—the effects of chronic stress are expansive. Long-term stress creates a spectrum of issues for the whole person.
Stress affects our bodies through manifesting physical symptoms like digestive issues, headaches, high blood pressure, muscle tension, and trouble sleeping.
Stress affects our emotions by causing moodiness, irritability, depression, anxiety, feeling agitated/unable to relax, unhappiness, and guilt.
Stress affects our behaviors through changes in our eating/sleeping habits, causing social withdrawal, neglecting our responsibilities, declining in performance/productivity, increasing nervous habits such as nail biting, teeth grinding or foot tapping.
Stress affects our mental health through constant worry, difficulty concentrating, causing memory issues, inability to make decisions, and lack of self-confidence.
Stress affects our spiritual health by causing us to feel hopeless, distracting us from prayer, creating spiritual desolation, lacking connection to God, and losing our endurance to run the race.
When we’re under high stress, it activates our “fight or flight” response—a natural physiological reaction for our bodies. Fight or flight is an ingrained survival instinct that helps us face events that are stressful, frightening, or dangerous. With our sympathetic nervous system engaged, releasing the hormones epinephrine and adrenaline, our bodies gather the resources to manage threats through a series of rapid unconscious and automatic reactions. But if we’re living with chronic stress, when do our bodies turn off those reactions and ever truly relax?
As research developed, science discovered that there are more than just the fight or flight responses. There are about the 6 “F”s stages of trauma responses from clinical psychologist Dr. Arielle Schwartz, PhD here: freeze, flight, fight, fright, flag, and faint. As someone that is recovering from Complex PTSD and has struggled with the effects of chronic stress, these hit close to home for me. Because of the extended trauma during my childhood, the “repeated fearful experiences or dissociation [became] conditioned in the nervous system,” Dr. Schwartz writes. This means that as an adult, sometimes stressful events trigger my PTSD symptoms. Since my coping mechanism was dissociation, or disconnecting myself from my thought processes, I can end up anywhere from highly anxious to feeling overwhelmed, foggy, tired, to being shut down.
I have learned to better deal with my triggers and stress reactions through therapy, particularly EMDR psychotherapy. I’ve also received productive information about stress from my mentor, Bob McCarty. He presented on stress to my team during our first annual team retreat, and gave a presentation on Stress Management for our Do You Want to Be Well Online course during Lent. Bob helped us understand that there are different types of stress, like the foreseeable and avoidable; neither foreseeable nor avoidable; foreseeable, but not avoidable. He also delved into important topics like the causes and reactions of stress, the dynamics, and how to seek balance, and gave us a toolkit which included a “Stress Overload Assessment.” All of this has helped us to evaluate our role and choices concerning the stress in our lives, and to focus on what we can do to manage it better.
Prayer is a given when it comes to stress relief. In your daily prayer time, lay your burdens down and ask God to bring His peace, holy order, and wisdom into your stress. Additionally, here are five effective ways to find stress relief:
- Play. I just did a Reel on our Instagram about how Adults Need to Play Too. It’s less than a minute, and provides 5 benefits and 5 ideas, so check it out. But the gist of it is that play releases endorphins, which promote an overall sense of well-being and can even provide temporary pain relief. Amidst the busyness and stress, we need to take time out for play to release Endorphins, produced to help relieve pain, reduce stress and improve mood.
- Laugh. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s no joke that laughter provides stress relief through both short-term benefits and long-term effects. Laughter can immediately cause physical changes to your body, such as stimulating organs (including heart and lungs) activating and relieving your stress response, and soothing tension.In the long-term, it may improve your immune system, provide pain relief, increase personal satisfaction, and improve your mood. Laughter is medicine, so go ahead, chuckle or chortle your way to less stress!
- Prioritize. Stress increases when we feel overwhelmed. A surefire way to combat overwhelm is to prioritize and break down bigger feats into smaller tasks that are more manageable. Once you begin to make progress with your priorities, it creates a sense of accomplishment, and you’ll begin to feel more confidence about pressing forward. Be careful, you’ll surely be tempted by distractions and to procrastinate, but those temptations do not provide stress relief because they’ll take you further away from what you need to do to decrease stress. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you prioritize, and use a tool like the Monk Manual to keep your priorities organized daily, weekly, and monthly.
- Breathe. If you’re reading this, you’re breathing, congrats! But I’m not talking about the shallow breaths required for basic oxygenation. I’m referring to the type of deep breaths that slow you down, reconnect you with your body, and quiet your mind. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) shares that “deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.” To effectively combat stress, you need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response. “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension)…a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, and focused.” And while zoning out in front of the TV or mindlessly scrolling through your socials seems relaxing, they do little to reduce the toll stress takes. For a list of effective breathing techniques from AIS here.
- Stimulate your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system and is one of the cranial nerves connecting your brain to your body. It serves as a major part of how the mind and body function, enabling you to do basic tasks. By stimulating it, you can enjoy powerful health benefits. Watch this YouTube video by Whole Body Revolution to learn more about the vagus nerve, anxiety, and helpful vagus never exercises to help. I highly recommend trying these exercises, as they help reprogram your brain to reduce anxiety through the wonders of neuroplasticity.
Don’t get stressed out by all the things you should be doing to decrease your stress. Start with implementing one change and then spread out after you’ve established a new healthy habit. The main thing is to find ways to become more present and peaceful right here and now, because that is where God’s grace is.