How can we manage stress?
Feeling stress is not a bad thing. Yes, you read that right. You’re probably thinking, “Isn’t it? Aren’t doctors always talking about the dangers of stress?” The stress response is a normal adaptive process that is triggered when we encounter challenges that require extra resources to overcome, and it’s designed to help us survive. The real problem is that, when that response doesn’t end and it becomes a permanent way of being in the world, it can have consequences on our physical and mental health. In this post, I want to talk a bit more about how the stress response works, how it shows up, when it becomes a problem, and how we can manage stress.
What is stress?
Stress is a neurological and physiological response that happens when we encounter a stressor. To help us meet these demands or perceived threats, our body responds by pumping particular hormones, using energy differently, and other mechanisms that help us sustain increased levels of activity so we can survive. Stress is a natural evolutionary adaptation: we all experience it sometimes and we can’t help it.
On the other hand, a stressor is something that puts pressure on us by challenging our capacity to adapt and cope with a higher demand on resources. Therefore, it triggers a stress response in our body that aims to adjust and cope with the challenge. Stressors can be internal or external, and can be short-term or long-term (i.e. chronic).
Some of the symptoms of stress include:
- muscle tension or pain
- digestive troubles
- feeling fatigued or overwhelmed
- anger or irritability
- difficulty sleeping
- headaches or dizzy spells
- chest pain or a faster heartbeat
The stress response
The stress response is designed to work, in broad terms, like this:
- First, we notice or identify a stressor, which activates the stress response.
- We eliminate the stressor, generally by fighting it or fleeing from it, but sometimes by freezing and waiting until it passes (Fight, Flight, or Freeze response).
- Finally, we recognize that the stressor is gone and we’re safe: the stress response ends.
Eliminating the stressor isn’t always enough to end the stress response in itself, though. Our bodies physically need to be able to recognize that we are safe and we can rest, which doesn’t always automatically happen even if we are able to see that the stressor is gone.
There’s also the problem that, in modern life, there are many stressors that we can’t eliminate: a job that doesn’t have enough people to meet its demands, systemic injustice, a pandemic that has lasted for two years, being a primary caregiver, etc.
When the stress response doesn’t end, all those neurological and physiological mechanisms keep going. But the human body isn’t meant to handle all that extra effort constantly, which is why unresolved stress is associated with multiple health problems (1).
Stress isn’t bad, but getting stuck in the middle of the stress response cycle can be. We may not even know that we’re stressed, or what we’re stressed about — the stressor is over!
Some of the reasons we might get stuck in the stress response cycle are:
- Chronic Stressor: We’re stuck in a stress-activating situation that outpaces our capacity to process it.
- Social Appropriateness: The world tells us it’s wrong/impolite/weak to feel stress, so we try to ignore it instead of dealing with it.
- Safety: We wait for the stressor to go away as a survival strategy — but we don’t find a way to deal with the stress.
The difference between stress and anxiety
Both stress and anxiety are evolutionary chain reactions that are designed to help us survive. Anxiety shows up in the body in very similar ways to stress, as the body is also preparing to meet what seems like a difficult situation. That’s why sometimes it’s hard to differentiate the two: you might be stressed and, sensing the symptoms, wonder if you have anxiety.
Anxiety is the natural response to a stressor that is perceived as a threat: a stressor that could affect us negatively. It involves worrying, as worrying is how we try to find solutions to the problem. Someone who is working long hours because of a deadline may or may not worry about it. They may or may not feel that not meeting the deadline could mean negative consequences; they may or may not think that they’ll be in trouble. If they don’t, they may be stressed but not anxious. If they do, they may be stressed and anxious.
A tiger jumping at you causes stress and fear, as in seeing the tiger, we see an immediate threat. Seeing grass move that might be a tiger can cause stress and anxiety, as the threat in this case is imagined.
You can be stressed but not anxious, while anxiety typically involves some level of stress.
How to manage our stress
How can we ever “be well”? What we do is deal both with the stressors and with the reactions our body has to them. Generally, that will involve different strategies.
You can deal with stressors with the 4 As:
- Avoid (unnecessary stress)
- Alter (the situation)
- Adapt (to a stressor)
- Accept (the things you can’t change)
But as we’ve seen, it’s not enough to deal with the stressor: we also need to end the stress response cycle. There are different ways you can do this, but studies show the most effective of all is physical movement (2), in whatever way works for you.
These are 8 evidence-based practices that can help you complete the stress response cycle:
- Physical activity: Move your body for 20-60 minutes a day.
- Breathing: Breathe in slowly to the count of 5, hold for 5, and release for 10. Pause for 5 and do it again two more times.
- Socialization: Engage in casual positive interaction with others.
- Laughter: Talk to someone or engage with things that give you belly laughs.
- Affection: Connect deeply with a loving presence. This can be a person, an animal, or a higher spiritual power.
- Crying: Watch a movie or read a book that makes you cry.
- Creative expression: Engage in your favourite type of artistic activity.
- Sleep: Get more or better sleep.
This post was based on the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. They say that “Wellness is not a state of being, but a state of action. (…) Wellness happens when your body is a place of safety for you.” A body/mind with no diagnosable health conditions and lack of stress does not exist for long, and a healthy relationship with ourselves is not something that spontaneously happens to us in the absence of problems.
It takes awareness and discipline to establish a healthy relationship with ourselves, as well as to maintain it — with or without health conditions! Engaging in behaviours within our agency that help promote our own well-being can be an empowering action.
If you’re experiencing symptoms that are getting in the way of your day-to-day life, a mental health professional can help you figure out what you’re going through, and provide a treatment plan and coping tools that are tailored to your particular needs.
(1) “Stress and well-being”. Health Reports: April 26, 2001 – Volume 12 – No. 3 – p 21-32. Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2000003/article/5626-eng.pdf
(2) Jackson, Erica M. Ph.D., FACSM STRESS RELIEF, ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal: May/June 2013 – Volume 17 – Issue 3 – p 14-19 doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb1c9. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2013/05000/stress_relief__the_role_of_exercise_in_stress.6.aspx
I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.
The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.