Identifying and Coping with Stress

INTRODUCTION

After a recent trip to Egypt, I was strongly reminded of the body’s response to stress, and my own unique flavour of discomfort it causes. The constant barrage of the noise of horns in the busy streets, people at every corner in your face trying to squeeze money from you, the extreme heat — reaching 40degC+ some days, and the pollution — both the physical stress and the mental stress of knowing the damage it’s doing.

This barrage of mental and physical stress on the body was the opening point for me to get very ill, and on the back end of this made me reflect on the impact of stress on the mind and body and how we can better combat it.

Robert Sapolsky: ‘We’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick’

This post will briefly identify why we get stressed and why it varies individually, identifying stressors and using tools and systems to combat stress.

STRESS

Some stress is important, we would die without its effects. The release of cortisol wakes us and helps to regulate out circadian cycle, the right levels of stress releases cortisol and epinephrine which actually improves memory and can boost the immune system. Not only that, but we seek stress through on a rollercoaster or eating a spicy meal. So why can it cause so much damage?

It is the levels of stressors we are subjected to (environment), how we much subjectively relate to them (hormone levels released), and how sensitive our brain is to them (number of receptors, their sensitivity etc) that can create an imbalance.

We evolved from our basic reptilian brain that had autonomic responses to external stimulus, to then receiving emotional responses from social interactions with other animals, to now being able to consciously think our way into stress. With the same basic hormones and neuron structure at work, no wonder we can struggle, but what might tip the balance further?

INDIVIDUAL RESPONSES TO STRESS

Certain genes can increase the likelihood of certain traits or diseases, however they must be activated by receiving certain stimulus as a child, also known as epigenetics. Additionally whilst in the womb being exposed to stress hormones, or as a child, seeing your parents or others in distress can imprint negative effects, as can trauma throughout life.

The amygdala is central to the limbic system and is the area activated when we experience negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and aggression. When going through stressful experiences as a child, it can actually grow in size, and become more easily activated later in life.

However, it’s not all about what happened to us, how we relate to the world around us and our socio-economic status is hugely important according to Robert Sapolksy, who is a leading professor in the field of stress.

We can have multiple roles in family, work, sports teams, online communities etc, and research has shown that where we sit in that hierarchy and importantly, how we perceive that position can have huge implications on health and life expectancy. So it’s not just physical and childhood development luckily, we can influence stress in a number of ways.

IDENTIFY YOUR STRESSORS

Number one I think is to identify your stressors. Being mindful of and listing all the things that trigger your personal flavour of stress can break the cycle and unconscious association with it. For example, I know I am triggered by loud unpleasant noises, anything that might affect my health negatively and wasting time and resources.

Mostly I find it’s not the actual act of these, but the constant thinking about these happening in the future that creates the lasting stress. The stories we tell ourselves and the identity that we create can turn on lasting chronic stress.

TOOLS TO COMBAT STRESS

Below are a number of tools I’ve found useful to reduce the impact of stressors, and my background levels of stress. Just the action of making a conscious effort to set time aside each day creates a mind state that your health is most important, and can kick off dramatic mental change.

When starting out, carrying out the desired new habit just before or after an existing daily task such as waking, brushing your teeth or making lunch can help provide a trigger for building consistency each day.

1. Meditation: 10–20 minutes per day can help link the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, allowing us to perceive and regulate stress better. With longer meditation it has even been shown to reduce the size of the amygdala.

2. Breathing: Physically calming the autonomic nervous system through 5–10 physiological sighs, or a few minutes of counting slowed breathing will remove carbon dioxide and slow heart rate.

3. Gratitude practice: Via a journal or mentally whilst in bed, this improves our mindset towards socioeconomic status and the desire for more.

4. Practicing feeling wealthy (to our own definition): Consciously getting into a state of feeling healthy and making progress through positive affirmations.

5. Aim to have at least one perceived high socioeconomic status will reduce stressful responses and improve health through volunteering to be a team leader or taking ownership in a hobby endeavour.

6. Always have at least one social interaction booked each week: for me, self-inflicted social isolation can be a stressor.

7. Reduce the impact of stressors: keep stressors to short sessions and group them to less frequently — e.g. check emails twice a day, not each hour.

8. Take cold showers or your equivalent choice of self-inflicted stress: change the association to stress, by choosing how you react to it under controlled circumstances

9. Exercise: similar to above, choosing how you deal with stressors and using your body will build provide resilience to stress. Truly focussing on pain in the present during exercise shows how the mind can exaggerate future negative experience / pain / stress.

SUMMARY

We all have different levels of arousal and personal responses to stressors and how we relate to them, based on a combination of past events and physiology. Either way, the path to a calm, healthy life appears to be one of life long commitment to personalised daily practice that heals our individual needs.

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