We hear so much about how stress is ‘bad’ for us that we sometimes forget about its upside. As humans, we are well adapted to certain kinds of stress. For example, when we exercise, we are deliberately causing our bodies to become stressed because we know that by doing so, and then recovering, we will become better adapted at handling that level of stress in future. For example, we will become stronger, more flexible or have greater endurance. Science calls this process hormesis. In other words, moderately intensive stress, such as regular exercise, is beneficial.It can help to see the difference between stressors that are mostly perceived or psychological, and those that are mostly physiological. This is not a rigid separation; perceived stress causes physiological effects and physiological stress can affect mood. Nevertheless, perceived stress can vary a lot from person to person. Depending on our personality, some people are pleasantly stimulated by situations that may be highly stressful for others. You may look forward to a giving a speech, or taking on a challenging project, whilst others prefer a less-demanding existence. Beneficial stress is called eustress. On the other hand, just about everyone is affected to some extent by physiological stressors like jet lag, insufficient sleep or an unhealthy diet.
Another way to look at stress is the difference between acute and chronic. The ways we respond to acute stress evolved over millions of years to help protect us from predators, poisonous animals, other aggressive humans, or any threat to survival. The ‘fight or flight’ response quickly gears up the body to do exactly that. The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands work together to produce a range of hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) that cause physiological reactions that prepare the body to optimally respond to the threat.
Whilst this process is exquisitely adapted to deal with acute stressors, major problems occur when the stress becomes chronic. Modern lifestyles very easily lead to chronic stress. For example, daily commutes can be extremely stressful because of traffic congestion, delayed or cancelled trains, or simply overcrowding. Many people have relationship stress, particularly when living together in small spaces. Financial stress is very common; even when someone has a good income, expenses always seem to increase in tandem. The modern workplace is becoming increasingly stressful, with budget cuts, longer working days, shorter deadlines, fewer salary increases and the threat of redundancy. Some of us care for elderly parents who may suffer from chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It is so well known amongst researchers that Alzheimer’s carers are a highly-stressed population, that they are often used as subjects for research experiments into the effect of long-term stress.
The bad news is that chronic stress is not good for humans. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis can become dysregulated leading to lowered immunity, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Chronic stress causes an inflammatory response in the body, leading to an increased risk of serious chronic disease.
The good news is that whilst we may not be able to eradicate stress from our lives, and may not choose to, we can learn to better manage it. Where perceived stress is concerned, increased mindfulness is often helpful because it leads to less involvement with one’s thoughts. For some, regular mindfulness meditation is useful. Such meditation is not designed to attain some vague state of bliss; on the contrary, its purpose is to become more aware of one’s thoughts, but less attached to them. Chronic psychological stress can lead to endless rumination about the worst that could happen. Increased mindfulness allows a person to see that their thoughts are ‘not real’, and that they can change how they think about whatever it is that they perceive as stressful.
We can also manage stress by addressing the needs of our bodies and considering the ways in which we evolved over the last two million years. A sedentary life is physiologically stressful; humans need to move to be healthy, and most people find that suitable exercise relieves stress. A diet heavy on refined carbohydrates and processed food is also physiologically stressful because of its pro-inflammatory nature and its lack of essential nutrients. This can be addressed by adopting a more ancestral-informed nutrient-dense diet.
A very modern cause of physiological stress is the use of computers, including smartphones and tablets, late at night. Like travelling across time zones, such practices can disrupt our circadian rhythms, interfering with sleep-wake cycles. Human bodies evolved to produce the hormone melatonin after dark to facilitate sleep. Allowing the bright light from a backlit computer screen to be shone directly into our eyes in the late evening can fool the brain into thinking it’s not yet time for sleep. Production of melatonin is then reduced and this can interfere with the depth of the subsequent sleep. So, best to call it a day on digital media a few hours before sleep. This is just one way of slowing life down.
Now I’d like to hear from you. What forms of stress management have you found most useful? Let us know in the comments below.