Stress is normal, and sometimes even good for us. Stress affects pretty much all of us at some point in our lives. The funny thing is, positive events like getting married or starting a new job can stress us out.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing, though. In some cases it protects us from danger—in fact, that’s the whole point. Stress is a leftover survival technique that we don’t have as much use for now. When we commonly fought for survival, our fight-or-flight mode (triggered by stress) was imperative.
These days, the problem comes with having more stress in our lives than we need. Since we rarely need to be in fight-or-flight mode, our body’s stress reactions can become problematic when they’re too strong or happen too often.
Stress and the brain
Stress and the brain are closely linked, in fact very similar to how creativity and the brain are interlinked. In fact, stress is basically “all in our heads.”
There are three parts of the brain that are highly involved in how we recognize and respond to stressors:
- the Amygdala
- the Hippocampus
- and the Prefrontal Cortex
These three areas of the brain work with the hypothalamus to turn on and off the production of stress hormones and related responses like an increased heart rate. Apart from controlling our stress response, our brains can also be affected by the stress itself.
Stress can change our brains
In fact, stress is actually the most common cause of changes in brain function.
Some recent studies have shown indications of how this could happen. One study used baby monkeys to test the effects of stress on development and long-term mental health. Half the monkeys were cared for by their peers for 6 months while the other half remained with their mothers. Afterwards, the monkeys were returned to typical social groups for several months before the researchers scanned their brains.
For the monkeys who had been removed from their mothers and cared for by their peers, areas of their brains related to stress were still enlarged, even after being in normal social conditions for several months. Although more studies are needed to explore this fully, it’s pretty scary to think that prolonged stress could affect our brains long-term.
Stress and the body
The effects of fight or flight don’t only occur in our brains. Our bodies are physically affected by this state as well, especially when it’s prolonged.
Stress Shuts Down Digestion
Because our bodies want to use all of our available energy for fighting or fleeing, they stop other energy-spending processes like digestion. This can make us feel nauseous by stopping digestion of the food we’ve got in our bodies already, and sometimes our bodies even flush the food out with fluids, which turns into vomit.
So now we know why we often feel sick during or after high-stress situations. On the other end of the spectrum, eating well can actually positively impact how we cope with stress and therefore limit it’s impact.
Stress Makes Us Stop Thinking
You’ve probably felt how fast your heartbeat can get during stressful situations before. What’s really interesting about this is that your fast heartbeat actually sends a signal to your brain’s prefrontal cortex—the part that handles thought processing and decision making. The signal tells this part of your brain to shut down temporarily and let your mid-brain take over.
When we’re in this state, instinct and training take over from rational thought and reasoning.
Stress Makes Us Sick
Stress can affect our health in various ways, particularly chronic stress that continues over long periods of time. It can lower our immune systems so we’re generally more susceptible to getting sick. It can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease, cause everyday aches and pains, weight gain, sleep loss, lowering of sex drive and skin conditions like hives or eczema.
How to Lower Stress
Okay, I’m convinced. Stress is bad, especially if it’s ongoing. I’m definitely keen to decrease my stress levels, so let’s look at some ways to do that.
A good note to start on is that there is hope for us. Stress-reduction strategies including meditation, exercising and relaxation have been shown to reverse the negative effects of stress on our health by increasing good chemicals in the body like endorphins and making more infection-fighting T cells to boost our immune systems.
So let’s look at some practical strategies for decreasing our stress levels.
1. Get organized
It’s easy to feel stressed when you don’t have a clear idea of what’s on your schedule and what you need to work on next. Organizing your life can be helpful to see specific details of what you have to get done and what can wait.
This could mean starting a daily or weekly planner, collecting your family’s activities and appointments into one central calendar, or simply making lists of the things you need to get done. Another important element is to physically re-organize your work-place for a better sense of calm.
At my last job, our CEO had a sticky note on his computer that said “Prioritize until it hurts.” I never really got to the point where I could do that, but I like the idea of it. As you take on more and more things, prioritizing becomes more important to maintaining healthy stress levels and getting things done. Especially as we know that multitasking is not something that’s actually possible.
Whenever you find yourself becoming truly overwhelmed, take five minutes and rank the items on your to-do list in order of importance. Then, proceed from top to bottom. Even if you can’t get everything done, at least you can be secure in the fact that you’ve dealt with the most important ones.
Try not to live by the rule “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” A healthier solution is to work out ways to support other people to do things right. Try delegating with very clear, specific suggestions to help you get the results you’re after, and checking-in as the task progresses to ensure it’s on track.
Keeping an eye on something as it gets done will be a lot less weight on your shoulders than if the task sits on your to-do list stressing you out while you try to find time to do it yourself.
Part of prioritizing well is working on one thing at a time. This is definitely something I struggle with, but I’ve found it works so much better than letting myself wander between tasks or projects during the day.
Cutting your tasks into smaller, sub-tasks can help here as well, if you want to focus on one thing without it taking up your whole day. This is similar to the story of the lion tamer, who exploits the lion’s weak sense of focus whilst pointing at him with a chair that has 4 legs. Completing a whole sub-task before moving on to something else can give you a sense of accomplishment and lighten your stress levels.
Seek gentle compromise. Many stressful situations – even those that can’t be entirely eliminated – can be eased through negotiation.
What has your experience with stress been like? Do you have some more suggestions for decreasing stress levels that have worked for you?