Stress: our not-so-friendly neighbor that enters into our lives without knocking, or sometimes that kind neighbor that inspires us to pursue something that inspires us. Stress can be beneficial (eustress) or bad stress (distress), but can definitely impact our life for the better or worse. I’m here to talk about distress and ways that we can cope when we unexpectedly (or expectedly) experience it in our life.
This topic is very near and dear to me since, as I’ve gotten older, I physically feel the effects of stress more and more. The tension I feel in my body when stressed manifests into my jaw, which led to me having TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), and results in me grinding and/or clenching my jaw in my sleep. Because of TMJ, I have to wear a splint that separates my upper and lower teeth at night..and is something I may have to live with for the duration of my life. I often wake up with headaches that all result from the tension staying in my jaw and also see a change in my eating habits that affect how my digestion works. All because I have struggled to find effective ways to combat this stress and release the tension from my body. Stress can really take a toll on our physical and mental health if left untreated, which is why I think it is so important to learn how to identify when you’re feeling stressed and then have a good plan-of-attack to fight it when it arrives.
First off, what is stress and how does it physiologically work in our bodies and lead into these symptoms we experience? To put it simply, a “stressor” will cause an intricate pathway of events that lead to the release of cortisol, the key player in our body’s stress response. When levels of cortisol are increased in our body due to stress, its job is to get us back to normal. This involves regulating our blood sugar and maintaining the normal environment that keeps our bodies happy, but it comes at a price of lowering our immune system, which is our built-in defense system we have against infections. Have you ever noticed that when you’re especially stressed, you easily develop a cold or some kind of sickness? It’s because your immune system can’t protect you as well during stress and, therefore, makes us more susceptible to illnesses.
While stress can sometimes be unavoidable and oftentimes we experience bodily stress without knowing it, there are ways that we can reduce the effects of stress and even prevent it from being chronic:
- Identify your stress triggers. What causes you stress? My personal triggers are when I feel overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, insecure, or generally uneasy with situations in life. When I start noticing these feelings and negative thoughts occurring, I know I’m experiencing a stress response and will change gears and work on some stress-reducing activities.
- Find physical activities to reduce stress. You know that high you feel after working out, running, or doing something physically demanding? That’s because of endorphins we release when being active that act as natural painkillers. I personally always feel less stressed after going for a run, taking a walk, going to a yoga or fitness class, or just hitting up the gym. If you don’t want to strain yourself, even a walk outside can do some good.
- Find visual ways to reduce stress. What are things you love seeing that make you feel less stressed? For some people this may be a funny TV show, or a website that has cute pictures of baby animals. For me, my visual way to reduce stress is going outside and viewing nature: the trees, plants, grass, flowers, animals, birds, etc. What is something you can look at that will produce a sense of calm?
- Journal. Similar to how I hold tension in my jaw when stressed, we can unknowingly hold emotional stress in our minds and just let it sit there and amplify our physical symptoms. One way we can combat this is to write down whatever is causing our stress and getting it out of our mind and onto a piece of paper or computer document.
- Meditation. I found through a dedicated meditation practice that sometimes allowing myself to feel uncomfortable and sit with the stress gives me power to not let it take control over me. Now when I start feeling tension building in my body, I go into a quiet room or put headphones on and throw on a guided meditation, or meditate in silence. Sometimes when we notice the stressful thoughts as if we are an outside observer, it takes away the power the thoughts hold over us.
- Gratitude. Stress can throw us into a mental state where we are thinking of everything in a negative way. One way to combat the negative thinking that causes stress or stress can cause, is to make a list of what we are grateful for. Even one single thought of something you’re grateful for can create a change in your mood and help lower your feeling of stress. I try and think of at least 3 things I’m grateful for every day, and especially when I start to feel cynical and ungrateful for situations in life. It really is such a powerful tool.
While experiencing stress is a normal part of being human and experiencing the ups and downs in life, we don’t have to let it take control over our life and be a long-term unwanted visitor. Your mind and body are both precious entities of your being that should be treated with love and care, even when stress makes us feel uncomfortable. Over time, the coping mechanisms we have against stress will be so incorporated into our routine that we will find ourselves becoming more resilient when facing tough situations that life throws at us.