You Are In Control: How to Benefit From Stress
Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Hello hello hello... I went a little MIA last week due to a new job and adjusting to a new schedule. This actually inspired this week's post! This week I want to talk about stress and how to adjust accordingly in our lives. As usual, all images that are not mine are links for you to learn more about a topic if you are interested. Thank you for reading and I'd love to hear about your stories and what has helped you best deal with stress!
Stress - that word alone makes me slightly anxious. The word that describes all of the chaos and disorder that occurs daily and throughout our lives. This recently became something that I started to think about as I started a new job and commuting over two hours a day.
For me, this was a completely new change. Fresh out of college, I spent my summer teaching yoga and taking a break for the first time in four years. I have now started a new job that perfectly aligns with my goals - but there is a lot of change that is also happening in my life. For you, this could also be starting a new job, moving to a new state, final exams, or the holiday season that has approached. I can relate to all of these as many of you can - but what we negate to recognize is the impact of stress on our personality.
WE NEED STRESS
I know this sounds crazy, right? The analogy I like to use refers to pain. Pain is necessary in the body because it tells us about our surroundings and lets us know when something is wrong in the body. Stomach aches, scratches, broken bones, etc., are messages that are sent to the brain by nerves to let us know that something is wrong within the body. Without pain, infections would be able to easily spread without our knowledge.
Like pain, stress keeps our bodies informed and aware. When humans have a stressful occurrence, our bodies release cortisol, the stress hormone, and epinephrine, which increases heart rate. It sends our body into a moment of “fight or flight" and keeps us attentive at all times. For most, stress is beneficial and keeps us motivated as we use cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline to our benefit; but for others, stress can be an all-consuming disorder.
THE BRAIN ON STRESS
So how does stress affect our lives? The brain reacts to stress by secreting hormones into the bloodstream which travel to the rest of the body. Approximately 20% of the blood in our veins is located in the brain at all times, and the rest is distributed to our bodies. As you can see above, when our brain is secreting chemicals, it is directly affecting our autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is something that we have all heard of and what we often think of as "fight or flight," but this is only one half of our autonomic nervous system. When we are not activating our sympathetic branch of the ANS, the "rest and digest" or "relaxed" parasympathetic branch is activated. When our bodies are in stress-mode, we are in fight or flight and our brains and body respond to whatever is happening in our lives at that moment to try to reach the level of relaxation.
When Is Stress Too Much?
What is chronic stress? Just like any other chronic illness, chronic stress is the constant emotional pressure and irritation that is prolonged over a duration of time. This can be different for every person, but compared to acute stress which only lasts for days or a few weeks, chronic stress can last months or even years. During these weeks or months, cortisol and epinephrine are constantly released into the body which activates the sympathetic nervous system and makes "fight or flight mode" the default lifestyle.
Chronic stress is known to increase the risk of mental illness, changes the brain structure by killing brain cells, and causes a decline in memory. Stress is key for survival just as pain is, but too much stress is detrimental if prolonged over a long period of time. An excess of cortisol can impair the neurons in the hippocampus which are responsible for encoding and recalling memory. Not only is this bad for the brain, but it affects the heart causing it to pump chemicals through the body. If epinephrine is constantly pumped through the heart, it can change artery structure and the capability of regenerating new heart cells causing heart failure and disease.
Signs of chronic stress:
• Inability to concentrate or complete tasks • Lowered immune system • Body aches
• Other illnesses flare up • Headaches • Irritability • Trouble sleeping or staying awake • Changes in appetite • Inflammation in the body • Angry or anxious more than usual
• Increases blood pressure • Sudden onset of depression
Okay so chronic stress is clearly bad, so how can any stress be good for you? Acute stress, (small amounts of stress), motivates and allows a person to perceive that they have control over an experience. In any instance, stress can help you achieve your goals and ultimately lead to happiness if handled as an occurrence that you have control over and can work towards achieving a goal.
Acute stress has been shown to boost the production of new neurons within the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, as one can learn from experiences with stress and can gain awareness from utilizing stress as a benefit. Learning that acute stress can be effective and useful, therefore acute stress does not damage neurons, but rather produces new ones.
I personally learned how to manage my stress levels through college. It was a time where stress was just a part of my lifestyle and throughout my future career, I will be going through much more schooling and had to find what works best for me. I found that meditation, essential oils, and taking breaks to reward myself worked the best. This is different depending on the situation that you are in, but if you would like to read more I have written posts on different ways to cope with stress: essential oil blog post, meditation blog post, and how to successfully motivate yourself.
“Imagine feeling calm and content wherever you are. Imagine feeling that your life is so complete – right here, right now – that you do not wish to be anywhere else.”
This quote is so inspiring to me and I hope to you. Throughout the long days of work, the holiday season, or finals-week, try to imagine yourself being right where you are supposed to be. In my life, I like to believe that each moment is a part of my journey – even if I am just sitting at my desk reading a research paper. Try to learn something from every occurrence in your life and appreciate that your brain and body is capable of utilizing stress.
In times of stress and hardship, I also try to remember what’s known as the 5 by 5 rule: if it will not matter in five years, do not spend more than five minutes thinking about it. I personally changed this because I realized that many things will not matter even in two weeks’ time, so I try not to over-stress on anything that long term does not effect or impact my life. Use your stress to your benefit and remember that you are in control of your life.
Thank you for reading - Happy Wednesday!