Stress! Can we learn to live with it?

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Your heart is racing, your hands and feet are tingling, your mouth is dry, butterflies in your stomach, tunnel vision, your entire being screams to getaway.

Sound familiar? The above could be what you experience standing in front of an audience or a full-blown panic attack.

Do you constantly feel tired? Find it hard to sleep? Feel you need something outside yourself to make yourself feel better? To help you cope?

The above results from stress, both immediate or prolonged stress, and the flooding of your system with cortisol.

From the Cleveland Clinic website:

“Cortisol is a steroid hormone that your adrenal glands, the endocrine glands on top of your kidneys, produce and release. Cortisol affects several aspects of your body and mainly helps regulate your body’s response to stress.”

Besides the world’s most significant stressor, public speaking, what else could trigger this release?

These can include fear, real or perceived, catastrophizing, social media and email notifications, and the news media(think pandemics and war). Sometimes, we cannot seem to pinpoint why we are stressed. It can feel like your life is going in the right direction. You are generally happy, and so are the people around you. Even so, stress keeps creeping up on you. In these instances, we have to dig deeper, be honest, and be willing to confront our inner demons.

Now, stress is not in itself a bad thing. On the contrary, stress and the body’s response to it can save your life. Like many other emotions, stress is similar to excitement, love, and melancholy. In fact, we often mistake excitement for fear, another common emotion. But, unlike many other emotions, how we react to stress is critical to our general health and well-being.

As a recovering alcoholic, I can attest to that, for the longest time, I did not healthily handle my stress. I know that this is true for many of us. With this knowledge, I decided to dig into the possible impact of stress and how we can healthily deal with our stressors.

The immediate effects of cortisol and related hormones

When a stressful situation presents itself, our body releases three hormones: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The first two of these are what primes your body for the immediate response needed to respond to the trigger.

You become hyper-focused, your heart rate increases, and you get a burst of energy. But, while cortisol is also released, it takes a bit longer to kick in.

Amit Sood M.D, chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at Mayo Clinic, explains it this way in an article in The Huffington Post:

“First, the part of the brain called the amygdala has to recognize a threat. It then sends a message to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Whew!”

When released, it turns off growth, shuts down digestion(causing butterflies in the stomach), ramps down your immune response, and shuts off the reproductive drive. At this critical moment, none of these functions are needed and wastes precious energy.

All good things! As I mentioned earlier, all of this can literally save your life. But unfortunately, when we ruminate or catastrophize, we put our bodies under constant stress. And it is this that leads to long-term problems.

The mental and physical impact of stress

Before we look at how we can better handle stress, let’s discuss the potential adverse effects of prolonged stress.

Two of the first effects are a decrease in metabolic rate and increased muscle tissue deterioration. This makes avoiding weight gain almost impossible. In addition, with increased weight gain, you run the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. These can reduce cardiac health, which is still the number one killer.

I want to pause here for a second with a quote from psychologist and author Guy Winch:

“We have a choice in the stories we tell ourselves. In contrast, we don’t have a choice about the facts. We have choice about our organization, perspective, and the narrative we create around them.” — Guy Winch.

This brings me to something else that has been a part of my life, chronic anxiety. As the stoic philosopher, Seneca said, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

This suffering is primarily fueled by our tendency to ruminate on the negative aspects of our lives and ourselves(real or imagined). Self-reflection is essential for us to grow, but rumination is a maladaptive form of self-reflection. It is also involuntary for the most part.

Adaptive self-reflection is when you look at your life and actions with an end in mind. When you are looking at aspects, you can change or improve. However, it becomes maladaptive when you play the same movie repeatedly in your head with no resolution. It is the latter that then also leads to anxiety.

For example, you walk around the house reiterating how you have so much to do. However, you are not addressing the problem. Instead, you are simply stressing yourself out. Because the oldest parts of our brain are ill-equipped to distinguish between real and perceived realities, this can stimulate our stress response and trigger the release of cortisol. This process is known as a negative feedback loop that you want to avoid.

Another aspect of life impacted by cortisol is sleep. Books have been written about the importance of sleep and the impact of poor sleep quality on our health. Here we again find ourselves with a negative feedback loop.

When your sleep is impacted, your anxiety goes up. More cortisol is released when anxiety goes up, and around and around we go. Ok, enough already; this is stressing me out. 😁

What can we do to handle stress better?

First and foremost is to keep a gratitude journal. If we actively remind ourselves of all the good things in our lives, it helps restore balance.

If keeping a journal is not your cup of tea, try starting your day by mentally counting your blessings. For me, this takes the form of a short mediation first thing in the morning.

Meditation is one of the most effective ways to manage stress better. It can help put the events in your life in perspective, thus avoiding rumination. It can help calm you when stress or anxiety tries to take over. It also assists you in reintegrating both mind and body.

As Mark Krauss commented in my previous post, we should be vigilant in our offense, not just defense. While having a defense is good, it is much more tiring than having a good offense. Mindfulness mediation is a powerful tool in building a mental offense. If you have not before, please do yourself a favor and look into mindfulness-based stress reduction(MBSR).

Physical activity is the following tool that will help. Living an active lifestyle has countless health benefits for both the body and the mind. Some benefits include having more energy, better quality sleep, reduced anxiety, reduced blood pressure, and a general feeling of well-being.

Following a healthy diet has an enormous impact. I follow a whole-food, plant-based diet. More and more evidence shows the connection between a healthy microbiome and mental health.

While all of the above are essential tools if you are suffering from addiction, mental health challenges, and feel crippled by anxiety, I implore you to seek medical help. The benefit of treatment by a skilled psychiatrist is immeasurable. In addition, the stigma that persists today regarding mental health and medicine needs to stop. It starts with us.

Nobody feels guilty or ashamed if they have high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. None of these people would hide that they are getting professional help and taking medication. So why should those of us doing the same for our mental health behave any differently?

There is no reason. If you need the help of a skilled professional, seek it out, it could save your life or the life of a loved one.

I hope you found the information valuable and insightful. I enjoyed researching these topics and putting them together. Take care of yourself and those you love.

I write about mental health, addiction, sober living, and living your best life. If you find value in my writing, consider buying me a coffee ☕️

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Schalk Neethling

Schalk Neethling

I write about mental health, addiction, sober living, living your best life through an active lifestyle and a whole food plant-based diet. Psychedelic curios :)