Each of us faces stress at some point in our lives, and many of us experience stress on a daily basis. Stress is often defined as a mental, physical and emotional response to a challenging event. Some stresses, such as working to meet a deadline, can be beneficial and even motivational. Negative stress, however, undermines your physical and mental health.
When you are stressed, your body responds with a “fight or flight” instinct and produces more cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline—all chemicals that can trigger a higher heart rate, rapid breathing, heightened muscle preparedness, sweating and alertness. Additionally, non-essential body functions like the digestive and immune systems slow down.
The key to coping with stress is recognizing your body’s physical responses to stress. These might include:
• Increasing blood pressure
• Rapid breathing
• Rising heart rate
• Tense muscles
• Lack of sleep due to a heightened state of alertness
In a recent study, scientists looked at the brains of men and women under stress. People said to be highly resilient were able to recognize the physiological signs of stress and control their response. The brains of individuals with low resilience scores, however, showed high activation in the parts of the brain that increase physiological arousal. In other words, they panicked.
Those attuned to their own physiologies are better able to cope with stress and more likely to bounce back faster, according to Dr. Martin Paulus, senior author on the study. In order to cope with stress, you must improve internal communications with your body.
Teach your brain to cope with stress with a few tips:
Breathe. Spend a few minutes each day focusing on your breathing, paying close attention to inhaling and exhaling.
Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Foods that are low in nutritional value and high in calories and refined sugars leave us feeling sluggish and low-energy. A healthy diet promotes health and reduces stress.
Take a break if you feel stressed out. Step away from the source of your stress, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Exercise on a regular basis. Physical activity increases production of endorphins (feel-good hormones) and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone).
Get plenty of sleep. When you’re tired, you’re less patient and more agitated, which will only increase in stressful situations. Aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
If your stress leaves you feeling overwhelmed or causes thoughts of suicide, seek help from a psychologist, social worker or professional counselor.