Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Stress is so common nowadays, that we can definitely pinpoint specific situations when we felt it. What's frightening is that stress profoundly affects our psychological and physiological wellbeing. Here, I will guide you through four main types of stress and scientifically proven ways to relieve it.
We've all felt that nervousness on the first day at school or a new job, or before a job interview. We've felt our heart beating rapidly, palms sweating. We were breathing so fast as though we're not getting enough oxygen, muscles tensing up giving us the urge to punch the wall or run very fast and never come back. Many of us have also experienced immense stomach problems, such as nausea or extreme craving for sugary or fatty food. These are all symptoms of stress and the type that occurs quickly, while anticipating a specific event is called acute stress.
We can also experience stronger stress-related effects during life events. Receiving bad news, such as getting fired from work, being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition or going through a rough break-up can even lead to more serious issues with our physical and mental health.
Stressful situations can also be long-lasting. We often tend to overlook them as they can be a part of our everyday life. House chores like cooking dinner, doing the dishes, cleaning the house and doing laundry are just a few examples of our every-day hassles that we tend to take as normal routines. However, what we don't often notice is how they actually affect our wellbeing, especially if we experience them as somewhat negative (which many of us do, since who enjoys doing the dishes, really?).
Chronic stressors is another overlooked category, where we are less likely to notice stress or we feel that we shouldn't feel stressed in certain situations. These can for example be long hours of work, or caregiving.
In both cases, we might even feel ashamed to be stressed, or try to convince ourselves that "that's life" and that we should get used to it.
We may tell ourselves that, since our parents have worked long hours to provide for us when we were children, we should not complain when we also find ourselves in a similar situation since they had it tougher. Or we know that if it was us who were ill and needed help, our loved ones would also take care of us. Therefore, no matter how mentally and physically difficult it may be, we tend to push the negative feelings aside. But they tend to come back in some way in the end.
With chronic stress we often develop physiological symptoms but may not be aware of stress being the issue. You may notice your digestion becoming problematic but suspect food intolerances. Or you may have pain in your neck, shoulders and back but think that the exercises you did at the gym are to blame. You might have trouble sleeping and you blame it all on the amount of coffee you drank earlier. You may also catch a cold as soon as you take time off work and think that it's just bad luck.
But what we often don't think about is that these are the typical physiological symptoms of stress that we tend to overlook.
It's scary to know that all of the four types of stressors are extremely common in our lives and we usually experience three of them on a regular basis. Life event stressors tend to happen a little less frequently than the other three types.
Importantly, many of us experience chronic stress, without even knowing about it. Adding every day hassles and acute stress that also tend to occur often, our bodies barely ever have time to recover. This is why when we receive life-changing news, many of us just "lose it".
Knowing that stress increases morbidity and mortality, causing many physiological and psychological conditions, the importance to alleviate it becomes paramount.
Here are 5 ways you can relieve stress:
If you are experiencing stress over the long term or have acute stress, a great way to feel better is by exercising (1).
You can go for a walk in the nature or run, do weight lifting, swimming, surfing, or anything else that you enjoy and makes you feel good. The key is to get your body to move, which in turn triggers the release endorphins. These neurotransmitters are known to make you happier and can reduce stress both at the moment and in the long term if you continue exercising regularly.
Through exercise, you also step away from the problems running through your head and focus on the present moment for a while. This helps you to gain a different perspective and it may even help you look at the problems in a calmer way when you are done.
Meditation is currently a widely used as stress relief technique. Jon Kabat-Zinn (professor of medicine and the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society) developed mindfulness based stress relief (MSBR) method in the 1970s. MSBR used Buddhist wisdom, however was applied to the Western World, that was not so used to mindfulness at that the time.
This program includes practices of the body scan, sitting meditation, and gentle yoga. They are of meditative nature, focusing on nonjudgemental observation and acceptance of the presence and physical and psychological sensations (2).
Studies have proven MSBR's effects throughout the years, showing increased connectivity of sensory networks as well as regions responsible for attention and sensory functions. It also results in more efficient emotion processing, better attention allocation as well as more consistent focus (3).
You can find lots of guided meditation sessions on mindfulness apps such as Calm, or Headspace, as well as Youtube.
3. Spend time with friends and family
As humans, we are made for socializing and belonging to groups. It is an evolutionary mechanism that's helped us to survive as species (4). Therefore, our brain is wired to release the "feel good" hormones when we spend time with our friends and family.
You can use this evolutionary trait to your advantage when you're stressed. Call up a friend of your parents and just talk. Or better yet, get out of the stressful situation for a while and meet your friends or family at a place you like. Preferably, start talking about how they are doing and try to think of positive things in your life to talk about with them first.
By truly and mindfully listening to others as well as trying to firstly focus on positive aspects in your life, you will step away from your stressors and gain a different perspective. You can later tell them about what's bothering you and talk through it.
Sometimes you don't have the possibility to meet someone to talk about your problems, or you feel like you don't want to bother your friends. In this case, journaling is a great way to gain perspective of your stress and understand it on a deeper level.
Research has proven the benefits of writing down feelings as a therapeutic tool to feel better and manage stress (5).
By writing down your feelings, you are fully facing them. It can therefore be seen as a mindfulness technique. During journaling, many different feelings, that you otherwise haven't thought about, may surface and you will gain a very deep understanding of how you are actually feeling. The benefit of writing it all down is that you let all those feelings out instead of withholding them and it becomes easier to move on.
5. Breathing exercises
Since stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, your body goes into "fight or flight" mode. This mode increases heart rate and speeds up your breathing, getting you ready to conquer the enemy or run away from it.
While the "fight or flight" response can be life-saving if you encounter a bear in a forest, nowadays it is rarely ever beneficial.
We can deactivate our sympathetic nervous system response through slowing down our breath, which in turn slows down our heart rate. It activates the parasympathetic system, which makes you calm and stops the release of stress hormones (6).
You can try the various techniques of breathing, such as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing or paced respiration and find the one you like. The goal is to focus on the breath, feeling the lungs and the belly expand with an inhale and then contract and let go of what's bothering you with an exhale.
Here were my 5 mindfulness-based tips on how to relieve stress, which is awfully common nowadays. I'd really like to know if you use any of these or other techniques to cope with stress, so please let me know your ways by leaving a comment here or send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org :)
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence on mindfulness and tips that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on email@example.com
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Harvard Heatlh Publishing. Harvard Medical School. Exercising to relax. 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
2. Baer, R. A., Carmody, J., & Hunsinger, M. (2012). Weekly Change in Mindfulness and Perceived Stress in a Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction Program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(7), 755–765. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21865
3. Kilpatrick, L. A., Suyenobu, B. Y., Smith, S. R., Bueller, J. A., Goodman, T., Creswell, J. D., Naliboff, B. D. (2011). Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Neuroimage, 56(1), 290–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.02.034
4. Susanne Shultz, Christopher Opie, & Quentin D. Atkinson. (2011). Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature, 479(7372), 219–222. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10601
5. Utley, A., & Garza, Y. (2011). The Therapeutic Use of Journaling With Adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 6(1), 29–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401383.2011.557312
6. Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., … Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874