Sheri Colberg, PhD
Let's Talk about Stress (and Ways to Manage It)
Updated: Jul 7, 2022
Life can just feel overwhelming sometimes. We all have stress in our lives from time to time, if not constantly for some people. What is stress exactly? Usually, we’re talking about a mental or emotional state, but it can also include physical stressors. The American Institute of Stress has a list of 50 common symptoms of stress.
A little stress once in a while is usually manageable for most people; it’s just when it gets to be too much or occurs too often that it can take a toll on your psyche or your body (or both). What can you do to lower excess stress? It largely depends on its cause.
On the mental or emotional side, you may feel stressed by having looming deadlines, dealing with kids, being a caregiver for an ailing parent, having financial problems, hating or losing your job, feeling academic pressures, dealing with two plus years of COVID-19, losing someone you love, having to manage a chronic disease (like diabetes), or even dealing with how you’re feeling about recent SCOTUS rulings—the possible list is nearly endless and unique to each person.
On the physical side, stressors include things like not sleeping long or well enough, getting sick (whether with a cold, the flu, COVID, or something else), having long COVID symptoms, not being able to manage chronic health conditions (like diabetes or high blood pressure), undergoing cancer treatments, or even simply pushing yourself too hard for too long (causing injuries or other physical damage). Even exercising too much can cause physical stress leading to injuries or cause you to get sick by depressing your immune system.
Our bodies have a physical response to any type of stressor. Acute stress can cause an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure, and you’ll likely also experience a rise in a hormone called cortisol, which can cause insulin resistance and higher blood glucose levels. Sustained high levels of cortisol can also cause you to gain weight, even if you’re not eating more.
Did you ever wonder why people reach for the ice cream container when they feel stressed? There are physiological reasons why that can actually help. Your mental or emotional stress levels can drop when you increase the brain hormones that activate your pleasure centers there. The main brain hormones that can help lower stress are dopamine and endorphins, all of which can be released by eating ice cream (and by other means).
Since being stressed can impact your ability to manage your daily activities and reach your goals, it’s really important to be able to find ways to manage it. (You can find plenty of resources online to help you find which stress management techniques work best for you; some of them are mentioned on the website for the American Institute of Stress). Personally, I used to have a mental list of natural and legal endorphin/dopamine-releasing activities that I thought undertaking about when my own emotional/mental stress levels were getting too high. Maybe you could try some of these:
Being active is my favorite stress management strategy, but it has its limits since too much activity can raise cortisol and cause overuse injuries. Even just taking a quick walk for a few minutes may help you lower your stress levels.
It can be hard to get more sleep or sleep well when you’re stressed or sick. If you can, fit in a power nap to help clear your mind and lower your mental and physical stress.
Eating certain foods
Most fats, sweets, starchy foods, and chocolate can release dopamine in your brain, but all of these can raise your blood glucose and make you gain weight. Plus, the guilt that comes with overindulging can also increase stress! See if having just a bite or two and really savoring them will suffice to lower your stress.
Yes, laughter really is the “best medicine,” but it can be hard to get yourself to laugh when you’re really stressed. Maybe try laughing at the absurdity of a situation that you’re finding yourself in and see if that helps.
Deep breathing or meditation
I’ve seen other people try these techniques with success, but they never work for me. (I’m too Type A to sit still long enough to breathe deeply for long or to meditate at all.) Maybe just take few minutes by yourself to decompress, if nothing else.
I find sex is better with the right partner, but that’s not always an option. Plus, it can be hard to really enjoy sex if you can’t get your mind off your stressors.
Nicotine binds to receptors in your brain just 7 seconds after you inhale, but smoking is definitely not good for your health. This was a running joke for me at one very stressful point in my life, though, when I was maxing out all the other dopamine-inducing techniques and would ask jokingly, “So, which brand of cigarettes should I try?”
All joking aside, it’s important to manage daily stress to keep it from impairing your ability to live life to the fullest. Realize your limitations in managing all of the stressors in your life (you seldom can). Instead, try to figure out which stress management techniques work for you. Use a combination of them or vary which you try on any given day or for each unique situation. Your long-term health and well-being are dependent on it!