We often think stress is a bad thing, but research has shown that some amount of stress isn’t just good for you, it’s necessary to keep you motivated and to help you achieve your goals. In fact, a study published in the journal, Immunologic Research reports that “while long-term stress can be harmful, short-term stress can actually be protective” because it prepares you to deal with and adapt to challenges. The trick is to learn how to manage your response to day-to-day stressors in a healthy and productive manner.
We know you can’t control everything that life throws your way. That’s why we want to provide you with this exploration of stress and offer specific strategies and tips to help you manage acute stress so that you’re better equipped to tackle and respond to life’s daily demands.
In This Article
According to a study in the Annual Review of Public Health, the term “stress” is generally used to describe your response to your environment and your ability to meet the demands of your environment. In essence, stress is the energetic response you have to an environmental stimulus that helps you decide what action to take.
The problem is, stress has gotten a bad rap. We don’t often differentiate between “good” or short-term (aka acute) stress and “bad” or chronic stress. Chronic stress can lead to physical or mental health problems. On the other hand, acute stress is the type that most of us tend to experience in our daily lives and that, providing that we’re basically healthy, we can more-or-less handle on a day-to-day basis.
We’ve all likely learned about the “fight-or-flight” response at some point in our upbringing. To recap — imagine the gazelle in the African plains, grazing peacefully with its herd. Suddenly, a lion appears from out of nowhere. The gazelle has to make a choice in a split second as to whether to fight, run away or freeze. We humans have similar responses when faced with situations that we perceive to be difficult or dangerous. Our stress-response system helps us take some sort of action without having to consciously think about it.
When your brain picks up on a stressor, your HPA (hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal) axis signals your pituitary gland to release stress hormones that you may have heard of, namely adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help send your body into action one way or the other — the process happens so quickly that you don’t even notice. You unconsciously make the decision to run away, stand and fight, or remain in place hoping the stressor will go away.
The problem is that sometimes signals can get mixed up. That’s the difference between the gazelle and humans — once the gazelle knows that it’s out of danger, it immediately shakes it off and returns to grazing, whereas we humans often ruminate and get stuck in acute stress — and that’s when things can get problematic.
A study published in the European Journal of Pharmacology explains that acute stress can be adaptive by helping the body make short-term positive changes that promote health, such as an improved immune response. But chronic, prolonged stress can have the opposite effect. Too much stress overstimulates your body to the point where it is no longer able to adapt in a healthy and functional way.
It’s clear that chronic stress is the problem. When acute stress isn’t effectively managed or when stressors don’t subside, we can get stuck in an ongoing cycle of stress that leads to maladaptive behaviors (like overeating or drinking too much, self-soothing behaviors that you might be more tempted to do when you have high levels of cortisol).
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Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of research at the Stanford Center on Stress & Health, explains that nature has provided humans with powerful resilience mechanisms so we don’t just fall apart when we get stressed. However, sometimes, we put ourselves under so much stress that those mechanisms can start to break down. Dhabhar points out that chronic stress is associated with numerous problems, including faster cell aging, dysregulation of your immune system, poor cognitive functioning and increased susceptibility to or worsening of certain types of illnesses, like depression, heart disease and some types of cancer.
Managing Your Response to Stress: Rest and Digest
With that in mind, what can you do to manage your response to the acute stressors of everyday life so they don’t build up and lead to chronic stress? You may have heard about the “rest and digest” process that kicks in when your body is relaxed, which is the counterpart to the “fight-and-flight” response. Your parasympathetic nervous system handles the “come down” from stress and signals that it’s time to relax when you feel safe and secure.
So, the trick to managing stress is twofold – noticing when you’re feeling tense and stressed, and then making sure to take time out so you can calm down and relax within the “rest-and-digest” paradigm. Here are some tactics to help you better manage acute stressors that may come your way.
1. Practice deep breathing
Deep belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the best ways to calm your nervous system and return your body to a state of equilibrium. In fact, a study of the effect of diaphragmatic breathing on cognition, affect and cortisol responses to stress published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology reports that study participants who practiced diaphragmatic breathing experienced significantly lower levels of cortisol when compared to the control group.
The beauty of this practice is its simplicity — you simply place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your belly, then take slow, deep breaths through your nose and into your belly. As you inhale, the hand on your chest should stay still while the hand on your belly should rise; as you exhale, the hand on your chest should remain still as the belly deflates.
2. Be present
We sometimes get so caught up in our heads during times of stress that we can dissociate, or lose touch with our sense of reality. One way to counter the stress response is through mindfulness. This means being fully present by focusing on your immediate environment and physical sensations in your body. Feel your feet planted firmly on the floor, look around and observe where you are right now and place all of your attention on what’s going on in the here and now as you focus on your breath. You could also try these free brief mindfulness meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
3. Engage in mindful movement
According to a study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, engaging in mindful movement has been shown to have a positive effect on well-being and reduces feelings of stress. Mindful movement means any physical activity you perform with intention and attention to the present moment. This might mean mindful walking outdoors as you pay attention to your bodily sensations, breathing and the environment around you. Mindful movement can also involve practicing gentle yoga, Tai Chi or qigong, or any other physical activity you can perform with a sense of mindfulness and intention.
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