It can often feel like life is just full of stress coming at us from every angle. Without the proper coping mechanisms in place, it’s easy to end up accumulating all our different kinds of stress into one large stress ball that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. But learning how to identify our different kinds of stress not only keeps us from falling prey to this modern day epidemic, it also enables us to use our stress as a powerful tool to bring out our best and achieve our goals.
One of the most important things when understanding stress is to recognise that it come served up in two flavours - acute and chronic.
Acute stress makes up the bulk of our everyday stress and is usually caused by life’s irritations. The majority of our acute stress comes as the result of some combination of not having enough resources, enough experience or enough time. But the very nature of acute stress means that it is ultimately temporary.
This short term and relatively low level stress has long been one of nature’s ways of stimulating the mind and keeping it active. When fighting for survival in the wild, acute stressors would force us to adjust and adapt by becoming mentally strong.
More recently stress of any kind has developed a bad reputation, but if we can accept our acute stress as a powerful stimulus it then presents us with an opportunity to find solutions to many of our problems. If we are able to stop being afraid of stress, or wishing we could avoid it, our stress can become something we can draw from in order to grow and achieve our potential.
Chronic stress on the other hand is completely different, as it is a relentless kind of stress brought on by not being able to see a way out of a difficult situation. As far as stress goes, this is a fairly modern phenomenon compared to acute forms of stress, and one that our primitive ancestors were less likely to have experienced.
Although chronic and acute stress excrete the same kinds of stress hormones, the big difference is that chronic stress keeps these hormones circulating in the body. They say that the difference between something being a cure or a poison comes down to the dose, and that’s exactly the case with our stress hormones. With acute stress these essential stress hormones act as a buffering system that helps us to survive, but with chronic stress the same hormones become highly toxic, to the point where high levels of stress are literally killing us.
Ultimately stress is a natural response within the body and therefore we have evolved to have many natural ways of metabolising it. It is clearly in our interest to find as many ways as possible to keep our stress from becoming chronic. This means engaging in activities that manage the effects of stress and finding ways to incorporate them into our lives on a regular basis.
Below are five simple but effective ways of managing stress that are often either overlooked or underestimated.
Regular Physical Activity
Virtually all forms of exercise can be a great way of managing stress. Keeping active is a recognised way of reducing the body’s stress hormones as well as activating many of our “feel good” hormones. When using exercise as a way of managing stress, it’s important to focus less on long term goals and more on activities that have an immediate effect on stress levels and also help to enhance your frame of mind.
When you are chronically stressed, try and resist the temptation to over train, as excessive exercising can be another way of releasing stress hormones, which at this point is best avoided.
Rest and Restoration
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the body’s best ways of dealing with any form of chronic stress. But stress itself can often be the cause of not getting the quality of sleep we need. If this is the case, try using relaxing breathing techniques 20 minutes before you go to bed to reduce stress hormones and increase the hormones responsible for restorative sleep.
Be aware that when stressed getting too much sleep can be as detrimental as getting too little. Try to aim for around 7 to 8 hours of quality restful sleep.
One of the problems we face is that society doesn’t put too much value on the idea of proper rest. We think we’re resting but often we’re just replacing one activity with another. Watching TV at the end of the day, or surfing the web at night doesn’t qualify as quality rest. Remember that quality of rest relates to quality of life.
Other ways of getting quality rest and restoration can include things like meditation, breathing exercises, guided relaxation, hypnotherapy, saunas and forms of bodywork like massage.
Connectivity and Intimacy
Feeling chronically stressed can often make us feel like retracting into our shell and avoiding others altogether. But often reaching out, particularly to someone who’s a calm balanced listener, can instantly make you feel better.
Research has shown that hugging, especially someone you care about, activates pressure sensors just below the skin that send calming messages to the brain and slow the release of stress hormones.
Although stress is known to have devastating effects on libido, kissing and making love is proven to be one of the best ways of instantly lowering blood pressure. It can also be a great way of releasing feel good hormones that counteract stress and help with depression.
Smiling and Laughter
Laughing has to be one of the most pleasurable and effective ways of dealing with stress. Try and actively find ways to make yourself laugh, whether that’s time with friends, reading a fun book or watching a favourite comedy.
There have been numerous studies showing that the act of smiling has a powerful effect on the brain’s reward centres. This simple, free, and easy to do act is said to be thousands of times more stimulating than a well-regarded pleasure inducer like chocolate - and of course it’s less caloric.
There is even evidence that mimicking a smile or inducing spontaneous laughter can significantly reduce stress hormone levels and even reduce blood pressure.
Hobbies and Enjoyment
Hobbies and doing things you enjoy are often thought of as pass times of people who lead easy relaxed lives, but in reality stressed people need hobbies more than anyone. It may sound obvious, but enjoying yourself is one of the easiest ways to create respite from every day stress.
If you can do a hobby that involves time spent with family and friends or involves some form of exercise, even better. After all they say that no one ever lies on their deathbed wishing they spent more in the office – they’re far more likely to be wishing they had spent more time enjoying themselves with loved ones.