Now that nutrition and exercise are dialed in, let’s dig into pillars of wellness part 3: stress reduction. Stress is kind of a strange thing, often people focus too much on it or don’t focus on it at all. We also have a hard time defining what stress is. A major misconception is that stress is only emotional and has little to do with physical exertion, nutrition, and positive as well as negative life events.
Really, stress is anything that exceeds our resources, those resources can come from numerous biological and emotional categories. If stress overwhelms any of these categories, the immune system can plummet, the body releases an abundance of cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. You become more resilient for a period, then you crash and have to deal with the consequences of pushing yourself beyond your allostatic threshold for this period.
Numerous things can stimulate a stress response, some people find that when they over exercise or engage in chronic-cardio they gain weight or their weight loss progress comes to a screeching halt. This happens because the steroid known as cortisol is released to manage your inflammation, as a side effect it also promotes fat storage, conversion of protein to sugar, and a significant decrease in insulin sensitivity. Exercising with a perspective of rest and recovery keeps you from exceeding your allostatic threshold for prolonged periods and you actually get stronger. You can get stronger through over-exercise, it just takes longer, makes you hate yourself, and you can start to associate exercise with punishment.
What else stimulates a stress response?
I won’t go into this too much, I covered this fairly extensively in my article on allostasis. In general, everything from finances, family demands, social situations, work culture, daily hassles (i.e. traffic, noise, decision fatigue, working, etc.), nutritional status, inflammation, pain, and injuries can stimulate a stress response.
You could look at these elements as slices in a pie chart and the empty pie chart waiting to be filled is your allostatic load. Every time one of the previously mentioned things challenge you, they get added to your empty pie chart and the slices can be bigger or smaller depending on the challenge. Eventually, your allostatic pie chart becomes full, if any of these slices get bigger or a new challenge is introduced, you exceed your allostatic threshold and experience a prolonged stress response. As a result, your ability to think and process information precipitously drops, you make poor decisions, you can lash out at loved ones, and you experience biological wear and tear.
Stress can be healthy
When challenges don’t exceed your threshold, you can recover and become stronger. You gradually can handle more stress and tackle bigger challenges. The problem is that finding the allostatic sweet spot can be challenging. Once you find this balance though, you develop what stress researchers call resilience and you become hardier as a result. The reason we exceed our allostatic threshold is that it feels SO good to work within it, we mistakenly think more is better and overwhelm ourselves. It’s important to know when you are “killin it!” instead of “being killed BY it”.
Ways to reduce stress
Control refers to your perception that you can either escape the stress you are experiencing or that you have the power to end it if you wish. Control seems like a strange way to manage stress because there are numerous things we don’t have control over. So how do you actualize control for the purpose of stress reduction?
You learn the things you have power over, at work that could mean taking advantage of company wellness resources, learning your company’s policy on vacation and sick leave so your less timid about using either, it can also involve scheduling time outs for yourself to chat, walk, and/or have a healthy snack.
In your home environment, this involves effective communication with your significant other. Effective communication allows you to determine each other’s responsibilities, future plans, and dreams/aspirations. It gives you a sense of forward momentum and purpose.
The other way to actualize control is to make an escape plan, know the exits, and take vacations. Knowing you can escape is a big deal, when you actualize that escape by taking a sick day or vacation day you feel better even when you’re feeling awful. It seems like knowing there is a pressure release, actively prevents pressure from building and eventually exploding. If all else fails, there are some supplements that can help with stress reduction.
I talk about allostasis quite a bit and that’s because it beautifully captures what stress is and the mechanisms by which it affects us. Allostasis is how much stress we can take before we become overwhelmed, develop burnout, and a gradual decline in health. The most important thing with allostasis is to know your limits and how much you can handle from all aspects of your life.
You might perceive one aspect of your life as particularly stressful but fail to pay attention to the accumulation of stress in other areas of your life. Often the things that are the most stressful are the things we can’t change (a big part of why they are stressful), so it’s important to keep an eye on the aspects of life you can change. Staying within your allostatic range and not exceeding your threshold can help with stress reduction and overall life balance.
You can build self-efficacy by not biting off more than you can chew. Self-efficacy is basically confidence in your ability to manage a situation. Those with low self-efficacy rarely act to reduce stress in situations they have control over because they don’t think their effort will make a difference, this is also known as learned helplessness. Individuals with high self-efficacy aren’t bothered by stressful situations because they know they could stop it when they want (control) or they just act upon it and conclude the stressful event.
To build efficacy and not get stuck in a cycle of learned helplessness, take on achievable challenges, the smaller the better. If you take on large challenges, you are setting yourself up for failure and further reinforcing the idea that you are helpless. As you accumulate small successes you gradually take on bigger challenges organically, as opposed to forcing yourself into them. Improving self-efficacy is a powerful way to manage stress, and it’s fun! It feels good to succeed and then when you accomplish bigger goals, it feels even better and you feel like you can take on anything that comes your way.
Social support is the reciprocal act of providing and receiving support from an individual close to you or an individual who can’t have repercussive impacts on your life. It’s unclear in the research whether providing or receiving social support is the more potent component and it may not be possible to parse them out. Those that provide social support often receive more support in return and those that seek social support are more likely to provide it for others. Having anonymous support can also be helpful, like an anonymous hotline or a therapist. Essentially, it boils down to having an entity you can openly share your thoughts, feelings, and concerns with whom won’t negatively judge or cause you to fear future repercussions.
A good way to maximize the stress reduction potential of social support is to examine the people in your life and determine who you feel comfortable talking to about certain things. You might determine that a certain friend is great for discussing relationships with, maybe your significant other does a great job helping you with work stress, you might have a sibling that is there for you when family life gets tough, etc. It’s good to know the strengths of the people in your network, doing so can often facilitate deeper connections with those people.
I’m not talking fixed vs growth mindset for all you Carol Dweck fans. I’m talking about changing your mindset that negative life events are stressful and instead, perceive them as challenges to overcome. You might need to take advantage of some other techniques first such as managing your allostatic load, building your self-efficacy, using social support, but once you have space to not feel overwhelmed by your stress, you can change your mindset and see the stress as a challenge. Shifting your mindset to see stress as a good thing can help you lose weight and improve your health if your job is physical (it’s not stress, it’s exercise!). You can build self-efficacy and take back a sense of control if you look at life events as challenges to overcome.
Acute stress reduction techniques
Sometimes you just need a second to relieve some pressure and skim a little stress off the top. Stress reduction techniques like slow(er) walking, HRV biofeedback, meditation, movement-based relaxation, and simple activities like reading are a great way to take the edge off and refocus.
This is a mindfulness exercise for stress reduction. As you take a walk, don’t hurry. Take the time to feel your heel touch the ground, the flex of your foot as you shift your weight, the breeze on your skin, the warmth of the sun, and let your body relax. You don’t have to walk like you’re doing Tai Chi, just walk a little slower than you feel inclined to walk (which might be fast if you’re super stressed).
HRV Biofeedback is kind of like meditation for hard-nosed scientists. Essentially, if you inhale in for 4-6 seconds and exhale for 4-6 seconds you maximize your parasympathetic nervous system and activate your frontal cortex (increased emotion regulation), relieving the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response. This stress reduction technique is usually best done with an app.
Meditation is good to practice but I don’t place it higher than anything else on this list. It can be hard to establish a good meditation practice, although it gradually gets easier. This biggest barrier to proper meditation is letting go of your preconceptions of what meditation is, meditation is different things to different people even if how people meditate is the same. The idea of “letting go”, “not thinking”, “accepting thoughts and letting them pass” or “being one with the universe” can actively prevent these things from happening. Meditation is sitting and breathing with your eyes shut (although many things can be used to induce a meditative-like state), letting go of resistance and letting your brain unravel. Meditation becomes a potent stress reduction technique the more you practice.
This is my favorite! I prefer “matter over mind” instead of “mind over matter” techniques. Your body is designed to adapt to movement and prepare your body for possible danger. For example, your heart rate increases when you run to adapt to your movement and your heart rate will also increase if you walk by an alley that gives you an uneasy feeling. When you feel negative emotions, your instinct is to use your mind to restrain your bodily response to those emotions and this resistance makes the emotion stronger (mind over matter). If you change your action, you can alter how your body adapts to a situation and change how your mind processes it (matter over mind). There are some very potent techniques that use this mechanism, including.
Finger Tapping (Full Disclosure: I designed this one).
The simplest way to get relief is by using movement. One way to do this is to tap at a pace that reflects your current emotional experience and gradually tap slower and softer till you are tapping as slow and soft as you feel comfortable (tap with the whole hand from pinky to thumb). As you tap slower and softer, let your breaths become longer and deeper. Through my research, I have found that individuals can experience relief with this technique with minimal practice and minimal time commitment. Give it a shot!