What is Stress?
Stress refers to a psychological perception of a threat and our body’s response to it
What is the Body’s Response to Stress?
When our brain perceives that a situation is threatening, our sympathetic nervous system is automatically activated to prepare our body to deal with it. When this happens, our body releases cortisol and adrenaline, which causes our heart rate to increase, our blood vessels to constrict, our breathing to quicken, our pupils to dilate, etc. (American Psychological Association, 2018).
After our brain determines that the perceived threat is gone, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which allows our body to relax and recover (American Psychological Association,
2018). While the sympathetic nervous system can help keep us safe from a perceived threat, it can also drain our body and put us at an increased risk of developing many health problems when it is constantly being activated (American Psychological Association, 2018).
So, Should Stress Be Avoided?
Stress is unavoidable and can help us better meet challenges. Therefore, instead of trying to run
from it, we should learn effective ways to manage it. Five recommended ways to do this include:
- Perceive your stress as something that is helping you meet your challenge rather than something that is bad for you: according to Stanford psychologist and renowned researcher Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies show that perceiving our stress positively
increases courage, decreases anxiety, and keeps our blood vessels relaxed during the stress response rather than constricted (TEDx Talks, 2014). So, next time you experience
stress, try thinking to yourself “This feeling is helping me rise to this challenge” rather than “I hate this feeling. It is hurting me and my body.”
- Seek social support and help others: according to Dr. McGonigal, seeking out social support and helping others cause our body to release oxytocin (TEDx Talks, 2014).
Oxytocin is a hormone that acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, keeps our blood vessels relaxed during the stress response, and helps our heart cells heal from the damage caused
by the stress response (TEDx Talks, 2014).
- Spend time in nature: studies have found that spending time in nature decreases stress (Yao et al., 2021) and improves cognitive performance by relieving mental fatigue (Stevenson et al., 2018).
- Embrace uncertainty: studies show that feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity increase stress (Bardeen et al., 2016). According to psychologist and renowned researcher, Dr. Elissa Epel, while anticipating the worst may seem like an effective way to better prepare for it, it is harmful to our health and does not result in a better response than not anticipating it (Suttle, 2023). We can learn to tolerate uncertainty by practicing mindfulness meditation, which helps us to stay focused on the present rather than ruminating about the uncertain future (Suttle, 2023).
- Seek professional help: a licensed mental health professional can provide us with specific tools to manage our stress that are effective for our unique circumstances. Mental health professionals can also provide cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatment, which can help us change unproductive thought patterns that are stress-inducing to more productive and soothing ones.
American Psychological Association. (2018, November 1). Stress effects on the body.
Bardeen, J. R., Fergus, T. A., & Orcutt, H. K. (2016). Examining the specific dimensions of
distress tolerance that prospectively predict perceived stress. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,
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Stevenson, M. P., Schilhab, T., & Bentsen, P. (2018). Attention restoration theory II: A
systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural
environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 21(4), 227–268.
Suttle, J. (2023, February 15). Seven Ways to Have a Healthier Relationship With Stress. The
Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
TEDx Talks. (2014). How to make stress your friend. YouTube.
Yao, W., Zhang, X., & Gong, Q. (2021). The effect of exposure to the natural environment on
stress reduction: A meta-analysis. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 57, 126932.