How to Deal with Stress

We all know the feeling. Our hands become slick with sweat, our heart beats faster, and we feel as if we’re looking at the world through a glass as we enter the exam room or step up to the podium to begin a presentation. These sensations are not figments of our imagination but reflect a series of physiological processes changing as our body prepares for its big moment.

Though we tend to try and avoid this feeling at all costs, the act of experiencing a stressful moment — giving a speech in front of a crowd, taking a big exam, or being scared while watching a horror film — may actually be beneficial for the body. Acute stress, or stress that begins and ends at a finite moment, allows the body to adapt to its external environment and presents an opportunity for the development of positive coping strategies.

Why Acute Stress isn’t Always the Enemy

The production of cortisol (the body’s main “stress” signal) can help reduce inflammation for a short period to allow the body to more effectively execute strenuous activity. Increased heart rate and blood pressure can help the body tackle immediate obstacles. Heightened threat perception and awareness may help direct our attention to imminent dangers and remain safe. The stress response is essential for life and remarkably effective at affecting both the body and its behavior, one of the reasons chronic stress can be so detrimental.

The momentary experience of stress, when felt before a big exam or public speech, does not have the same negative consequences as long-term, prolonged stress. Having a base level of cortisol is essential for maintaining blood sugar levels within a normal range. Acute stress that begins and ends at a finite point may be “adaptive” in that it allows us to react to imminent threats effectively, develop important coping strategies, and improve our ability to deal with more complex, constant stressors.

Interestingly, the perception of control over a source of stress impacts its effect on the body and mind. Research has shown that people who face a stressful obstacle where they feel in control (ie. that the obstacle was created by their own actions) have greater persistence and improved decision making after failure. This finding implies that reframing obstacles as being products of our own actions (and therefore resolvable as well) may be beneficial with regard to how we deal with stress. Said otherwise, these kinds of factors— those that relate to our perception and response to stress —are hugely important and inform some of the techniques we should use to cope with both acute and chronic stress.

Minimizing Chronic Stress

Researchers have been searching for the best ways for people to avoid experiencing chronic stress. Repeatedly, a few suggestions have surfaced as some effective coping strategies.

  1. Seek social support: In times of prolonged stress, the number one way to mitigate any potential stress-induced issues is to reach out to friends and family for support.
  2. Exercise: Exercise releases endorphins in the brain and reduces cortisol levels, allowing you to escape stressful situations and engage with a new activity.
  3. Deep Breathing and Mindfulness: Deep breathing and mindfulness techniques have proven to be effective ways to deal with stressful situations and improve one’s ability to cope with stress.
  4. Eat Well: A balanced diet and the right foods can boost the immune system, provide good sources of energy, and give ourselves plenty of nutrients to help the body deal with stress.
  5. Positive Reappraisal: Similar to mindfulness, reframing stressful events as being less threatening and daunting, maybe even beneficial, can help your mind and body cope with the stressor.
  6. Problem Solving: By targeting the source of stress and fixing the underlying issue— which can sometimes be easier said than done —has been shown to be effective in reducing the negative consequence of stress.

As with all the best things in life, it is important to live with everything in moderation. The key message is that not all stress is equal— some stressors, those that are chronic and outside of our control, may be more detrimental than others that allow us to develop important coping strategies. In this uncertain period of heightened stress for all, particularly those healthcare professionals and other essential workers helping keep us and our families safe, it is important to recognize the importance of managing stress.

Taking the time to care for our mental well-being is more crucial than ever while many of us remain separated from friends and family. Let us all recognize that by implementing a few changes in our daily routines— a five-minute meditation, a video call with a friend, or a short home workout —we can help keep our minds and bodies healthy, ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.