In a society that romanticizes ‘the grind,’ it can be difficult to remain cognizant of the importance of managing stress and finding balance in life. Given that modern American culture promotes the illusion that in order to be successful, you must work hard, we’ve been misled and have become confused. Within this belief system, productivity seems to have become a determinant of our self-worth.
What isn’t emphasized is how influential stress is upon our emotional and physical health. While stress is unavoidable and inevitable given the responsibilities of daily life, there are certainly productive ways of managing it so as to avoid suffering and disease. The way we live from day to day, the habits and routines we employ can facilitate our body’s ability to manage stress—and it doesn’t have to be stressful to do so. Finding balance in life is key.
While pursuing success and productivity can be beneficial and lead to a fulfilling life, it must also be monitored. Stress management is essential to sustained health. Achieving balance, between work, life, play, etc., is possible and will lead to a more healthful way of life. At Awakened Path, our therapists firmly believe in the importance of stress management as it relates to mental and physical health. We offer individual therapy, specifically focused on managing stress, in order to help you live your best life. Consider the following tools to create a more health-sustaining lifestyle that simultaneously combats stress in significant ways.
Stress On the Body
For many years, it was unclear the role that stress played on the body. We now know that chronic psychological stress influences the body’s inflammatory response because stress alters immune cells as it relates to fighting infection or trauma. Stress is one of the biggest instigators of inflammation and widespread inflammation leads to compromised immunity, illness, and disease.
The body releases the hormone, cortisol, during times of stress through the adrenal gland. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol lead to a host of symptoms, both mentally and physically. It is to no surprise that heightened stress leads to symptomology which then impacts our ability to be productive leading to further stress, and the vicious cycle continues.
Bursts of cortisol production as a reaction to stress are normal. However, the body is not equipped for this influx to be sustained or constant. The stress response is meant to prepare us for battle through activation of the sympathetic nervous system and once the threat has disappeared, returns the body to homeostasis.
This evolutionary response, also known as the “flight or fight” response, occurs naturally. It prepares the body to flee from or face the impending danger. The perceived threats in centuries past that might activate this response included a bear crossing our paths as we spent our days hunting or the enemy tribe trespassing on our land. However, in modern-day society, the threats look much differently and ‘hypercortisolism’ has become the norm. Occurrences as small as a nasty work email, an upset child, or traffic on a Monday can result in elevated cortisol levels and wreak havoc on the body.
What happens when you aren’t able to manage stress?
Symptoms of heightened cortisol include fatigue, brain fog, irritability, digestive issues, insomnia, weight gain, skin concerns, among others. Unfortunately, long-term heightened cortisol, left unaddressed, can result in chronic illness and disease. Western medicine commonly works towards treating the individual symptoms as listed as separate issues in and of themselves, as opposed to addressing the underlying, interconnected root cause and eradicating the concern entirely. While these symptoms could be related to a host of other problems, understanding how cortisol could be playing a role here may beg the need to examine how you’re managing stress in your life.
Holistic Habits for Managing Stress
Daily mindfulness is an anti-inflammatory act as the immune system is in direct relationship with the brain. Through activities such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, we are reducing inflammation and supporting our immunity in doing so, making us less susceptible to compromised health. As mentioned earlier, under heavy stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Through deep breathing and mindfulness activities, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system harnesses the body’s ability to self-regulate and relax and slows the stress response.
Mindfulness has a tremendous influence on our body’s ability to manage stress. The body’s physiological response to stress is managed by the autonomic nervous system, made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing the body to react to stress while the parasympathetic nervous system helps the body recover after a stressful event. However, given the current stressors of daily life, the sympathetic nervous system is sometimes overactivated and the relaxation response is inhibited. Through mindfulness and meditation, the parasympathetic nervous system activates. Daily practice of mindfulness and meditation promotes consistent stress management within both the body and the mind.
While high-intensity exercise and overexercising can be harmful to our stress levels, moderate, intentional exercise can be helpful. Pushing yourself too hard can lower your thyroid function and increase cortisol and inflammation. That said, actively incorporating rest days into your weekly exercise regime is equally as important as the exercise itself. Overactivity puts the body in a compromised position and is ultimately a disservice to your health. Rest from physical activity allows your body to recover and provides the body a break from strenuous, stressful exercise. Balance, in this way, is essential.
Finding your preferred form of exercise can influence your ability to manage stress. We often force ourselves into exercise, like running, cycling, or boxing, because we feel it’s the “right way” to exercise. Exercise is a beautiful thing because it is creative. Find the way you feel BEST moving your body. It is more likely you’ll stick with it, too, if you’re doing something you love. Not only does this allow for heightened enjoyment while completing the exercise, the emotional and physical benefits that accompany routine exercise are exponential.
Practice Sleep Hygiene
Proper sleep is one of the most underestimated tools to manage stress and promote health. Sleep offers the body the opportunity to reset and restore in order to prepare for another stressful day ahead. If we are not optimizing our sleep and investing in adequate rest, we are robbing our body’s natural ability to heal.
As we’ve transitioned into a society that works from home, it can be challenging to know when it’s time to ‘unplug.’ However, the inability to unplug can dramatically impact sleep, and as a result, our stress levels. Abstaining from blue light exposure at least 2 hours prior to sleep can improve overall sleep quality. Blue light signals to the body in a similar way that sunlight signals the body to wake up in the morning. At the onset of daylight, the body triggers a release of cortisol to prepare the body for wakefulness. One can imagine what this means for the body when blue light triggers the same response while preparing for bedtime. In the evenings, our body signals a release of the sleep hormone, melatonin, in order to begin to shut down. This process, our circadian rhythm, is disrupted if not respected.
Furthermore, proper bedtime habits are crucial to restorative rest. To optimize the body’s natural rhythm, consider developing a nighttime routine that’s best for you. The clinical team at Awakened Path firmly believes in the importance of sleep hygiene and would love to connect with you on how to improve your nighttime routine.
Following a nutritionally balanced, nutrient-dense diet can have a significant influence on the body’s ability to manage stress. Stress places a greater demand on the body for oxygen, energy, and nutrients, as it increases the body’s metabolic needs. Supporting your body through nutrient-dense foods ensures it is adequately prepared to manage the influence that heightened stress has on the body.
Adrenal function is significantly influenced by blood sugar levels. As mentioned earlier, cortisol is released by the adrenal gland during times of stress. Incorporating whole foods and eating balanced meals discourages spikes in blood sugar levels which can be detrimental to the stress response. Avoiding highly refined foods, processed sugars, and alcohol prevents an imbalance in blood sugar levels as well.
Next Steps for Managing Stress
Stress management is essential to wellness. Life can be stressful and oftentimes we have limited control over the stressors that come our way. However, there are several lifestyle factors that CAN be controlled to minimize the impact that stress has on our bodies. At Awakened Path, we teach our clients strategies to manage stress in a healthy way. Through education and personalized understanding of what your stress looks like—specifically as it relates to your life—the therapist can best support you and educate you in this journey.
If you’re interested in finding healthy ways to manage the daily stressors of life, Awakened Path would love to connect with you. Our therapists are rooted in the belief that external lifestyle behaviors are tremendously influential on the body’s ability to manage stress and the long-term impact it has on health.
Check out this article on more stress management skills that are useful to implement daily.
To learn more about stress within the body, consider the article below.