Updated: 6 days ago
Stress: noun. A buildup of pressure caused by forces applied on an object either from the inside or outside.
It’s true: applied force can be helpful and formative. But when it goes too far or becomes overly challenging, the object will either burst or find ways to release the pressure.
The same principle applies to humans. Stress can be motivating at times, but when it starts to be uncomfortable, as in stretching boundaries and comfort zones, it can cause problems. We must become like a tea kettle. A good pot is designed to efficiently boil water, with the right amount of water and heat making a lovely cup of tea. However, if too much heat is applied, the water expands and becomes steam. The kettle is designed with a valve that releases the steam, relieves the pressure and signals with a hissing noise that the water is boiling. When we start experiencing the symptoms of stress, it’s time pay attention to what’s going on inside.
Our body is designed to handle many things, and stress is certainly one of these. Deadlines, threat of job loss, loss of financial security, malnutrition, illness, cold and heat and even being chased by a bear can be handled from time to time and for short bursts. When stress becomes frequent and continual, however, it can become overwhelming. This overwhelm occurs when we do not think we have an exit or solution – when we feel trapped – and we can become fearful of the future, worried about the past or anxious in the present. Left unattended, these fears, worries and anxieties can wreak havoc on our limbic/emotional center, pre-frontal thinking cortex and hippocampus/memory center. When we perceive information as dangerous and life-threatening in these centers of the brain, messages are sent to the autonomic nervous system.
How the Autonomic Nervous System Processes Stress
There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, the alarm system, responds to stress and involves the HPA axis, which includes the hypothalamus, pituitary and the adrenal glands. This stress response produces hormones that direct blood flow, oxygen and energy to the arms and legs in preparation for fight or flight and make the brain hyper focused on survival. The parasympathetic nervous system is a rest-and-digest phase. If the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the parasympathetic nervous system is shut down. We are not able to digest food, heal tissue, problem-solve or sleep when we are in sympathetic survival mode. Longer, sustained periods of stress can cause damage to our glands, organs and tissue, affect brain function, strain our immune system and ability to fight off infections and allergies, lead to depression, anxiety disorders and more.
Our History Can Affect How We Manage Stress
So, what enables some to handle stress better than others? Our brain stores all past and current events in our subconscious brain. These events become memories which have associated emotions and feelings. Because these memories are stored in the subconscious brain, we are not aware of most of them. But the accumulation of memories and their associated feelings affect how we perceive life and how we respond. Ninety percent or more of our conscious, decision-making process is influenced and controlled by our subconscious brain. Memories start at birth, even in utero, and are most influenced in our earliest to preteen years.
What Is Your Mindset?
Your history is worth considering when you start to assess the way you interact with the world and how you handle stress, knowing that memories help to form our mindset. Do you have a positive or negative mindset? A positive mindset is more likely to handle challenge and stress better than a negative one. Positivity can embrace change and growth. So, if you come from a childhood of encouragement, possibilities and love, you are more likely to see challenge and stress as an opportunity for growth. If, on the other hand, you were criticized, beat down, made fun of, abused and unloved, you may have a defeatist/negative mindset that does not know how to succeed or handle a challenge.
It is worthwhile to examine your mindset and consider its impact on your interpretation of the world and ability to handle stress. Are you the half-empty glass or the half-full glass, and how do you become the overrunning glass where we are able to handle stress and even help others? It is encouraging to know that we can change our mindset once we understand that our perception of the world may be tainted and not reality. The understanding of a three-year-old and the associated stored emotions of an event forming a memory is extremely limited. Great resources on this topic and how to change your mindset are Switch on Your Brain by Dr. Caroline Leaf, The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, PhD, and You Are the Placebo by Dr. Joe Dispenza.
Other helpful ways to circumvent and redirect stress include:
· Wake up and go to bed with a prayer.
· Do breathing exercises.
· Make silent/listening prayer and journaling part of your routine.
· Exercise, play sports.
· Laugh and smile often. Watch movies that make you laugh and lift your mood.
· Be grateful for what you have and for what is.
· Limit TV, computer, cell phone usage.
· Limit listening to the media. Listen to educational programs, audio books, etc.
· Eat a healthy diet.
· Sleep in a completely dark room with all electronics turned off an hour before bedtime.
· Live in the present moment. It is the only place where creativity and service exist. Let go of the past and the future because the past is full of guilt and remorse, the future is full of anxiety, fears, worry and unknowns. You become what you focus on.
· Spend time with others even if on Zoom or the phone. Isolation leads to depression. We are meant to live in community where we help and encourage and share the God-given gifts we each have.
· Spend time with positive people, avoid the negative. Negativity is exhausting and destructive. Positivity is creative and life-giving.
· Find a volunteer opportunity where you can share your time and talents. It is better to give than receive.
· Have hobbies that you enjoy and that help clear your mind.
· Participate in therapy, professional and spiritual counseling when needed.