What is everyone’s number one excuse for unhappiness these days? Does this phrase sound familiar?
“I’m just so stressed out.”
We are all guilty of uttering these five words a handful of times, but is it a valid excuse?
In today’s social climate, everyone always seems to be stressed out, anxious, and exhausted. But how much of our stress level is under our control? How much of stress is science, and how much is a choice? It might help to look at some possible causes for stress first.
In the U.S. today, people are getting less sleep than they did even 20 years ago, 44 percent of Americans feel more stressed than they did five years ago, and stress-related ailments cost the nation $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity.
When we try to look at why stress has pervaded our society, there are a few things that stand out.
- There has been a 60 percent increase in productivity over the last 20 years, but wages have stayed stagnant, meaning people are working harder for less.
- On average, Americans get 18 days off work, while countries like France allot employees seven weeks.
- Twenty-four percent of U.S. employees work six or more extra hours per workweek without pay. That’s an average loss of at least $2,262 per year.
Americans are working harder than they ever have before, but they aren’t getting compensated for it. That’s definitely cause for stress, but that’s not all.
In the United States, the number of patients diagnosed with depression increases by approximately 20 percent each year. The U.S. also has one of the highest rates of reported Major Depressive Episodes, over 30 percent of the population reports having an episode, making the U.S. one of the top four most depressed countries in the world.
So, what is stress and how do we combat it to create a happier, more fulfilled community? As it turns out, although stress is a physical response to life events, there are a lot of ways we can respond to stress to reduce it in our daily lives. Here are the things you need to know so you can start living a happier, healthier life today!
That Pesky Hormone, Cortisol
You know the feeling. That feeling that happens in the pit of your stomach when you’re nervous or scared or threatened. Your heartbeat quickens, your senses heighten, your body temperature rises.
That’s the “fight or flight” response, our body’s natural, evolutionary reaction to danger. The moment that response is triggered, our non-essential functions stop. The brain no longer focuses on digesting your lunch or optimizing your immune system. Instead, it’s releasing more sugar into your blood and pumping oxygen into your veins to enrich your muscles, preparing to fight or run to safety.
Even though humans are no longer fighting large beasts that threaten their survival, the fight or flight response is still very present in human physiology. This response gets triggered by different threats, such as during a burglary, before an important test, or after the death of a loved one. And now, we refer to this response as “stress.”
A lot happens to our bodies when we experience stress, and it’s all controlled by the brain. When the brain becomes stressed, it sends nerve signals down your spinal cord to your adrenal glands, telling them to release the hormone adrenaline. This hormone causes a lot of the physical reactions we have, but it’s not the most important one in the process.
The hormone cortisol, aka the “stress hormone,” is the one to blame for all of that stress you feel. Cortisol is released when the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland at the bottom of your brain. This awakens your adrenal cortex and tells it to start producing cortisol, which manages blood sugar, blood pressure, and brain cells, especially those near the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is responsible for memory, and those with overactive cortisol levels have been found to have impaired memory and chronic stress can even cause premature brain aging.
Cortisol is fine when it’s released in small doses and exerted out of the body. However, if the feeling of stress is prolonged or doesn’t result in action, which often happens in the 21st century, it can become stagnant, causing a number of health issues in the long term.
The effects of cortisol are numerous. Here are a few to consider:
- When cortisol is released, it causes neurons to utilize more calcium so they can fire more frequently. However, if they are overloaded with calcium, cells become too active and die—they are literally excited to death. This means too much stress can effectively cause brain damage.
- Cortisol has been related to depression, which shouldn’t be surprising as the ties between stress and depression are quite clear. In fact, some neuroscientists are finding that major changes in serotonin, which is accepted as the cause of depression, may actually be a reaction to an overactive stress response.
- Built up cortisol levels during adolescence and young adulthood, important developmental periods for the brain, may result in mental illness for those who are already predisposed to developing mental illness, some studies suggest. Anxiety and isolation add to this effect.
When you find yourself in a stressful situation, you can treat your stress through various simple exercises. Although the cortisol and adrenaline can make it difficult to think clearly, focusing on developing these habits will help you reduce stress in the most intense situations.
When the fight or flight response is triggered and cortisol is released, the body needs to become mobilized. As hunters and gatherers, whether fighting or fleeing, the human body had to react. However, in today’s sedentary world, that release of cortisol is rarely exercised and remains dormant in the body, wreaking havoc on our physiology and psychology.
Luckily, when you find yourself getting stressed out, there is a simple fix: Get active. Something as simple as taking a quick walk when you feel overwhelmed or anxious can help move the cortisol through your system and relieve some of that bubbling stress.
Another way to relieve stress when it strikes is by breathing. When you take a few deep breaths, you engage the vagus nerve, which tells your nervous system to slow down, calm your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and decrease cortisol release. Simply taking 10 deep breaths when you begin to feel stressed can help calm your nerves and clear you mind.
There are also a number of calming tools that can help relieve stress in a pinch. Influencing your senses can greatly reduce stress when you feel it building up. You can dim the lights, listen to calming music, or use relaxing smells to calm your nerves. Soothing essential oils such as lavender and eucalyptus can aid in relaxation.
These are simple tricks you can do in a pinch when stress first hits. When you feel the fight or flight reaction coming on, try:
- Going for a walk
- Taking 10 deep breaths
- Influencing senses by lowering light, playing calm music, or filling the room with pleasant, relaxing smells
To keep stress from becoming your worst enemy, and most used excuse, try building habits that reduce stress in your day to day life.
The Stress-Free Lifestyle
Unfortunately, there isn’t one secret ingredient you can add to your life to live stress free. However, there is a lot of research out there that shows us how to relieve stress and live happier lives. A combination of these practices are sure to calm your nerves and increase your smiles.
Not everyone can include all of these practices in their everyday life, so find out which work best for you and turn them into a habit. Your brain and body will thank you for it.
- Regular Exercise – Exercise, in any form, helps to relieve stress by reducing the amount of cortisol floating through your body. It also actively fights stress and unhappiness by releasing endorphins, the “feel good” neurotransmitters that boost our mood.
- Mindfulness Meditation – Studies have shown that any type of meditation will have positive effects on your health and mind, but mindfulness is a popular and widely practiced method that has been specifically proven to reduce stress. This meditation focuses on breath and being present in the moment.
- Social Fulfillment – Studies show that connecting with others can help reduce stress and depression. In fact, the vagus nerve, which calms the body and decreases cortisol release, responds to human connectivity, and physical touch can relax the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts the body into rest mode.
- Creativity – Creativity helps the brain and body relax for many reasons. It a distraction from whatever is upsetting you, it induces a meditative “flow” state, and it can add balance to your lifestyle by encouraging prioritization of “self care” through a fun hobby.
- Sleep – A lack of sleep can cause a number of health issues from obesity to high blood pressure, but it also affects our mental health, including memory, judgement, and mood. Getting enough quality sleep each night is essential to stress relief.
- Massage – Massage works on many levels to help reduce stress. It can decrease heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, as well as sooth the mind into a somewhat meditative state, resulting in all-around relaxation. If you can’t afford regular massages, perform one at home with a calming essential oil massage lotion.
- Living in the Present – Research has found that people are most happy when they live in the moment, even if they are doing something they don’t particularly enjoy. When your mind wanders, you set yourself up for unhappiness, so practice staying in the present to improve your overall life satisfaction.
Think of something you can start today. What small action can you take right now to relieve the stress you feel? Can you take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, start a journal, or simply take a moment to be present?
Understanding how stress works helps to relieve it, but you also need to take a moment to find out what your stressors are. Identify them and then make a plan for coping with them or changing them, if you can. Don’t let stress impede your happiness for one more day!