Stress is an inherent reality in life. Many people think that this is a phenomenon dependent on the peculiarities of the fact that we are facing, while others consider that the key is in the perception of those who experience it.
Society deploys before us a stifling need for accomplishment and progress (academic, professional, family, etc.); stimulate rivalry and expose oneself to the rigors of the scarcity of time.
This is why we run the risk of feeling overwhelmed both physically and emotionally, which can lead to an increased risk of mental disorders and organic problems.
Given this particular situation, knowing how to de-stress is of paramount importance for health and quality of life. In this article, we develop a set of easy-to-apply strategies that will help us achieve this successfully.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s response to a circumstance that requires effort or a proactive response, For which the body is biologically prepared. It is a series of physiological and psychological adaptations, aimed at quickly resolving the situation that could have contributed to its occurrence. In this way, the balance (allostasis) on which the organs and systems involved are to be based can be restored.
Stress cannot be understood by considering only the objective dimensions of the situation, because it also contributes to the person’s perception of it. Whenever we are confronted with a fact of this nature, we subject it to a primary assessment (in which we probe its specific characteristics and the degree of demand associated with it) and a secondary assessment (in which we confront it with all available emotional and material resources).
Pathological stress (or distress) arises when there is a dissonance between the two types of assessment, such that the individual perceives that the demands of the environment exceed their own ability to resolve them. In these cases, a succession of changes in the body are set in motion aimed at maintaining the greatest possible degree of effort, but which tend to collapse over a long period of time without the stressor resorbing or disappearing.
Some of the major changes occur in the adrenal gland, which releases cortisol into the bloodstream as a result of a biochemical signal from two brain structures: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Sustained stress would weaken the ability to regulate the production of this hormone, causing the body to “flood” and eventually lose its adaptive properties (because under normal conditions it helps us mobilize energy).
One of the consequences often observed in people suffering from chronic stress is the impairment of cognitive functions, and in particular of memory, because the excess of cortisol generates a harmful (although reversible) effect on the integrity of the neurons of the hippocampus (bilateral structure involved in the process of long-term memory consolidation). They can also express other symptoms; like fatigue, diffuse pain, sadness and unexpected startles.
Maintaining stress ultimately leads to a physiological response to exhaustion, which involves a phase in which adaptive mechanisms break down under pressure, promoting the onset of mood and anxiety disorders that require independent attention. . To avoid these dramatic health consequences, it is essential to know how to de-stress in a simple and effective way.
How to de-stress
Stress can be combated with different strategies. Some of them are easy to apply, but others require a bit more time. Here we describe a set of activities useful for this purpose, excluding psychotherapeutic procedures and drug use.
1. Organize your time
On many occasions, stress results from mismanaging one of the most precious resources we all have: time. There are countless acts by which we can become a cruel predator of health over time, such as delaying the implementation of what we need to resolve a particular situation or rushing into it (without order or concert) driven by impatience.
The use of avoidance strategies, as well as impulsivity, contributes significantly to increasing the experience of stress. Dealing with demands without taking short breaks, racking up more junk to solve them on the horn (without being interspersed with enticing activities), or performing a myriad of concurrent tasks can overwhelm anyone’s resources and relate to more physical or mental stress.
Making lists of activities to do and setting aside a few minutes to rest can be very helpful, as well as analyzing the times of the day when we are best placed to take on the more difficult or complex tasks (which vary from one to the next). others. ). These are simple methods that require a better self-knowledge of our management skills.
2. Accept the things that cannot be changed
Another reason for stress is stubbornness in changing a situation that, in essence, is not susceptible to change. Learning to recognize that there are circumstances in life that are beyond our control, or which are immutable no matter how hard we can invest, is essential for optimizing the use of our resources.
When faced with these types of situations, the most useful is to orient oneself towards the emotional correlates they cause.
3. Learn relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques are effective in reducing stress levels resulting from activation of the sympathetic nervous system, an autonomic branch that accentuates symptoms of anxiety. Procedures that involve controlled breathing allow you to balance your oxygen supply, which is often impaired in those who live under constant stress (as their breathing tends to be excessively shallow).
Other procedures that follow this same line, such as progressive muscle relaxation, help reduce overload by learning to distinguish between muscle contraction and distension. These exercises allow to know precisely the points where the body remains excessively rigid, to lighten it voluntarily. This problem is common in people with high stress levels (although it often goes unnoticed) and precipitates the onset of contractures or local pain.
4. Get some physical exercise
Physical exercise, especially when done outdoors, has proven to be a very useful tool in improving mood and symptoms of anxiety in those with a disorder in these areas. There is a broad consensus on the benefits associated with playing sports, which not only limit stress reduction, but also extend its effects to self-esteem and feelings of self-efficacy.
Regular exercise lowers cholesterol levels, heart rate and blood pressure; three physiological indicators associated with sustained stress that negatively affect quality of life and morbidity and mortality. The scientific literature on the subject describes that people who exercise (at least twice a week) perceive themselves more positively and report a greater sense of calm.
5. Sleep well
Stress is one of the most common causes of insomniaWhile the latter is also associated with the experience of stress. In other words, people who have difficulty sleeping say they feel much more stressed, while those who report high levels of emotional distress report poorer quality sleep. The two phenomena are therefore directly linked and can contribute to a cycle that turns on itself.
There is a set of brain regions related to both stress and sleep, their balance will therefore preserve the architecture of the latter. The most well-known binding areas are the hypothalamus, the locus coeruleus and the amygdala. On the other hand, it has Stressors perceived as unpredictable have been shown to generate a much deeper impact on sleep, mediating this effect through the activity of the median prefrontal cortex.
It is also known that stress-induced insomnia can compromise neuroplastic processes that consolidate during sleep, increasing the likelihood of dementia in old age. Therefore, good sleep hygiene is essential for reducing levels of physical and emotional stress, as well as for maintaining health throughout life.
6. Take advantage of your social support network
Damping theory asserts that social support, understood as the efficient use of emotional and material resources that the environment can provide us, mediates stress and the development of health problems. Thus, enlisting the help of those around us can give us not only moments of pleasure, but also a qualitative and quantitative reduction of the stress that we can undergo.
Carrying out shared activities, especially those that have playful components or that need collaboration for their good resolution, contributes in a remarkable way to feeling less overwhelmed by adversity. It is also known that the simple act of sharing what we are feeling has a beneficial effect on the inner experience and at the same time helps to strengthen bonds with others.
7. Take a break
Some people, especially those in jobs that involve excessive demands or caring for someone with high levels of addiction, may experience a type of severe stress known in the literature as burnout. professional (“burnout” syndrome). This manifests in the form of sadness, loss of motivation, irritability, self-abandonment, and general dissatisfaction.
This stress is particularly toxic, so it is recommended that those who experience it participate in breathing programs.. This therapeutic modality consists in guaranteeing moments of relaxation and personal care, in which the overwhelming tasks which are usually assigned to them on a daily basis can be delegated to other individuals at least temporarily. These procedures are used in clinical and community settings sensitive to this problem.
And if the stress is not resolved …
In some cases, despite deliberate efforts to improve stress levels, it persists for too long and ends up affecting our physical and emotional health. In case you think you are in this particular situation, you need to consult a medical professional so that they can offer you the best possible solution.
There are currently multiple therapeutic programs aimed at reducing stress levels, from those that use mindfulness to those that use cognitive or behavioral models (decision-making or problem-solving training, cognitive restructuring, etc. ). A well-trained therapist can guide you and customize a treatment program according to your needs.
- Geus, E. and Stubbe, J. (2010). Aerobic exercise and stress reduction. Encyclopedia of Stress (Second Edition). Academic press: New York.
- Sanford, L. and Sucheky, D. (2014). Stress, excitement and sleep. Current Problems in Behavioral Neuroscience, 25, 379-410.