You'd probably think that because I am a massage therapist, I would say the best way to reduce and manage stress is with a massage, right? Actually, you'd be wrong.
While massage is an awesome tool to help manage stress, I don't think it's the *best* tool for it.
So what is? I'll give you the short answer here before taking a deep dive into why.
The best tool to manage stress is..... exercise!
To understand why exercise can be so beneficial, first we need to truly understand what the stress response is and how it affects every system of our body. This post is a long one, but I promise it is worth the read. You will come away from it with a much better understanding of your physical and mental health and how to improve it effectively.
All of us experience stress. It’s safe to say that average stress levels are at an all-time high. How could they not be? Between a constant cycle of news articles, social media, aggressive marketing, along with normal daily stressors of life, our stress levels have become dangerously unmanageable.
Stress can cause or exacerbate almost every ailment you can think of. Anxiety, depression, disordered eating, acne, high-blood pressure, reproductive issues, you name it and stress has a negative effect on it.
But it’s important to remember that “stress” is a normal physiological response and at times is very necessary for our survival. For this reason, we need to stop looking at stress as being “bad” and instead learn to understand it.
What is the Stress Response?
Let's begin by learning about our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls things that happen automatically and don’t require conscious thought. This includes functions like breathing, digestion, etc. Our natural stress response involves two different parts of the autonomic nervous system. One is called the sympathetic nervous system, and the other is called the parasympathetic. To start, we are going to focus on the SNS, the sympathetic nervous system.
Imagine yourself in this situation: You are driving your car. You stop at a red light. The light turns green, and you begin to go. But just as you enter the intersection, some guy who was trying to beat a yellow light races right in front of you. As soon as you see them coming you begin to react. You hit your brakes, maybe even swerve out of the way. Maybe you lay on your horn to give them a piece of your mind - they could have killed you, after all!
Now assess how your body would feel after an incident like this. Your heart is likely racing, your extremities might be shaking a bit, and there’s a rush going through you.
This is the SNS at work. The “stress response”. It is also called our “fight or flight” response. Our brain senses danger and immediately instructs various systems of the body to have different reactions just in case we need to fight or flee from the danger. Hence the nickname “fight or flight”.
Our heart begins to beat faster and our breathing quickens, so that more blood and oxygen can be delivered to the arms and legs, in case you need to run for your life or fight whatever danger you are facing. Meanwhile, blood is diverted from organs that aren’t needed at that moment- organs such as the stomach, liver, or intestines. We don’t really need to be concerned with digesting food while fighting for our lives. The pupils of our eyes dilate, letting in more light so we can see more effectively. Our muscles tense, ready for action. All of these reactions are basic survival instincts. We sense danger, and we react to be able to face it.
Now, let’s get a little deeper into precisely what causes these reactions. It begins with that outside stimulus, but what exactly does our brain do to cause all these physical changes?
When we experience a stressful situation, the hypothalamus is activated. This area of the brain controls many of our automatic functions, such as breathing or our blood pressure and heart rate. Sensing you may be in danger, the hypothalamus instructs your adrenal glands on top of your kidneys to start producing epinephrine.
Epinephrine is a key stress hormone and the first one to circulate throughout the body after a stress-inducting event. It’s the rush we feel when we get scared. This hormone provides that initial physiological response, such as our breathing increasing, raised blood pressure, and divergence of blood to the muscles.
Although this may seem like a lot of steps, it happens so quickly that we can respond to a stimulus in a nanosecond. That’s why, in the scenario earlier, we were immediately able to tense our body, swerve out of the way, and hit the brakes. All in the blink of an eye. We didn’t even really have to think, we just had to react.
The epinephrine response is very quick. It comes on quickly and fades quickly. Therefore, there is a secondary response to stress in case we need to stay on high alert for longer than a few seconds. This secondary response involves the adrenals and the pituitary gland. Once that initial epinephrine surge happens, our body begins producing cortisol. This is a very important hormone to remember, as it is the main cause of our daily high stress levels. (More on that in our next section.) Cortisol does mostly the same thing as epinephrine, but lasts longer and helps to keep our bodies in a state of awareness and survival-mode for a longer amount of time than epinephrine. This may be due to an ongoing stress factor. For example, if we are being attacked and need to fight, we need much more than an initial rush of epinephrine, we need to stay in survival mode for a long time.
As we physically fight or flee from the source of our stress, that activity burns these hormones. And once the stress hormones are used, they begin to fade, and their response ceases to affect us.
Remember I said there are two aspects to this, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The parasympathetic is the exact opposite of the stress response. It is activated when the stress or threat passes, and once those stress hormones are burned up. It is known as our “rest and digest” system. This happens in a similar way to the SNS response, but with different hormones.
When “rest and digest” is active, our body releases “feel-good” hormones such as oxytocin, and our heart rate slows, our blood pressure lowers, blood and oxygen are returned to digestive organs so we can continue to break down food and nutrients. During this time is when our body repairs itself, grows, changes, nurtures itself. It can take the time to do this because it is at peace and doesn’t have to worry about fighting anything.
The SNS and the PNS are usually not active at the same time. It is one or the other.
Why Are Our Stress Levels So High?
So now you understand what stress is from a biological point of view, but it still doesn’t answer the question of why our stress levels are so dangerously high. If stress is a normal physiological response why is it malfunctioning? Why are we stressed all the time?
To answer this we need to go way way back in time, to when humanity was young. Basically when we dwelled in caves, and were learning how to make fire. We were hunter/gatherers. Survival looked different back then.
What would initiate a stress response back then? Probably things like hunting, defending yourself from a wild animal attack, or an attack from a rival tribe. All things that require physical strength to defeat.
If we were in danger, our body prepared us for a fight, we used that hormone response to either fight or flee from the attacker, the stress hormones were used up, we relaxed, our bodies healed.
Simple. As it evolved to be.
Consider what causes stress in our lives every day. And, no I don’t mean the freak incidents like the oncoming car, I mean the stress you experience daily.
Workplace responsibilities, an overbearing boss, your kids arguing, your ailing mother needing care, the car needing $1000 in repairs, gas costing $5 a gallon, unrelenting news articles about war and death, influencers making you feel inadequate... should I go on? We could add a dozen more things to that list- and those are just the stressors we face in a single day or week! Now throw in situations that may not be daily but are part of life. A sobering medical diagnosis, or job loss, or divorce. All of these things cause a stress response. They are scary, they are threats to us and our safety, at least that’s how our bodies and brain perceive them to be.
Now think about this- how many of those situations we just mentioned can you physically fight? How many can you physically flee from? Absolutely none of them.
Therefore, not only are we bombarded with dozens of stressful situations in a day, but none of them are things we can properly use our stress response to overcome!
Stress hormones are being pumped into our bodies every day with no way of burning them up or stopping production. When one stress-inducing trigger stops, another is already there to take its place. And because we are never burning up those hormones with physical activity, they keep piling on and on.
This means our heart rate and blood pressure are constantly high, leading to heart disease. Our digestive system is always slow, leading to IBS, obesity. Our body can’t build, repair or break down nutrients as we need them, leading to acne, ulcers, and infection. Our minds are constantly alert, constantly in survival mode, which can lead to anxiety and depression, and greatly exacerbate existing mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, or eating disorders.
By now it should be coming together for you- a messy, chaotic puzzle. Something triggers the stress response, body-altering hormones get produced, because of our numerous daily stressors and lack of ability to use up the hormones that are already pumping through our system more hormones get produced and piled on, our bodies are not functioning at a normal, healthy level, which leads to disease and illness.
How Do We Turn Off the Stress Response?
Most of the stressors we face daily we cannot avoid. Or at least, we can’t avoid them without a dramatic change. I guess in theory we could quit a terrible job, or cut a toxic person out of our lives, or even swear off social media. But in reality, these things are difficult to do. How do we manage stress properly and still live our lives?
I think this can be done a few ways, and the answers are in the physiological response, which is why I devoted all this time to breaking it down for you.
Let’s take a look at how those hormones are supposed to be used. They are produced to help us with the physical activity that comes with fighting or fleeing from danger. For example, that’s why blood is sent to the major muscle groups, to help us run. We already talked about how we can’t fight or flee from modern stressors. But we can take time to engage in physical activity that will still help burn off those hormones.
Our modern world requires us to live sedentary lifestyles. Many of us have office jobs where we sit at a desk and computer all day. And when we come home, we are so mentally drained (aka stressed) that we just crash. Which absolutely does not help burn off those stress hormones.
I recommend introducing some type of good, enjoyable, physical exercise into your life. The enjoyable part is key- if it’s something you hate then you’re just adding on a new stressor. Have fun finding whatever this new activity may be, use it as an excuse to try new things. Try a class like yoga, pilates, or dance. Something that will make you sweat a little, but will make you feel good. Get outside and go for a run, or if running is not your thing even a nice walk through the neighborhood will be extremely beneficial. Go for a swim, which is one of the best forms of exercise in my opinion. Don’t have a pool? Local YMCAs often have open swim or swim classes, many state parks have beaches open to the public. Or grab your partner and go play tennis.
Move. Sweat. Fatigue your muscles. This is what will use those stress hormones, burn them, and allow your body to come back down to a relaxed state. Then go home, make yourself a good meal, and then sit down and let “rest and digest” take over.
I have one more piece of advice that I want to throw in here because it is something over the years I’ve had many people mention to me that I realize they have backwards. Often, before we do something strenuous we will eat a big meal first. One reason is because maybe it’s the end of the day and we are starving when we get home so we want to eat before exercise. But it's also because there is this misconception that if we eat before exercise then the exercise will burn off that meal. This isn't really the case. When we exercise we are actually burning nutrients that have already been broken down from previous meals. We don’t use the food that is sitting in our stomachs, that food still needs to be digested. When we eat, it should be followed by rest… remember it’s “rest and digest”! Let your body go into its more relaxed state by staying relatively sedentary for a little while after eating. Don’t work against your body, work with it.
Come home from work, eat a small snack if you need to so you feel satisfied, and then go do something physical. Once you are finished with that, make yourself a nice dinner, sit down and enjoy it, and then kick back for the rest of the evening.
There are plenty of other feel-good activities we can do to help combat stress. Things like getting a massage, taking a bubble bath, lying on a beach with our toes in the sand. Yes, these are great me-time luxury activities that can help. But I want you to think about stress as something to manage in your daily life, without costing a fortune or requiring you to travel far. And now that you understand the physiological causes and effects of stress, you can do this much more effectively.
Keep in mind that if you have a health disorder that stress exacerbates, please don’t hesitate to visit your doctor. It may be a much more complicated matter than just being stress-induced, so it’s important to get to the root of what is going on and understand your body.
Now you have a deeper understanding of what it means when we say, “I’m under a lot of stress” and even better, you have some tools as to how to manage stress better. I hope you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to your life, you can do it as soon as today. So don’t wait. Take steps towards a happier and healthier life right now. You deserve it.
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