The Science of Stress and How to Manage It

Stress. We all know it happens. Maybe an important project is due at work, the car broke down, or an unexpected medical expense caused financial concern. Whatever the reason, we’ve all experienced the effects stress can have on both our physical and mental health. But how does stress actually work, and what’s the best way to manage it?

The Science of Stress

Our brains are programmed to think “safety first,” meaning its priority is to deal with the immediate threat presented before us. Whenever we experience a rapid and unexpected change in the environment, such as a loud noise, or are faced with a social threat like defensive body language, our brain’s initial reaction is to find a way to eliminate it. We become so zoned in on this threat that it can be difficult to think about or focus on anything else. This is called the fight-flight response—our physiological reaction that occurs in response to something perceived as harmful.

Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this fight-flight system prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. A prolonged flight-fight state can cause a spike in blood pressure, increased breathing, and a rise in blood sugar levels. It can suppress your immune system as well. This will not only affect your physical health, but can also impact your mental health, and it will mainly surface in the form of stress.

When stress becomes too much to handle

When left unchecked, stress can have a severe impact on our quality of life. Signs of stress might include weight gain, dizziness and headaches, muscle aches, or difficulty sleeping. Combined, these factors can lead to more concerning problems such as depression, anxiety, or memory impairment. Prolonged stress can make someone feel frustrated and irritable, prone to mood swings and inappropriate actions.

While we each react to stress differently, there’s no denying that we all eventually face stressful situations. How much stress we can handle and how we react depends partly on genetics as well as life experiences, particularly when it comes to traumatic events. Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from tough situations, plays a role in how quickly we recover when presented with threats.

Managing stress in a healthy way

The body's stress response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, the body starts to go into a recovery state known as the calm-flexible reflex. It’s driven by the Vagus nerve, which puts the brakes on the fight-flight response to replace fear with a sense of safety instead. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, breathing normalizes, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

However when stress is ongoing over time, these physiological responses can also continue at a higher level than normal, causing continued problems and emotional burnout.

There are a number of ways to help reduce stress in the moment and to train your brain to react more calmly when stress starts to arise. One of them is called Resonant Breathing. This simple breathing technique helps suppress your fight-flight response to increase your heart rate variability (HRV), enabling you to recover more easily from stress, boost your positive feelings and sense of well-being, and manage pain.

It may take some time to find what best works for you to help relieve stress. It could be anything from going for a walk to enjoying a hobby like painting or music. Here are some ways employees at Total Brain manage their stress:

  • I listen to relaxing music when I take a break for lunch or a snack. - Rachel
  • In times of stress I rely on two constants to keep me from becoming overwhelmed: First, a walk in the park (even for 15 minutes) to connect with nature and then the background of some soft jazz music. I find the beats of that style of music in many ways mimic our NeuroTunes and help relax me, and then of course real NeuroTunes too in the app. - Beverly
  • I curl up with my dog for some cuddle time. - Christine
  • Meditation with headphones on while playing nature sounds. - Liz
  • Going for a walk outside always helps me. - Jackie
  • Reading my favorite book in my most comfortable chair. - Brian
  • Spending time near the shore to listen to the waves and appreciate nature. - John
  • Going for a walk in nature! Even if it's 5 min, the fresh air does wonders. - Mariah
  • Taking a few moments to focus on slowing down my breathing. -Craig

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re on a mission to help those struggling with stress lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. Let’s support ourselves and each other to get through the tough times together. Do you have a favorite way of managing stress? We’d love to hear from you! Share your tips on social by tagging us and using the hashtags #stopstresstogether and #together4MH.

Stress Mastery: The gateway to improved mental health

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