If you’ve ever looked at your calendar and sighed with overwhelm, here are stress management tips for your body and mind to encourage you.
While stress is a normal part of life, chronic stress that builds up impacts our bodies and holistic health. Our body has a natural adaptive response when faced with perceived stress. The brain sends signals to release cortisol and adrenaline which help the rest of the body react to protect against and mitigate stress.
However, when this alarm is signaled over time, chronic stress develops. The overload of hormones can lead to negative health outcomes because the real or perceived threat of stress is not relived. This article seeks to explain the effects of chronic stress on the body and mind, followed by stress management tips to apply in your everyday life.
How stress impacts the nervous system
One of the primary reasons stress management is vital for health is that stress impacts your brain and your nervous system. When you interpret an event or situation as stressful, this activates your central nervous system to release hormones that activate your body’s stress response through the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the pathway for your brain connecting to the rest of your body as it runs along your spine and connects to vital organs. When stress hormones are released, the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for your flight, fight, or freeze responses. Each of these are protective in nature, with the aim of helping you escape danger or threats.
Ideally, after you are removed from the threat, your sympathetic and calming nervous system response is activated and your return to baseline. However, chronic stress can keep the brain in the parasympathetic state, and this prolonged heightened stress state has numerous implications for your neurological health.
The negative impacts of chronic stress are profound. For example, studies have shown that it can actually shrink your brain’s grey matter and increase the symptoms of depression and anxiety. One study discovered that such stress “creates more myelin-producing cells, but fewer neurons than normal.
The result of this disruption is an excess of myelin in certain areas of the brain, which interferes with the timing and balance of communication. The researchers found that stress can also have negative effects on the brain’s hippocampus” (Cherry, 2021), which is crucial for memory development, retention, and learning.
Not only does stress affect communication and memory, it can also hinder emotional regulation and reasoning because chronic stress can hinder neuron firing in the prefrontal cortex (Cherry, 2021). Clearly, stress management tips are important for combatting the negative impacts of chronic stress on the brain.
How stress impacts the body
The next layer of the stress response is through the body, and chronic stress can also have negative effects on your physical health. This is because “Your vagus nerve runs from your brain, down your face, through your chest, and into your abdomen. Along the way, it influences every organ system. So when you’re stressed or facing danger, that information travels instantly from the brain to the rest of the body” (Institute, 2022).
For instance, “chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head” (APA, 2018).
The constant release of stress hormones can lead to increased tension throughout your body. Another area that can be affected is your respiratory system. often when you are stressed you respond by either holding your breath or breathing rapidly which can lead to hyperventilation. Irregular breathing impacts the amount of oxygen your body and brain receive.
Moreover, chronic stress affects your cardiovascular system and can be correlated with high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks (APA, 2018). Lastly, chronic stress impacts your digestive system, and is correlated with increased risk of type II diabetes, ulcers, and constipation or diarrhea (Thomas, 2022). These are just a few of the ways chronic stress negatively impacts your body’s health, and clear reasons learning stress management tips are important.
Stress management tips for your body and mind
These tips can help you manage stress for both your body and mind.
Tips for your body
One way to de-stress is to be proactive with your physical health. Numerous studies have shown that even moderate exercise like walking can have positive impacts on your neurological and physical health. For instance, research has demonstrated that exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that processes short-term and long-term memory.
Also, exercise supports the development of neurotrophins, which are proteins that are vital to sustained neuroplasticity which are important memory and learning (Charvat Mylea, 2019). Exercise also has positive impacts for your cardiovascular and respiratory health by increasing blood flow and oxygen.
General stress management tips for your body
Eat a healthy diet. Your brain is fueled by what you eat and eating nutrient-rich foods such as leafy greens, fruit, and vegetables are imperative for your cognitive and overall health.
Exercise. Every bit matters-walking, swimming, strength training-all impact your holistic health.
Drink plenty of water. Increasing your water intake can help with your digestive health as well as your skin and energy.
Care for your muscles. Investing in massage therapy, chiropractic care, and daily stretching can help release muscle tension that is built up from chronic stress.
Practice breathing exercises. To mitigate the effects of stress on your respiratory system, or to help when experiencing irregular breathing due to stress, focused breathing exercises can help you return to normal breathing. One example: box breathing is inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and repeating.
Stress management tips for your mind
Stress is highly subjective and individual. What you experience as stress is based on your interpretation and history. There are obvious stressors such as traumatic events, loss of a loved one, natural disasters, and other life events such as job loss, that are stressful for all humans. But there are also daily things that may be harder to manage if you are in a chronically stressed state. If you’re not able to return to a baseline, you may react more quickly to stressors because of your heightened state.
Here are some general stress management tips for emotional and mental regulation.
Journaling. Writing is an excellent way of processing your day, emotions, and understanding how and why you interpret things as stressful. One resource for this is “The Power of Writing it Down” by Ally Fallon. Other types of stress-relieving writing include spiral writing, where you write in a circle, so it looks like a ring of a tree. Do not edit, but just write what comes to mind.
Body scans. There are many guided body scan exercises, but the basic framework is this. In a comfortable seated or standing position, begin to focus your attention on either your feet (bottom-up scan) or your head (top-down). Pause for several seconds on the focus body part.
Move it gently (e.g. wiggle your toes or roll your ankles) and pay attention to any pain or emotions that arise. Proceed to the next body part pausing and reflecting, until you reach the top/bottom. It can be helpful to pair this with journaling to facilitate processing and embodiment as you do the scan.
General stress management tips.
Lastly, stress management in the form of planning ahead for predictable things in your schedule can help mitigate stress since you have a general plan for your week. For instance, if you do meal planning and buy food ahead of time, then, when you have a stressful workday, you won’t have to scramble for dinner since you have already planned.
Weekly stress management tips.
Prioritize your schedule. Plan the big things first: meal planning, exercise, and social time with friends and family.
Leave room for rest. Plan for play and rest such as a movie night, game night, or time to be creative.
Daily stress management tips.
Order tasks in a way that is doable for you. Schedule non-negotiable things first, such as doctors’ appointments, workday meetings, etc. Then, prioritize other tasks. Prioritize whatever works for you to feel less stressed about your to-do list. Some common strategies include:
- By urgency and importance. When you look at your tasks, it’s helpful to categorize them by urgency (immediate, non-immediate) and importance (high importance to preference/low importance). This can help you prioritize things that are both urgent and important.
- By time commitment. Another way to organize your schedule to manage stress is by the time commitment. Some days you may do the things that take the less time first, or inversely you can do the bigger time. Do high time commitment tasks at the start of your day and end with the shorter tasks.
Take rest breaks. Even twenty minutes of relaxation can make a difference in your body’s ability to return to baseline.
In conclusion, stress management is something all humans must learn. To not manage stress is detrimental to your overall health. There are many ways to mitigate the effects of stress on your mind, body, and emotions. It seems counterintuitive but making time for stress management when it feels like you “don’t have time” may be the best way to lessen stress.
However, if you feel constantly overwhelmed and stress is taking a toll on your body and mind, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified Christian counselor for help. A counselor can assist you not only in setting priorities, but in uncovering the hidden motivations that drive you. Schedule an appointment today to learn specific stress management tips from a compassionate counselor.
APA. (2018, November 1). Stress Effects on the Body. Retrieved from American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
Charvat Mylea, P. (2019, January 7). Why Exercise Is Good for Your Brain. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-fifth-vital-sign/201901/why-exercise-is-good-your-brain
Cherry, K. (2021, April 8). Surprising Ways that Stress Affects your Brain. Retrieved from Very Well Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/surprising-ways-that-stress-affects-your-brain-2795040
Institute, I. L. (2022, April 21). The Neurological Effects of Stress on the Brain. Retrieved from inlebrainfitinstitute: https://www.inlebrainfitinstitute.com/blog/the-neurological-effects-of-stress-on-the-brain
Thomas, J. (2022, April 6). What are the Physical Effects of Stress. Retrieved from betterhelp.com: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/stress/what-are-the-physical-effects-of-stress/
“Walking on the Beach”, Courtesy of Vincentiu Solomon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Drink Water”, Courtesy of Giorgio Trovato, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Morning Devotions”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Healthy Breakfast”, Courtesy of Lena Mytchyk, Unsplash.com, CC0 License