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The Science of Stress: How and Why the Body Reacts

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Stress is a physical response: it releases hormones like adrenaline, causes quick and shallow breathing, tenses muscles, suppresses the immune system, and raises the heart rate and blood pressure. All of those reactions are great if you are facing a temporary emergency or difficult situation. These reactions give you the ability to take action and emerge from the stressor quickly. Staying in a state of prolonged stress will take an enormous toll on the body.

Bodily Reactions to Stress

Among the visible and easily recognized reactions to stress are headaches, fatigue, frequent infections, low energy, loss of sexual desire, teeth grinding, lack of sleep, digestive problems, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Mood changes, fatigue, and low energy are the most common symptoms, followed by a lack of motivation and constant worry or anxiety. Stressed people also find it harder to concentrate.

However, all of these reactions to stress can also signal an underlying illness so a physical checkup is important before self-diagnosing.

Where Does Stress Start?

If you are suffering from workplace stress, you are not alone. The National Institute on Occupational Health & Safety at the US Center for Disease Control has found that the workplace is the most common breeder of stress, leading to approximately 120,000 deaths each year as well as billions of dollars in healthcare costs. 

Problems with social, family, and work relationships are a leading cause of stress at all ages. The pandemic increased the intensity and frequency of reactions to stress by interrupting relationships, increasing loneliness and social isolation, and making support harder to access. In close proximity, personal conflict spikes within family groups, especially when associated with job loss or the need to work at home. Working remotely also made work relationships difficult for those used to working on-site.

Teenagers and children suffer from stress. In fact, stress among high school students has reached epidemic levels. Living (or working) with someone who is stressed is stressful.

TIP: Higher rates of stress are seen among minorities, women, single parents, and care-givers, but stress is not exclusive to those groups.

Why Do Relaxation, Nutrition, Social Interaction, and Taking a Break Help Stress?

  • SMaRT techniques for relaxation combined with self-awareness help to control your reactions to stress by relieving the strain in your muscles, restoring your breathing to normal, and lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

Several sources (as detailed by ReadAthena) have identified three types of relaxation techniques: progressive muscle relaxation (emphasizing body awareness), visualization (taking a visual journey to a peaceful, calming place), and autogenic relaxation (using both visualization and body awareness). Other relaxation strategies include massage, meditation, yoga, and biofeedback.

  • Good nutrition improves blood pressure, immunity, and moods. On the other hand, bad nutrition, including reliance on caffeine, alcohol, cravings, and sugar, intensifies the body’s reaction to stress and lowers its ability to cope.

Vitamin C (found in citrus fruits like oranges) lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, magnesium (found in leafy greens, soybeans, and some fish) reduces headaches and fatigue, and fatty foods such as salmon and walnuts control stress hormones and immune responses. Comfort foods may also alleviate stress, with dark chocolate (in small quantities) and oatmeal heading the list. Barley tea relaxes the body; chamomile helps with insomnia and gastrointestinal responses to stress. 

  • Human beings are social creatures; the social self craves human interaction, even if in different amounts for different people. Combatting loneliness requires action. 

One step is to join a social group. According to different researchers, seniors who participate in a chorus experience less loneliness and more joy in life than those who don’t, and adults who participated in two social groups (for example, a book club and a church group) showed a 12% lower risk of death. 

A sense of isolation can grow if you have negative thoughts about yourself and how others see you, and as a result, others may avoid interacting with you. Vicious cycles like that are common with stress, so it’s important to break the cycle of reactions to stress with SMaRT tactics that bolster a growth mindset, optimism, and success in social situations. 

  • Taking a break—from stressful news, people, and situations—gives your body a chance to de-stress. Even a short break can interrupt the cycle. The Harvard Medical School recommends 1 minute of breathing if all you have is 1 minute. If you have 2 minutes, countdown slowing from 10 to 0, accompanied by slow breaths, and if you have 3 minutes, practice whole-body relaxation.

Exercise, including stretching and walking, is one of the best quick antidotes to stress, as long as they don’t become yet another search for perfection and yet another item on your to-do list. Vacations from work, relaxation with family and friends, and avoidance of alcohol and caffeine are all forms of taking a break.

TIP: Another way of taking a break is to start saying, “No.” Decrease the number of items on your schedule and prioritize your time to prioritize your health.

What Does the Most Recent Research About Stress Tell Us?

Recent scientific investigations resulted in new insights about different reactions to stress and their effects:

  • Chronic stress leads to depression and accelerates aging—it shortens the outermost part of chromosomes (the telomere), a condition directly related to the onset of depression and to age-related disease.
  • Being born and raised in a major urban area contributes to lifetime stress—with responses in the amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates mood. Oddly enough, urban living also affects the cingulate cortex, which regulates stress, so people born in urban areas also have a natural defense mechanism.
  • Stress does not necessarily make people more aggressive or angry—instead, anyone who is stressed is more likely to seek positive social interactions. 
  • Neuroscience News reported on studies that showed physical contact, including a 30-second hug or hand-holding, reduces cortisol, and lowers stress as it increases oxytocin, a soothing hormone.

How Can You Help Someone in Your Life Who Is Stressed?

The single most important response you can have is to help the stressed person recognize that the problem in the gentlest way you can. You might say, “I’ve noticed that you seem to be especially tired (or not yourself) lately. What can I do to help?”

Reassure them if the stressful situation is temporary. Stress makes it difficult to see an end to problems or a way to solve them. If it seems appropriate, ask the stressed person to speak with their doctor about their symptoms. You might also direct them toward professional help.

TIP: If you are the stressed person, realize that the people in your life who suggest these steps are truly looking out for you.

Key Takeaways

The causes and signs of stress are well known, which means that effective reactions (including relaxation, good nutrition, social interaction, and taking a break) are also well known. If you or a loved one is suffering chronic stress, seek help. 

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