You are walking through the forest on a clear day. The trees bustle around you, the birds tweet above you, and suddenly you stop. There is a large bear a few hundred feet ahead of you. You may notice the reaction from your body—your muscles may tense, your breathing may quicken, your heart may pound, your gut may ache. You now have three options: fight, flight, or freeze. This is the classic scenario psychology textbooks describe to begin the discussion on stress. However, this type of description does not paint an accurate picture of the stress people experience daily.
In previous times, the stress reaction was essential for survival, such as if people were met with a wild animal. These days, stress usually takes minor forms that are more recognizable: red lights when late for school, losing a job opportunity, and work overload or discomfort. Stress is not always negative; stress is essential in safely crossing a busy street or finishing work responsibilities. Chronic stress, however, can damage the body.
Stress was not designed to be an ongoing loop; the human body used it to avoid a momentary, dangerous situation before body functions return as usual. In the modern era, however, stressors rarely last momentarily. For the human body, this means constantly releasing stress hormones. In fact, chronic stress hormone release has been linked to health problems such as "heart disease, stroke, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases" (Irwin 2020). The COVID-19 crisis seems to have worsened stressors; many career fields such as nursing report burnout at their job due to increased workload (While & Clark 2021), while others have lost their jobs all together. Not only is livelihood affected by this crisis, but so are physical and mental health, coping through sudden loss, and dealing with sudden life changes.
Despite the constant stressors, there are some positive solutions to reduce our bodies' physical reactions and consequences:
Self-care is essentially what it sounds like—caring for oneself. To start with proper self-care, an individual must start with boundary setting. Start by analyzing your schedule and identifying your weekly responsibilities. Once you can understand your week better, you will be able to identify a time that can be designated for yourself. Whether you watch a TV show or work on an art piece, the important thing about self-care is that it happens within that time that was designated for self-care. This will help to create a safe space within your week that is not bogged down by responsibilities.
Mindfulness and Deep Breathing
Mindfulness and deep breathing are helpful tools to calm our body’s stress response. In a study on graduate students, those who used stress reducing techniques such as mindfulness had more positive outcomes on health and wellbeing than those who did not (Jiang, Topps, and Suzuki 2021). There are many helpful mindfulness meditations on YouTube, ranging from a few minutes to hours. Mindfulness is essentially remaining present in the moment; it can utilize all your senses or memories. For example, some people may be able to practice mindfulness through sitting quietly and introspecting. Others may be able to practice mindfulness while in the shower, noticing how the water feels or inhaling deeply. Coupling deep breathing with mindfulness may help you to reach calm quicker. Deep breathing is done by inhaling through one's nostrils until the lungs fill completely with air, holding the breath for four or five seconds, and releasing the breath through the mouth for four or five seconds.
Exercise and Healthy Eating
Never underestimate the power of exercise and healthy eating! As mentioned, stress affects the whole body, and chronic stress can lead to chronic illness. One of the best ways to combat these issues is to pay attention to your body's needs—a balanced, nutritional diet and exercise! Start small. If healthy eating is not part of your lifestyle, incorporate a few healthy meals a week to start. If exercise is non-existent, set a weekly goal of three 30-minute exercise sessions doing something that you enjoy. The goal is to engage your body.
When there are many stressors, it is important to allow yourself grace and forgiveness. Stress can be worsened by internal criticisms. Throughout your journey to wellness, allow yourself grace for the things that may seemingly go wrong. Accept that not all things will be as perfect as you would like and that eventually, some things may slip through the cracks. You will be able to recover much quicker by being gentle on yourself.
Written by Veronica Nakla, Clinical Psychology PhD student