Through physical and psychological change there’s a way out from chronic stress.
Stress is a necessary built-in biological response and there’s a good reason to have it. If you face a fire and your life depends on your actions in the next two seconds you don’t have time to make a rational decision. That’s why the prefrontal cortex of your brain, where the rational thinking happens, shuts down and all the action goes to your amygdala. Its job is to get you ready to react automatically fleeing, fighting or freezing. The first and second responses seem logical. The third is the solution your brain picks when you don’t see a way out. You feel no power to change the situation and brace for impact.
Stress in little dosis is harmless, but chronic stress leads to pathologies that go from fatigue, focus and memory loss, to depression, obesity, high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
How have we reach this point?
We humans control our alertness unconsciously using two antagonist nerve systems: The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) elevates our alertness and stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) relaxes the whole body. They usually are balanced.
When we need alertness the SNS’ activity rises and PSNS lowers. For example in front of danger, before a competition or when we go out for a run. On the other hand, when we need rest, digest or during sexual arousal, the PSNS’ activity rises and SNS’ decreases. Think about our prehistorical ancestors and other animals to understand the simplicity of the two systems: When a tiger is nearby, you need to be alert. When you have to sleep, eat and have sex to secure the survival of the species you need to be relaxed. We burned stored energy at a high rate just when necessary (SNS on), and the rest of the time saved our hard-earned calories (PSNS on). These two systems have work perfectly for thousands of years.
The western countries have built the most secure environment of history to live in. Food for everyone, access to a home, low crime rates… yet paradoxically we don’t feel safe. Money, social relationships, work, family and our own definition of success makes us feel not safe: We think that we don’t have enough, we fear what others could think about us and our own worth depends on the arbitrary idea of success of the moment. Ten thousands years ago we felt stressed when we where hungry or attacked. Life was hard, but simple: You hunt, try not to be hunted and relax until next time.
Today our expectations are so high that we can’t catch up. The social networks have made it even worse, showing false role models impossible to compete with. Not getting our dream immediately make us feel stressed all the time. Today hunger is not our top stressor anymore. People, money and body are. Think about what stress you out. Sure it fits into one or more of these categories.
What can we do about it?
Chronic stress leads to a loss of balance between the SNS and PSNS, making the first one dominant. Being chronically stressed is a habit built over the years, and habits are difficult to suppress or change. Most people try to deal with it alone using just one strategy, but it needs in many cases professional help and three strategies: Short-term, Medium-term, and Long-term strategies. This is what you have to do:
Short-Term strategy against chronic stress
When you have an important exam, a job interview, or are lost in the middle of a forest you need a fast fix to low your stress response and be able to perform. One of the most annoying symptoms of stress is that it shuts down your prefrontal cortex, and with it your rational brain. To be able to think clearly again you need to low your stress response.
The best solution is to take control of your breath(1). Yoga, mindfulness and meditation are slightly different, but they work against stress and anxiety because the main activity in all of them is the conscious control of your breathing. Looking at the science behind the effectiveness of these technics, researchers have found that you can low the activity of your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) just with your breathing. At the same time it activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which relaxes your body.
Using a computer analogy, you can hack your SNS with your breath, but you have to know the code to do it: First, you need to center your attention on your breathing pace. That’s the most important thing. You have to inhale consciously during, for example, 6 seconds, exhale during the next 6 seconds, and repeat. A 6sec-6sec combination is just an example. You can pick 7sec-7sec, 8sec-8sec, or 8sec-6sec. The main point here is that it has to feel natural to you and you have to keep the rhythm. You can train it at home when you are at ease to find your best inhale and exhale time combination. I use an app called Breathe+ to help me fix the rhythm, because I can close my eyes and the vibration of the phone tells me when to inhale and to exhale. You can of course use a different app, your stopwatch or a Smartwatch. Closing your eyes and a quiet place are good to avoid distractions, but controlling your breath will help even if you can’t get those conditions.
Once you have set your breath pace the next most important thing is doing it steadily and softly. Third, try to use diaphragmatic breathing (2). You have to try to inflate your belly with air, not your lungs. Fourth, try to fix your attention on the whole process.
Your physiology changes after one or two minutes. Your blood pressure and heart rate start to drop and you can feel your body calming down. Ideally you should do it for 20 minutes to get the most out of it. Dr. Watkins does a great job explaining it here.
I have guided clients in my praxis using this technic in combination with muscular relaxation. After 20 minutes some of them are so relaxed, they aren’t able to move. This exercise should be done not just before a stressful event, but daily if you suffer from chronic stress. With practice you’ll get better at it, and you will calm down faster.
After breathing, the second thing you can do for short-term reduction of stress is taking a cold shower in the morning. I know it’s hard, but it works. It has been proved that “cold habituation lowers sympathetic activation and causes a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity” (3). That means that your stress response goes down and your relaxation goes up. You don’t need to go radical on this one. You can start with warm water and at the end go steadily to cold water. You can use this as a Medium-term hack too if you do it everyday. You need to build the habit, and at the end, believe me, you will get rid of the warm water, go direct for the cold water and love it.
The short term technics are very effective during a crisis, but eventually your stress will build up because the calm fades away slowly after doing them.
To keep your stress under control over the medium-term, you have to work physically. Your focus has to go to diet, sleep and exercise.
Sport has a clear relaxing effect, and most of us have experienced it. For a long time people thought that the cause was endorphins running wild on our bloodstream, but it’s still being researched because the casual relationship is not clear. There are other candidates to explain the euphoria after exercise, like the endocannabinoide released on our body, or the rhythmic movements we perform when we run or swim. It makes sense, because other rhythmic activities like singing, dancing and controlled breathing have a similar relaxing effect. Running, cycling or swimming are great sports to start with, but you have to follow two rules: First, never overtrain or you will stress your body out, getting the opposite effect you are looking for. It’s very easy to know when you are overtraining: if you’re more tired than the last time you ran, you should take a break for a few days or shorten your distance.
The second rule is not as important as the first, but it can improve massively your mood during the day: Exercise in the morning, ideally early. You will have a boost of cortisol. It will keep you awake and with more energy during the day, fading slowly until night, when you will be tired and ready for bed. If you go for a run late in the evening you can alter your sleep pattern, and you don’t want to do that.
Sleep is vital to us. Sleep deprivation is related to depression, memory loss, increased blood pressure, irritability, obesity… and the list goes on and on. During sleep we restore our body and mind, and give meaning to the events of the day. Was it important? I store it in the memory. Wasn’t it? I forget about it.
The best way to get a restoring sleep is to go to bed always at the same time and stay there for 8 hours. There are a lot of people that claim that they can sleep less, and that’s posible, but I can tell you, they are not awake enough during the day. Just a few people with a special genetic mutation can sleep less than seven hours and get up totally fresh (4). Two more tips to sleep better: low the temperature of your room, and get rid of all light.
Last thing concerning your physical work is diet. I won’t go into nutrition, because it’s not my specialty, but we all need a balanced diet with enough macro and micro nutrients, get rid of trans fat, cut sugar intake and control the calories we eat. You are trying to control our stress, so I will make a special mention to caffeine and alcohol.
Caffeine affects differently different people, and it can be beneficial in some situations and some individuals, but if you suffer chronic stress, anxiety or burnout it will worse your symptoms (5).
The problem with alcohol is different though, because alcohol can lower your anxiety almost immediately. Think about parties. Alcohol has ben used for millennia to low our social anxiety and develop bonds. But if you suffer chronic anxiety or chronic stress this effect leads to a higher risk of alcoholism. because alcohol is a quick fix. At the same time, when you feel anxious your serotonin levels are low, making you more prone to substance abuse (6).
Caffeine and alcohol: For two different reasons, take them out of your diet. For those who can’t imagine their day without their cappuccino, or their evening without a glass of Rioja, please believe me, you don’t need them to live. At least, try to reduce their consumption. That will be a good start.
We have explained different physical hacks to lower your sympathetic activity and rise your parasympathetic response. They work in the short and medium-term. Using them regularly you can build a good foundation for a healthy balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve systems.
Nevertheless, your stress will eventually build up again because we haven’t remove the root of the problem. There’s something constantly feeding your SNS and provoking a stress response: Your thoughts. This is the most important work you have to do. Now the playing field is your mind, and you will need Applied Psychology to win.
You suffer chronic stress because you feel danger around you. THERE IS NOT necessarily danger, but you experience fear because you are constantly telling yourself that that’s your real situation. Problems at work, at home, with money, with your body shape, health issues… There are whole industries and organizations trying to sell their proposals, products and services using fear: Politicians talking about immigration, news agencies broadcasting disasters, school systems telling us that failing an exam will destroy our future, beauty companies that constantly tell us that we are not pretty enough to be loved, managers threatening to fire us…. I can go on, but you have the picture. News, marketing, publicity, populism, education systems, the companies we work for. By telling us that they are our only chance to be successful, these institutions have steal our hope as a society and as individuals.Their work is to make us perceive our environment as a hostile one, and present themselves as the heroes that will save us in exchange of our money, time, energy, work or votes.
How do you perceive your environment? Like a friendly one or like a hostile one? Write it down. Be sincere. Your answer makes all the difference.
If you feel that your environment is a hostile one, you will worry and stay alert all the time. Your brain will work looking for solutions non-stop and you will develop chronic stress.
“I’m not good enough”. “They think I’m a failure”. “I don’t have enough” “They don’t like me” “I have to do everything myself” “Everything goes wrong because of them” “I will never success” “This is a disaster” “There’s nothing I can do to make this right” “I have no power”
That’s what you think, or at least something like that. You have constantly negative thoughts about yourself, the people around you or the environment. That’s why you don’t feel safe and develop chronic stress. All these negative thoughts are limiting thoughts, because they are not focused on the solution, but on the problem. They elicit fear, and most of them are distortions of the reality and false assumptions. Write your own limiting thoughts down. Make a list. Write down all you can’t do. All you can’t control. Everything and everyone that bothers you. All that stress you out. They seem big menacing problems now, but we will strip them of their power over us. How? With questions.
Let’s take one limiting belief as example: “I’m not good enough”.
Write your limiting thought down. Ask yourself: Aren’t you really good enough? Why is that? What are your goals then? Are they realistic? And who say those goals are important? you? Your father? Your friends? Society? Who says that you are not enough? Who set the standards for good and bad? Write these questions and your answers down for each and every limiting thougt you have.
Now, you have to change that limiting belief with an empowering one.
“I am like anyone else. If somebody has done it, it can do it”
or… “I’m not good enough…yet”
When we repeat limiting thoughts once and again they pass from our consciousness to the unconscious mind, where they become beliefs. If you believe that you have no power, if you believe that you can’t change the future for the better, you lose your hope. But that’s nonsense. You have power, and you can change your future. We all can. Your age, your environment, your socio-economic status and your circumstances are excuses for inaction.
At the same time, you have to be realistic, and acknowledge the work and time you will have to invest to get where you want. Now it becomes interesting: Once you fix your attention on the resources you need to mobilize to get where you want, you are plotting a plan, and you are starting to thing about the solution. It shifts your mental narrative from I “can’t do it” to “How can I do it?” and you start feeling positive emotions. You start feeling hope.
Now you have to surround yourself with a winning team. Fear is contagious, as well as hope. Avoid people who are always whining, gossiping and criticizing. You need to be surrounded with positive people. They will reinforce the whole virtuous circle you have created to get rid of your stress. Getting professional help will boost your success chances too.
You will need between 6 months and two years to get rid of your chronic stress. Your brain’s primary work is to keep you alive, and is constantly looking for threads to keep you safe. That’s why you have three times more negative thoughts than positive. You will have to work on your thougts steadily to reverse the negative tendency, and that requires patience and effort. The good news is, once you start using these three strategies you will feel better almost immediately.
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(1)McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D., & Bradley, R. T. (2009). The coherent heart: Heart-brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide order. Integral Review, 5(2), 10–115. http://doi.org/Publication №06–022.
(2)“The Effectiveness of Diaphragmatic Breathing Relaxation Training for Reducing Anxiety”. Yu‐Fen Chen RN, BSN, MSc Xuan‐Yi Huang RN, MSN, DNSc Ching‐Hui Chien RN, PhD Jui‐Fen Cheng RN, MS. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, Volume 53, Issue 4, pages 329 to 336.
(3)Autonomic Nervous Function During Whole-Body Cold Exposure Before and After Cold Acclimation. Mäkinen, Tiina M.; Mäntysaari, Matti; Pääkkönen, Tiina; Jokelainen, Jari; Palinkas, Lawrence A.; Hassi, Juhani; Leppäluoto, Juhani; Tahvanainen, Kari; Rintamäki, Hannu. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, Volume 79, Number 9, September 2008, pp. 875–882(8)
(4)“DEC2 modulates orexin expression and regulates sleep”.Hirano A1, Hsu PK1, Zhang L1, Xing L1, McMahon T, Yamazaki M, Ptáček LJ, Fu YH. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Mar 27;115(13):3434–3439. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1801693115. Epub 2018 Mar 12.
(5)“Effects of caffeine on human behavior” A. Smith, Volume 40, Issue 9, September 2002, Pages 1243–1255
(6)“Anxiety and Alcoholism: A Serotonin Link” Gary D. Tollefson. The British Journal of Psychiatry. Volume 159, Issue S12