Practical solutions to chronic stress
Stress is probably one thing that most mental and emotional issues have in common: anxiety and panic attacks develop due to too much stress and pressure; depressed clients tend to have more stress hormones in their bodies in comparison with non-depressed people; addicted clients are more stressed as they can't meet their needs so, as a result, they develop a dependency to alcohol or drugs.
As a therapist who primarily works to address these issues, it was important to me to share some useful information on why we get stressed out and why chronic stress impairs our cognitive abilities. In this article, I also suggest a few useful and quick strategies on how you can cope with chronic stress and counteract its negative impacts on your body and mind.
Why are we getting stressed out?
Stress is nothing else but our natural and instinctual survival response that we inherited from our Paleolithic ancestors. Think of cavemen living in the wilderness and trying to fight predators or hunt for food. This fight or flight response (stress response) protected them from getting hurt, and these guys were never too far off from their panic button in order to survive.
It doesn’t come as a surprise (neuroscience confirms it) that our stress response is governed by the ancient, primitive part of our brain – the limbic system – with the amygdala in the centre of command. This part of our brain has the ability to overwrite in a tenth of a second our recently evolved, much slower, rational, “human” part of the brain – the neocortex – because there is no time for debate if this wild bear is about to attack us.
When we experience immediate danger, our instinct usually kicks in and the amygdala sends signals to our nervous system, flushing the body with a potent and highly toxic cocktail of stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. Your sympathetic nervous system is ramped up and is pressing the gas pedal.
As a result, your heart rate increases so that your muscles have enough blood to act quickly. Your breathing will speed up, you will sweat a lot, and your digestive and reproductive systems will shut down. Your energy consumption will rise, and blood sugar levels will be very quickly depleted. This is why when we’re stressed, we crave sweets, get headaches and are not interested in romancing.
The repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. This response mechanism was not supposed to be activated for long periods of time.
It was designed to provide a quick reaction to overcome direct danger, which is extremely helpful in an emergency scenario. Once the life-threatening stressor is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to press the brake pedal which starts the regeneration process, slowly bringing the body back to the state of balance and equilibrium.
Why it all went wrong...
Now, let’s fast forward c. three million years to the present day and look at our modern way of living. Today we are exposed to just as many threats as ancient man and although we may not encounter a wild bear on a street, we are still subject to the same old mechanism of fight or flight response.
Our threats become less life-threatening but more complex – job insecurity, the constant requirement for money, food, housing and fuel. Even the fact that we are not in charge of providing our own food and are dependent on other people to fill our basic needs, creates its own stress.
In addition to that, the development of the neocortex (our intellectual brain) in the past three million years gave human beings the ability to daydream. This immediately put man on the evolutionary fast track that quickly distanced us from other species. Daydreaming and the use of imagination (while, in principle, a force for good) inevitably acquired a negative aspect to it – we started to project negatively about the future or ruminate about the past.
This extended our exposure to potential threats and increased the sensitivity of our primitive limbic system, as the amygdala responds to thoughts or imagination in the same way as to actual events. In other words, our brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination! So, it is not necessarily the actual events that are creating the state of emergency, but the way we perceive them and think about them.
No wonder that our stress response gets triggered every time we have a fast-approaching deadline, a meeting with a demanding client or an argument with loved ones. And, the more potentially stressful events we experience, the more we are in the grip of negative thinking and the more stress hormones we release.
When the concentration of these hormones exceeds a certain threshold, the intervention from our neocortex is blocked. This means that we can’t rationalise with our primitive limbic system that the project deadline is not the same scenario as an attacking wild bear, so our cognition and logical, solution-focused thinking is impaired.
We enter a vicious cycle and experience chronic stress which literally makes us stupid. In the long term, this can lead to serious physical, mental and emotional health problems such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, obesity, IBS, back pain, migraines, fertility problems and even psychotic episodes. The list is long and sad.
What is the solution?
Everyone has a different capacity to tolerate stress responses and a different threshold of enduring stress hormones in our body. The trick is to not accumulate the stress hormones in the first place. In this way, they won’t reach the threshold after which your thinking cap – the pre-frontal cortex – shuts down. We can do that by actively stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system – our brake pedal.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is activated involuntarily every night when we go to sleep, also when we relax, take regular breaks or daydream about something pleasant. However, we know from experience that we don’t do these enough or on a regular basis. This is because we tend to neglect our basic need to rest. As a result, we accumulate so much stress that, even after a good night’s sleep, we are still in the grip of this cycle of despair.
Luckily, there is another way; hypnotherapy. We can actually trigger our parasympathetic nervous system at will at any point in time so we can exercise conscious influence over it. This remarkable fact puts us back in the driver’s seat.
The most effective way of activating the parasympathetic nervous system and counteracting the symptoms of stress is through a hypnotic trance.
Here are a few other techniques that you can try first by yourself.
1. Try a breathing exercise
When you inhale, fill your lungs fully, hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way. Try breathing in this way for 60 seconds. It’s striking that such a simple and brief method is so powerful for most people.
It works because deep, long inhalations expand your bronchioles – the passageways in your lungs to the tiny alveoli where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide leaves it. The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of constricting the bronchioles, so by making them swell up with a big breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring them back to their 'resting' size.
2. Try a quick relaxation exercise
Deliberate relaxation directly triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. Relaxed muscles send messages to the alarm centres in the brain (the amygdala) that nothing is alerting the body to a threat. Everyone has their own ways to relax but it is sometimes too easy to forget that even micromovements in our muscles can make a great difference in our mental and physical state.
5 quick tips to counteract the impacts of stress in minutes
- Consciously relax your jaw and tongue muscles; unclench your teeth.
- Close your eyes and relax your eyelids.
- Drop and relax your shoulders.
- Take a deep breath into your abdomen, breathe out and allow for your diaphragm area to relax.
- Imagine being in a very comfortable setting. Feel everything draining out of you and sink deep into the earth.
3. Try a progressive muscle relaxation exercise
This technique can be learned by nearly anyone and requires only 10-20 minutes per day to practice. It’s based upon the premise that mental calmness is a natural result of physical relaxation. You can practice it seated or lying down.
- While inhaling, contract one muscle group at a time in a specific order (for example, your upper thighs) for five to 10 seconds, then exhale and suddenly release the tension in that muscle group. We generally begin with the lower extremities, ending with the abdomen, chest and face.
- Give yourself 10 to 20 seconds to relax, and then move on to the next muscle group.
- While releasing the tension, try to focus on the changes you feel when the muscle group is relaxed. Gradually work your way up the body, contracting and relaxing muscle groups.
- Visualisation is helpful in conjunction with the release of tension, for example imagining that stressful feelings are flowing out of your body as you relax each muscle group.
4. Try a lips exercise
Your lips have parasympathetic fibres spread throughout them, so gently touching them activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Take one or two fingers and lightly run them over your lips.
5. Try a visualisation exercise
The parasympathetic nervous system responds to the use of visualisation and positive imagery.
- Take a five to 10-minute break. Close your eyes and picture yourself in a peaceful place that you love. It could be the ocean at sunset, a mountain stream, a beautiful lush forest, a secluded beach, a field of wildflowers, or any place you enjoy and feel relaxed.
- Use all your senses as you visualise the place in this imagery. Hear the sounds of the waves, feel the breeze on your face, and smell the scent of the flowers.
6. Try mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is an evidence-based training programme derived from ancient Buddhist practice and adapted to the secular world. It was developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s to help hospitalised patients with chronic pain and to address unconscious negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
The main benefit of mindfulness practice is stress and anxiety reduction, because the practice is teaching us how to pay attention to what is happening in our body and mind moment by moment, so that we can stop our minds from time travelling into imagined catastrophes of the future or negative experiences of our past.
As a result, the practice can help quieten our primitive limbic system and effectively manage the levels of stress hormones. Research on mindfulness (e.g. Lutz, Dunne & Davidson 2008, and Goldin & Gross 2010) indicates that regular practice changes the size of the amygdala, which is less sensitive to negative thinking and, as a result, it increases our resilience to stress.
The above techniques were adapted after Dr Rick Hanson and Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn.