Understanding Chronic Stress — 6 Ways to Take Back Your Life
Updated: Jun 25
The effects of stress and how to develop healthy boundaries with mindfulness psychology, self love exercises, and much more
Before we get started, I want you to take a breath and close your eyes. Give yourself this moment to be free from work, free from responsibilities, free from expectations and judgments. Go ahead! I’ll be right here.
Wow. That was nice, right? Why don’t we do that more often? Ohhh — I remember. You know that thing you’re stressing about? No, no — the other thing — that one, making your stomach ache and your head swell? UGH. It never seems to stop, does it? The never-ending list of errands to run, work to get done, events to attend…
The days, you realize wearily, seem to always go like this:
You wake up, groggily opening your eyes, already filled with resentment at the early rays sneaking through your window. The alarm goes off. Confirmation you did not have that precious five-more-minutes coming your way. *Sigh….* Clean the teeth, wash the face. Shove the voices reminding you you’re already late back under your pillow. Don’t forget the coffee — NEVER forget the coffee.
Food. Work. Think about bills. Did you mail that return-item yet? No new messages from that cute barista yesterday, darn… Work more. Silently scream at drivers in rush hour. Wonder if it’s possible to live… and be happy? Food again. Emails. Make tomorrow’s laundry list. Don’t forget to vacuum! After all, your entire extended family is coming tomorrow. Hit the bed.
Congratulations — you made it!
Another soul-crushing and stress-fueled day filled with checkmarks. You juggle so much, that sitting back and enjoying your hard-earned moments of peace starts feeling like drowning in… Taxes? Snakes? Despair?
All are correct.
Your brain keeps worrying about that laundry list, telling your body that you are still experiencing the stress of completing those activities — really, you finished those long ago! Shaking your head, you find yourself asking: “How can I get out of this cycle?” “Why can’t I shake it off and live in the here-and-now?”
I don’t know about you, but this was not the life I pictured at the hopeful age of 13, just beginning high school and knowing there MUST be better things ahead. A lot of our dreams back then were admittedly crazy and should never happen. But I bet I can guess the big things that mattered to you in all your visions.
You smile easily. (And a lot.)
You enjoy your time with loved ones.
You are stress-free.
How much stress do you experience every day? Did you know 55% of Americans report experiencing emotional stress daily? The global average is 35%, so I guess we’re winning… The biggest common stressors revolve around work and lifestyle, with money, crime and politics as additional sources. Do any of these sound familiar?
Feeling under-appreciated and undervalued
Changes in schedule
Lack of job security
Sudden change or trauma
Taxes; mortgage; medical bills
Sudden illness; chronic illness
Are There ANY Good Types of Stress?
The answer is YES. That shooting of adrenaline you feel when you slam on the brakes quickly — that stillness that comes over you when you think you hear something behind you. These are acute stressors. Our brain is our hero when it comes to these, preparing your body for fight or flight by flooding your system with adrenaline. This activates the sympathetic nervous system so all our energy is maximized for survival. This is a very important response system that keeps you alive.
Now, let’s say you’re in rush hour. Your brain begins interpreting the very real stress of gridlocked traffic as low-level acute stress, sending your energy to support your survival. Your well-intentioned brain releases cortisol to refill the energy banks constantly surveilling for danger. This keeps your energy diverted from daily processes that don’t help with the immediacy of survival, and in a high-energy, high-alert state until the danger passes and your brain lets you relax.
The problems start here. When your stress lasts for long periods or recurs frequently the brain keeps your cortisol levels raised, protecting you from the never-ending threat. By constantly preparing for immediate action, your well-intentioned guardian angel accidentally prevents you from enjoying your life!
Long-Term Stress Literally Stops You From Being Healthy.
Long-term stress seriously overtaxes your body. I’m sure you’ve felt it. The surprising fatigue, the unwanted exhaustion. It feels mental and physical somehow — like a gravity blanket that’s a bit too heavy. It’s that friend who means well but continually drains you. When you are in a state of stress, your brain prioritizes. Sending energy to prepare the body for survival means borrowing it from other places, preventing your body from working at peak efficiency.
Chronic stress is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Your digestive, reproductive and excretory systems suffer.
High amounts of stress hormones for long periods can shrink the hippocampus (your learning and memory center). This leads to weak verbal memory and difficulty retaining new memories.
Chronic stress slows your ability to heal. During long-lasting stress, your brain releases hormones that block injury-fighting molecules called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Those scary-sounding molecules tell your body when to bust out repairs and start healing. Blocking them prevents you from healing.
The energy that should heal that paper cut or cure that cold continues preparing for an invisible enemy regardless of what you want.
This study really wowed me with the power of stress. It measured the rate of healing of 13 people working as family dementia caregivers, versus 13 people who didn’t experience the additional daily stressors caregiving brings. Researchers created a small 3.5mm wound each individual’s arm and watched it heal. They found that caregivers took 24% longer to heal. Imagine the health effects on a larger scale!
Generally, long-term stress hurts the brain and body. Like the majority of us, you might not have the flexibility — or desire — to completely overturn your life to realign everything towards happiness. I wish we all had the resources to dream-makeover our lives, but unfortunately, that just isn’t practical. But…
NOT TO FEAR! There are ways OUT OF THIS STRESS CYCLE!
I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Some days I keep myself grounded in a place of love and happiness, and other days there’s no way. I think we need those days too — who doesn’t love a good rant session? To shed the shackles of self-imposed stress, I decided to scour the web. And I did not come up empty-handed…
Before diving in, I want to remind you to find what works for you. You are a uniquely hard-working, compassionate, clever, take-no-sh** human who deserves some peace of mind. What works for others might not be your cup of tea — we each have our own blend. And personalizing your own routine that reminds you of your value can empower you and lessen stress all on its own!
So without further ado…
Six Ways to Repo Your Life From the Effects of Stress!
Soak up Some Nature
No, I’m not joking. I love this one. Immerse yourself in nature and watch as it sneakily reduces your stress without your even knowing it! Just viewing images of nature for 10 to 15 minutes can leave you feeling refreshed and peaceful. So find a new park or a short stretch somewhere green, go for a stroll and let nature take care of you.
2. Sprinkle Some Mindfulness Into Your Routine Research shows the process of introspection, noting your thoughts and feelings, and following them to their source has a big impact on your perception. This perception shift can illuminate how your stressors may not be reflecting reality, and bring you into an active, empowered role in your life as opposed to a reactive and fear-based role.
Try labeling your stressors and identifying the power they have over you (or might not have!) Write them down. Taking notes by hand requires more mental effort and cements what you write into your thoughts!
Or, focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Breathe in for four-counts…hold for seven seconds… and release all of your breath for eight. I’ve found this deep breathing practice can bring peace and calm almost instantly.
3. Spice It up With Some Exercise! Here’s an example of helpful stress! Exercise increases your ability to withstand physical stress and brings loads of health benefits when done properly and safely. Physical benefits aside, just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity can lead to positive psychological benefits. These include feeling more in control, relaxed, lessened symptoms of depression, and less stressed.
This could look like taking your dog on a walk, breaking out for a booty-breaking dance session in your kitchen, or meeting up with a friend and trying out that new kickboxing class — the only wrong way to exercise is to do something you HATE and expect to stick with it. Find what ignites you and feels good — you can do this!
4. Affirmations Towards Self Love Challenge yourself to write down your values and goals and how they make you feel. Do this every day for 10 to 15 minutes and watch as your perspective begins to shift! Write in the present tense to fully experience the emotions you feel when labeling your values.
**Full Disclosure: I used to be pretty close-minded. All of this gratitude and manifesting and positive psychology… It felt like emotional comfort blankets cheesed out to the max. (And the stock ones can be pretty cheesy sometimes).
Real truth time? I was dead wrong. I do this every morning for about 10 to 15 minutes now. The key lies in personalizing these. When I first started, I felt aimless. After advice from friends, I began the process of writing affirmations. I labeled what I value in life, directing me towards goals that truly resonate with me. Feeling like you’re at the mercy of the karmic gods and completely adrift doesn’t need to be permanent. I want you to feel just as valued and capable of taking on the world as I now feel.
5. Relax Your Body Massage? Yes, please. We rush from place to place all day, so busy we don’t always realize the amount of strain we put on our bodies. From cramming ourselves into cars to sleeping in a weird position or not dealing with the slouch in your back…
Treat yourself! Massage out your muscles, stretch, try an ice bath. For ultimate relaxation, I love adding essential oils to transport me out of my Los Angeles apartment into bright gardens filled with Jasmine and Lavender.
6. Make Time for Happiness Carve out 20 minutes a day where you can do something you love. Lose yourself in it. Learn something new! Cook that new recipe you’ve been dying to try, read a few pages from that book that’s been sitting on the same shelf for years collecting dust. Maybe happiness for you comes with a good conversation and a glass of wine. Whatever makes you happy, squeeze in some time for it every day. You deserve it.
There you go!
A starter guide to de-stressing. I encourage you to keep exploring till you find the blend of de-stressors that is uniquely YOU. By figuring out your stressors and what makes you feel better, you are already devoting much-needed love and attention to the person who’s always there for you — YOU!
When you take charge of figuring out how you de-stress, you are empowering yourself to take charge of your life — you are denouncing the status quo. We can’t control everything in life. But we can choose to look at our lives and re-evaluate what’s helping us and what’s not. You deserve a life chosen by you, not by your overgrown but well-intentioned stress response.
Remember, I believe in you and you can do this!
*originally published on Medium March 7, 2020*