We all experience stress. For some, the pandemic brought more stress than ever before. According to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America 2020 Study, nearly 8 in 10 adults say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life and 2 in 3 adults say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic. Our body’s stress response is triggered whenever we experience what our brain perceives as a threat to our safety, well-being or position in life. In this activated state, a series of physiological changes take place within the body. The problem is that there’s many things in our modern world that are perceived threats and not actual danger, but our body doesn’t distinguish the difference. Chronic stress leaves us vulnerable to burn out, gut issues, and increases our risk for many chronic illnesses and disease.
It’s important to appreciate that this built-in stress response is adaptive to our species. It once was a strategic way to survive life on the savanna, having to be vigilant to true animal predators. Today, a lot of our perceived threats are psychological like the over-stimulation and busyness of life, long commutes, overworking, and poor health habits - to name a few. Even though we are relatively “safe” in our daily lives, our body still prepares for perceived threats by emitting stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) throughout the body. This survival mechanism is often referred to as our “fight-or-flight” system. Ideally, we want to have a beginning, middle, and end to this stress cycle. After a danger or threat, we need to let our body and mind register that “all is good” and the coast is clear, sending the message that we survived the stress, we are safe, and that we can put an end to the need to fight. Far too often we face stress and continue on with our day, not reaching the end of the cycle.
If we don’t have proper tools in place to regulate and return to our parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) then we remain in a chronic state of activation. This may feel like constant emotional and physical exhaustion, no amount of sleep leaving you feeling truly rested, and/or being easily triggered.
Try the following evidence-based strategies to help complete the stress cycle next time you find yourself in a state of activation:
Creative Expression: Engaging in something creative, like using your hands to make something, helps ground you into the present moment.
Physical Activity: Stress accumulates in the physical body, any form of movement can help create a shift in the way you feel.
Laugher: Release feel-good hormones and emotions through humor.
Physical Touch: Compassionate touch with a partner, pet, or even yourself can help release trust and bonding hormones like oxytocin, helping us to feel safe.
Crying: Crying is healthy and our body’s brilliant way to release stress, it’s important to lend ourselves permission and not repress urges.
Deep Breathing: Try box breathing, a breathing technique that’s been shown to help the body shift into its parasympathetic (i.e. rest and digest) nervous system.
Life can get messy and stress is an inherent part of life. There are various factors that can cause stress to an individual, although not all are created equal. It’s important to note that systemic racism, financial poverty, and racism are larger issues within society that threaten a person’s physical safety, felt sense of safety, and long-term health. Moreover, that we all differ in the ways we can cope and buffer against stress given the resources and privileges we have.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and imposter syndrome. To learn more about working with her, visit www.ericabassotherapy.com.
American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2020.