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Commentary: Stressed Out

Creative Commons

To say that 2020 has been a stressful year is an understatement.  The coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest, and a contentious presidential election have resulted in heightened levels of fear and anxiety the world over.  My normally calm and even-keeled family is stressed out beyond belief.  And while intellectually we all know that this current state of being will not last forever, making our way through all the emotions of this year sometimes seems impossible.  

We talk about stress a lot, but what is it?  Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of the 2019 best seller, Burnout, the Secret of Unlocking the Stress Cycle, write that “stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter…a threat.” 

Over time our species has developed an incredibly complex nervous system which regulates bodily functions and has allowed for humans to not only survive, but thrive.  The autonomic nervous system which makes consistent, real-time adjustments to our respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, and other systems is composed of two sub-systems:  the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. 

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” response.  When we don’t turn off the sympathetic nervous system we get stuck in stress mode, and may feel anxious, be unable to sleep, experience digestive distress, lack motivation, and may suffer from mental and physical exhaustion. 

Fortunately, there are a plethora of people who have been studying stress for a long time.  What follows are three of my favorite strategies that I use to lower my stress level.    

  1. Be here now.  Eckhart Tolle famously wrote, “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’.”  One of the best ways to be fully present, is to connect to the breath.  Most of us don’t think about our breath that often.  It is just something that happens.  When we are stressed our breathing tends to be shallow and irregular.  Taking deep breaths not only allows you to increase the air flow to your lungs, but it also signals your nervous system to calm down.  All you really need is a few minutes and a quiet place.  I like to lie on my back with my feet up against a wall, but sitting works too.  I close my eyes, place my left hand on my heart and my right hand on my belly.  I inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth.   When my mind wanders, I let it go and gently redirect my attention to my breath.  I may only do this for a few minutes at a time, but I try to find my breath whenever I feel overwhelmed.  
  2. Move your body.  I used to run a lot and it made me feel good.  Although I haven’t been running regularly this year, I am still moving my body.  I try and take daily walks with my pups, practice a few yoga poses, and spend some time outside.  Moving your body has some direct stress-busting benefits like increasing the flow of endorphins, thereby improving your mood.  Moving your body can help you sleep more soundly.  And if you move your body outside in the sun, you allow your body to generate much needed vitamin D, which plays an important role in making us feel happy.  A recent study by Harvard’s Women’s Health Watch found that even running or walking for 15 minutes a day can reduce major depression by 26%.  Start small, with a short workout just a couple of times a week, and see how it helps.
  3. Be kind to others.  Being connected to others gives our lives meaning and purpose.  Science has shown that as children, we are biologically wired to be kind to others.  Now more than ever, as we have to socially isolate ourselves from friends and family to mitigate the spread of COVID 19, kindness and empathy is good for everyone.  When you do something nice for someone else, be it making a batch of chocolate chip cookies, delivering food as a volunteer for Genesis Gardens, or reading a book for Tri States Radio’s Audio Information Services, being kind to others boosts your serotonin levels.  A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that participants who engaged in kindness reported feeling less anxious and stressed.  Just like breathing and moving your body, kindness and empathy towards others can release hormones like oxytocin which reduce your blood pressure and makes you feel better.  

As we continue to work through this crazy year I hope that the practices of breath, movement, and kindness bring us all some well deserved calmness.  
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.