Under Pressure: The Role of Stress in Mental Health (Part 2/4 of the Mind-Body Series)
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Life can take unexpected and challenging turns at times, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our circumstances. Let’s take a closer look at ways stress impacts us physically and emotionally, and how to use the mind-body relationship to manage it.
Would it be fair to say that you’ve been dealing with an inordinate amount of stress lately? Perhaps you’re worried about the future, uncertain about what to expect from the present, or beginning to experience cabin fever? Suffice it to say that it’s not just you, and these heightened emotions are a completely normal response to a highly unusual event.
See, we generally don’t like change very much, even when it’s a change we actually want. We have a hard enough time accepting and integrating changes under normal circumstances, let alone when our routine, pace of life, and social practices have been completely overhauled within the space of several weeks.
A lot of the issues many of us contend with even during the best of times, such as isolation, anxiety, and the desire to maintain a sense of control, are being amplified by all of the uncertainty we now face. I think it’s safe to say that few people feel particularly in control at the moment, with far more questions than answers. What’s more, we now find ourselves needing to adjust to a “new normal” that doesn’t exactly support optimal mental health, without knowing how long it’ll be before we can return to our regular lives.
Increased stress is perhaps an unsurprising by-product of this shift. While I’ve written previously about mental strategies that we can use to keep stressful situations in perspective and avoid exacerbating them, let’s take a look at a few practical ways to reduce stress using the mind-body relationship.
The Physical Benefits of Managing Stress
Stress exemplifies the mind-body connection fairly well, since I’m sure we can link any number of physical ailments to times in our lives when we experienced high levels of it. These days we can be so adept at mentally avoiding sources of stress in our lives that we forget that stress affects us physically, too. In fact, sometimes our body can alert us that we’re stressed out even before our brain catches on.
Some of the physical benefits of managing stress include promoting muscle relaxation and thereby reducing the effects of chronic pain, as elevated stress levels can cause our muscles to tense up and result in body aches, tension headaches and migraines. Reducing our stress levels can also lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation in the body.
Interestingly, stress also affects the gut-brain connection, which we discuss in more detail in Part 1 of this series on the importance of nutrition for optimal mental health. People don’t joke about stressful situations giving them an ulcer for nothing! In fact, stress can trigger digestive issues such as nausea, heartburn, and bloating, and exacerbate existing issues such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Since the gut also produces neurochemicals that affect our mood, stress’s impact on our gut health ends up extending to our mental wellbeing as well. Finally, a healthy gut also promotes healthy immune functioning, which I think is pretty high on the list for many of us at the moment!
The good news is that the relationship between stress and the body goes both ways. While the emotional experience of stress can impact us physically, certain physical actions and behaviours can in turn impact us mentally and lower our overall levels of stress. Let’s take a look at some of these techniques!
How Can I Start Using the Mind-Body Connection to Manage Stress?
There are many exercises that use biofeedback mechanisms to regulate functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tightness, among others. A common example of this in action is when we’re told to focus on breathing during moments of panic.
These techniques also allow us to increase our body awareness, reconnect to the present moment instead of panicking over the future, and bring ourselves back to a place of relative stillness and calm.
The great thing about these techniques is that they can be applied just about anywhere, including within the comfort of your own home!
While a more detailed post on the mental health benefits of exercise is coming soon, for now suffice it to say that physical activity can go a long way towards managing stress. Many health organizations already recommend regular physical activity for optimal health, and exercise is also commonly cited as a means of helping us cope with the psychological effects of current social distancing measures.
By releasing endorphins and lowering levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone) overall, exercise is a natural stress-reliever that can easily be adapted according to your needs and current available options. Ideas for exercises that can readily be done at home or without the use of a gym include walking, jogging, calisthenics (push ups, sit ups, jumping jacks, squats, etc.), stretching, and yoga. If you’re looking for some inspiration, YouTube is currently brimming with free at-home workouts!
Since stress and anxiety tend to be future-focused states, practices that help us stay more present-focused can be useful coping mechanisms. Stress can trigger a fight-or-flight response in the body, which releases stress hormones and causes us to experience all manner of unsettling physical symptoms. These can include shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, muscle tension, light-headedness, shakiness, and cold sweats.
This response is actually quite normal in the body and is intended to help us get out of potentially dangerous situations, but unfortunately, it often gets triggered when no life-threatening danger is present, as in the case of panic attacks. We may be familiar with these sensations when they occur during activities such as exercise, but without any obvious context for these symptoms, we can easily mistake them for a serious condition, such as a heart attack.
When we’re chronically stressed, these symptoms can show up as persistent muscle stiffness, tension headaches, jumpiness, indigestion, and increased aches and pains. So, what to do?
Deep breathing is a great mindfulness technique that can help us slow our heart rate and signal to our central nervous system that there’s no need to panic. See if you can find a comfortable and relatively private space in your home, and practice gradually deepening, slowing, and pacing your breath for a few minutes. As a tip, directing the breath into the abdomen rather than into the chest will increase your breath capacity!
During this time, notice what sensations you feel in your body and practice accepting your thoughts as they fluidly move in and out of your awareness. Breath work is instrumental to many mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi, and enables us to achieve more focus and mental clarity during these activities.
Body Scanning and Progressive Muscle Relaxation can also be used to help us better connect mentally to our bodily sensations, notice tension and discomfort early on, and intervene. These two exercises are often performed in tandem, as the former can be a precursor to the latter.
In Body Scanning, we sequentially concentrate on different areas of the body (moving head-to-toe or vice versa), and take note of any physical sensations such as tingling, soreness, or muscle tightness. As we become aware of them, we can address any unpleasant sensations through actions such as light stretching, flexing, neck and shoulder rolls, or gently massaging stiff or sore muscles.
Progress Muscle Relaxation involves sequentially and deliberately tensing and relaxing each muscle group to help us really home in on the contrast between the two states. Those of us dealing with chronic stress can sometimes get so used to muscle tension that we forget what a relaxed muscle actually feels like, so this exercise can serve as a handy reminder. As a tip, these exercises are commonly used either just before bedtime or while lying in bed to help with sleep, so give them a try if sleep has been eluding you as of late.
Speaking of sleep, there’s a reason we use the expression “losing sleep over it” to refer to events that cause us major stress. While stress itself can affect our ability to get a good night’s rest, sleep deprivation in turn elevates our levels of stress hormones, which only creates a frustrating, self-perpetuating cycle. This is why adopting habits that promote sufficient amounts of quality sleep are important to managing our overall stress levels.
The recommended range for most adults is 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but many of us aren’t reaching that amount due to the pace of our lives, anxious thoughts that seem to creep in just as we’re trying to wind down, or poor sleep hygiene (habits surrounding sleep and the hours leading up to it).
We’ll discuss the role of sleep in mental health in more detail in the upcoming third installment of the Mind-Body series, but for now, where stress is concerned, let's look at a few tips to get started.
A few basics include using the 1-2 hours before bed to wind down and relax, perhaps using one or more of the mindfulness tips discussed above, setting a consistent sleep schedule, and avoiding any unpleasant conversations, activities, or informational input. That may mean setting a daily cut-off point for work-related activities and news reports; instead setting that time aside for things you actually enjoy.
There’s no question that this is a challenging time that can easily test our resolve and push us to the limit of what we think we’re capable of coping with. In the midst of the daily streams of stress-provoking information and updates on a situation that is unpredictable and ever-evolving, it can be helpful to remember that we’re actually a lot more resilient and resourceful than we like to give ourselves credit for, and we’re quite adaptable to change even when it’s unexpectedly foisted on us.
I hope that some of these strategies can offer a few tools for using the body’s own built-in mechanisms to help you mitigate those higher-than-usual stress levels and offer you some inner calm during the more challenging moments in your life.
If you need support to help manage high stress levels, uncertainty, or just want someone to talk to, drop me a line to discuss how therapy can help!