The Science of Stress Reduction: Facing ‘Bears’ in the Woods

The Science of Stress Reduction: Facing ‘Bears’ in the Woods

The term stress is thrown around so often in everyday lingo; it’s sometimes hard to know what it actually really means. So when we talk about stress, what are we exactly referring to? According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (2016), stress is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat, meant to prepare someone to take action in order to get them out of harm’s way. This is commonly referred to as the ‘flight-or-fight’ response.

So let’s say you were walking in the middle of the woods. All of a sudden, you have come face to face with a bear. Immediately your ‘flight-or-fight’ response would kick into high gear, impacting your bodily systems in the following ways:

Musculoskeletal System: Your muscles will tense up to protect against potential pain or injury.

Respiratory System: Your breathing will quicken to allow for more oxygen to flow through your body.

Cardiovascular System: You will experience an increase in heart rate, stronger contractions in your heart muscle, and an increase in blood pressure.

Endocrine System: Your adrenal glands will produce cortisol and epinephrine – these are known as the ‘stress hormones’. Your liver will also produce more glucose or “blood sugar” to give you the extra energy to run or fight danger.

Gastrointestinal System: You may feel nausea or pain in your stomach.

Nervous System: Your sympathethic nervous system or SNS will signal your adrenal glands to release adrenalin and cortisol (adrenalin is also a stress hormone). These hormones will lead to increased breathing, a faster heartbeat, increased blood sugar, and blood vessel dilation in your arms and legs.

As you can see, the human body is pretty miraculous in that it naturally prepares and protects you when you’re faced with bears in the woods. But what about when you’re faced with ‘bears’ every single day. By ‘bears’ we are referring to major life events and socio-economic stressors which can be both positive and negative (see some examples below).

Major life events – e.g., history of trauma, losing a loved one, divorce, pregnancy, starting a new job or losing a job, getting married, injury or illness, moving or buying a home.
Socio-economic stressors – e.g., work overload, competing deadlines and priorities, financial uncertainty, chronic pain, being tethered to work through our phones, lifestyle choices, caring for family members.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

The Impact of 24/7 Stress

Coping with major life events and socio-economic stressors on a daily basis can wreak havoc on your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health and well-being. If you think back to how your body responds when faced with a bear in the woods, imagine what chronic stress can do to all of its systems when you’re in a constant state of ‘flight-or-fight’. Chronic stress has been shown to lead to negative physical, mental, and behavioural effects (Carlson, 2004) including:

  • Chronic pain
  • Heart disease
  • 
Anxiety
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Depression
  • Digestive issues
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Reproductive issues
  • Memory impairment
  • Sleep disturbances

Tips to Reduce Stress and Make our Lives Ease-ier

Being able to balance all of life’s responsibilities, both the good and the bad, is not easy. It can often feel very overwhelming to juggle all that life throws at you and may lead to some of the serious health issues noted above. However, stress is now so commonplace and often a celebrated part of 21st century living that it is near impossible to avoid. So what can you do to make your life a bit Ease-ier to live alongside those ‘bears’ in the woods?

We have compiled five strategies you may consider using to manage living with stress. Remember, these are just some examples and if you have other strategies you find helpful, it is important to do what works for you!

Move your body – staying active is a great way to reduce stress. You don’t have to train for a marathon; even light exercise can have great benefit on your mind and body. Talking a walk, practicing yoga, or going to the gym can all contribute to relieving stress.

Be fully present in the moment – mindfulness may take practice but can be very helpful in managing stress. Meditation, deep breathing, and engaging in daily tasks such as walking, eating, and brushing your teeth are all ways you can begin to incorporate mindfulness in your routine.

Nourish your body – what you put into your body has impact on your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Choosing healthy and nutrient-rich foods will improve your mood and make stress more manageable.

Relax your muscles – stress creates muscle tension so it’s important to let those muscles take a break. Engaging in daily stretching or taking hot baths are some ways you can release some of that built up tension.

Make time for yourself – with so much going on, it can be hard to justify making time for yourself. But this is so important. Make time every day, even if it’s for a few minutes, to do something you love.
We hope that these tips will be helpful to you as you face those ‘bears’ in the woods. Stay tuned for future blog posts where we will explore the science behind each of these tips.

If you’re interested to hear more from us at Ease, check back every Tuesday for new posts and subscribe to our newsletter!

Live life lighter,
Carolyn & Stephanie

 

References

Statistics Canada. (2014). Perceived life stress, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2015001/article/14188-eng.htm

Canadian Mental Health Association. (2016). Stress. Retrieved from: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/your-mental-health/stress/

American Psychological Association. (2017). Stress Effects on the Body. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Carlson, N.R. (2004). Physiology of Behavior. New York, NY: Allyn & Bacon.