A Sigh of Relief

Updated: Nov 11

6 Coping Strategies for Modern-Day Stressors

Originally written for Alive magazine: https://www.alive.com/lifestyle/a-sigh-of-relief/

One in four working Canadians describe most of their days as “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful.” And if this survey had been conducted in 2020, that statistic might have been a tad higher! While the body’s stress response actually improves mental and physical performance in the short term, chronic stress can cause trouble in our relationships and contribute to the development of chronic diseases. Stress-related diseases

As we bid this stressful year adieu, checking in on your body’s stress burden and learning coping strategies to manage it could be the best thing you do to ensure your well-being in the year to come.

Stressing: The point

The stress response improves our mental and physical performance when we’re in danger. When faced with a tiger, for instance, our instincts kick in to either fight the beast or flee.

The sympathetic nervous system rapidly releases the neurotransmitters adrenalin and noradrenalin, and the stress hormone cortisol is released upon activation of a neuroendocrine network called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This increases blood flow to the muscles, increases heart rate, and dilates the pupils to take in more of the scene (see “Stressing the good stuff”).

But in modern-day life, most of our tigers overstay their welcome and come cloaked in the guise of a heavy workload, mortgage payments, and caring for kids and aging parents. While these repeated and chronic stressors don’t necessarily stir up fear for survival, the body responds as if it were in danger.

Despite the fight-or-flight response enhancing performance during an acute stressor, we don’t have a physiologic mechanism that’s as effective for dealing with episodic and chronic stressors. In fact, prolonged activity of the HPA axis during ongoing stress has negative impacts on body function and is associated with depression, anxiety, and panic attack. Stressing the difference Acute stress is immediate and quickly resolved, such as getting into a fender bender, giving a work presentation, and sustaining a minor injury.

Episodic stress repeats itself, like having a never-ending to-do list from a demanding boss. This can make you feel tense and like you’re constantly putting out fires.

Chronic stress arises from serious, ongoing problems that might be outside of our control, such as processing childhood trauma, being subjected to racism, and caring for a parent with dementia.

Stressing the good stuff

  • The fight-or-flight response is a built-in survival mechanism that increases mental and physical performance to fight dangerous animals, avoid car accidents, and even rock a work presentation.

  • Certain stressful situations, such as taking a test, can improve memory.

  • Positive stress at work, like a “good challenge,” is associated with reduced fatigue, increased happiness, and a better sense of meaning.

Body language Knowing the signs and symptoms of stress is your secret weapon for getting a head start on addressing the problem. Research has shown that stress affects the brain, immune system, digestive system, cardiovascular system, and endocrine systems, causing myriad emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms.

When you’re stressed, for instance, you might feel more irritated by minor inconveniences than usual, notice more hair on the shower floor, and find comfort at the bottom of your favourite vintage. But stress looks different on everyone.

Damage control

For predictable stressors, such as a yearly performance review or a visit from your less-than-cordial in-laws, prevention really is the best medicine. Putting a plan in place for how to deal with a stressor can help you weather the storm (see “Stress plan”).

But for the stressors that crop up without warning, it’s our coping style that makes the difference. If we magnify a problem and make it out to be more than it is, ruminate on it, or feel helpless, these negative coping strategies may actually intensify cortisol secretion and condition us to have an exaggerated physiologic stress response the next time we’re faced with a stressor.

But we can minimize the extent to which an unforeseen stressor causes us stress by addressing it directly, adopting healthy coping practices, and asking for help. These techniques minimize cortisol secretion and prevent stress from turning into a chronic pain condition.

Stress eating