Understanding and Managing Stress

Understanding and Managing Stress

Understanding and Managing Stress

There is a lot to unpack here, so take a deep breath and have a seat!

There is a difference between stress and stressors. There is a difference between short-term, healthy stress and long-term, detrimental stress. There is a difference between the way we can best manage acute stress and the way we can best deal with chronic stress. Let’s dive in!

What is Stress?

Stress is a system in our bodies that mobilizes other systems in response to a stressor. These responses are hard-wired. They happen to everyone in response to a thought or circumstance that they believe threatens them. During the stress response, the body diverts energy away from the systems that promote growth, repair, and maintenance and to the systems that support movement. When we sense danger, we need to be ready to act!

Automaitc Stress Responses

 I’m sure you’ve heard of the “fight or flight response” - that’s exactly what I am talking about. We are hard-wired to stay alive, so we are acutely aware of danger and we have an amazing system that primes us for whatever danger is coming. Our heart pumps faster so we can get more blood, oxygen and energy to our muscles, our blood pressure rises, our blood glucose rises to increase energy, cortisol and adrenaline are dumped into our systems, our immune system creates an inflammatory response, and our focus and thinking narrow. If we are not in physical danger and therefore not actually moving in response to these events, we often feel the effects as a racing heart, shortness of breath, inability to think clearly, feeling of restlessness, irritability, sweaty palms or armpits, tight muscles, or a “pit” in the stomach. When you look at what is happening physiologically in your body, all of these symptoms make sense!

This is an incredible, automatic response, and it has saved the lives of many of our ancestors. In fact, this short-term response to stressors is great for our immune systems. It primes our bodies to fight off outside bacteria and viruses. And, it teaches our systems to respond quickly and effectively as needed and then return to baseline. When we create short-term stressors like hard workouts, cold plunges, saunas, and certain breathing techniques, we are teaching our systems to react and then return to baseline. 

Chronic Stress

Unfortunately, too many of us deal with longer-term stress responses. These chronic stressors come in all shapes and sizes, but ultimately, they are things we believe will cause us significant danger and/or loss. This can take the form of caring for a sick loved one, having a stressful job, living in an unhealthy relationship, having a chronic disease, or creating a narrative in our heads that reaffirms our belief that we are in danger somehow (think financial concerns, believing others don’t like you, constant worry about the future). 

Weeks, months or years of constant stress damages our bodies. Over time, the constant release of cortisol and adrenaline into our systems, the raised blood pressure, and the constant release of glucose become detrimental. We can develop chronic inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and problems with our mental health. Additionally, chronic stress impacts our sleep, the time when our brains remove cellular waste and do needed repair work. When our brains are deprived of these necessary maintenance tasks, it leads to neurological issues down the road. 

How to Lower Stress

Clearly, we want to avoid chronic stress. If we are not able to do that immediately (sometimes life is stressful), we want to at least find ways to lower our stress response for periods of time each day. When we can do this, we are teaching our bodies that it is okay to relax. We are also improving our heart rate variability (HRV) which makes us more resilient to stress over time. So, what is the best way to decrease the stress response in the short run, you ask? Here are some ideas:

Tune into your body

Learn to recognize your body’s way of reacting to stress (racing heart, shortness of breath, inability to think clearly, feeling of restlessness, irritability, sweaty palms or armpits, tight muscles, or a “pit” in your stomach). When you feel these cues, thank your body for alerting you to possible danger and assess if there is any actual danger that you can take action to prevent. If there is no immediate danger, the first thing you should do is take a deep breath. And not just any deep breath. The type of breath that seems to work best to calm our central nervous systems and get us out of the “fight or flight response” is called the physiological sigh. To do this type of breathing follow the following steps: 

  1. Breathe in through your nose for the count of eight or until you feel like your lungs are full. Make sure you are breathing into your belly, not your chest. Put your hand on your belly and make sure it moves out when you inhale.
  2. When you feel like your lungs are full, take another quick inhale through your nose before you exhale.
  3. Exhale slowly through pursed lips, like you are blowing through a straw. Draw the exhale out as much as you can. This pushes the diaphragm up and slows down your heart rate
  4. Repeat 2-3 times.

Other steps we can take when we feel overwhelmed focus on grounding our senses, getting out of our heads, and increasing mindfulness. We can step outside and feel the sun, cold or wind on our skin. We can focus on how the pen feels in our hand, or on the smell of dinner cooking, or the pretty flower on our desk. We can listen to music. We can think about or write down things we feel grateful for, no matter how small they are. 

Often, our stress is increased when we are feeling isolated and disconnected. In these times, it is helpful to get a hug from someone you are close with, or to touch base with a friend or family member. Those of us who own pets know how wonderful and calming it can feel to snuggle up with our animals. Taking a step to connect with another soul can help us feel less alone and afraid. 

Supplements to Lower Stress

Additionally, certain supplements have been shown to help with stress and anxiety. Particularly ashwagandha and L-theanine. Ashwagandha not only reduces anxiety, but it also lowers cortisol and total cholesterol. L-theanine increases GABA (the inhibitory transmitter in the brain) which works to turn off an overthinking brain, increases relaxation and decreases task completion anxiety. And, we can take GABA supplements as well. If you choose to take supplements, be sure you are getting quality supplements and taking the correct amount. For more information on these (and other) supplements, including recommended doses, check out the website examine.com.

Long Term Stress Management

Ideally, we are not relying on these short-term fixes for long. For the best possible management of all that life throws at us, we want to be in a state of feeling alert and calm. This frame of mind allows us to be responsive to things and not simply reactive. To get there, many of us need to make an honest assessment of our lives. We need to identify the things in our lives that are creating chronic stress and evaluate to determine what we can change immediately and what we can do differently in the present to decrease that stress in the future. This often involves setting new boundaries, saying no to things we would typically say yes to, and making choices that prioritize our health. 

We know that connection and positive relationships release serotonin in our bodies. This is the hormone that makes us feel good, calm, and satisfied with what we have. So let’s all work to increase the amount of serotonin in our brains by cultivating our relationships. Go ahead and reach out to old friends, have lunch with a new friend, stop and pet your dog when you get home, join an art class, or find a hiking group! 

Practicing gratitude has also been shown to decrease stress. Whether you speak it, write it, or just think it, tuning into the things you are grateful for creates positivity and simply feels good. 


Cultivating a spiritual practice is another way to feel more connected with yourself, your community and the world around you. Spiritual practices often, but don’t need to, include prayer, meditation, chanting and community - all things that have been shown to decrease stress.

Taking care of our overall health is key to long-term management of stress. When we are sleeping well, moving our bodies regularly, and eating a diet rich in whole foods and devoid of processed foods, we are much better equipped to calmly and thoughtfully respond to the stressors that come up in our lives. 

Are Our Own Thoughts Creating Unnecessary Stress?

Recognizing when our own thoughts are creating unnecessary stress is of the utmost importance. We all have automatic thoughts and a way of viewing the world that is uniquely our own and has been formed through our personal experiences. And, while we may have good reason for believing the way we do, that doesn’t mean that that is the ultimate truth or that we need to continue to believe that way, especially when it is causing us distress. Examining our thoughts and questioning the automatic stories we tell ourselves can be unbelievably freeing. Many people do this through meditation, mindfulness, journaling, yoga, or a breathing practice. 

Ultimately, we are all responsible for our reactions to life events. Whether I swear and lean on my horn when a car cuts in front of me, or I calmly apply the brakes and wave him in is completely within my control. One response will keep me in a heightened reaction and one will allow my body to return to baseline so I can carry on with my day. My reaction is determined by my emotional state at the time (my overall level of stress), how I interpret the situation (“that guy is a jerk” or “gosh, he must really need to get somewhere quickly”), and my ability to return to baseline after I am scared. And, as we learned by reading this blog, these things are all in my control, which is super exciting!

If you are interested in learning more, some great resources are The Huberman Lab Podcast (Episode #10), Brain Energy, a book by Dr. Christopher Palmer, and Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, a book by Dr. Peter Attia.