April 02, 2020 at 10:00AM
If you’ve ever searched for information on how to deal with stress, you’ve probably found lots of tips for calming down when you’re already in the throes of worry. Once your muscles start to tense, your breathing gets shallow, and your heartbreak spikes, you can reframe your inner dialogue or phone a friend or therapist. These are great tools for the heat of the moment, but is there a way to actively train our bodies and minds—almost like we’d build a muscle—to become more resilient to stressors before they happen? We talked to experts about how we can learn more about our unique stress responses so we can start to take some steps to change them.
Why does everyone experience stress differently?
We’re all a little different when it comes to how our bodies and minds react to stress. And, unfortunately, we don’t have control over certain factors that affect our response: “When the body encounters a stressful situation, it releases a triad of hormones, including adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol,” says Stacey McLarry, N.D., a naturopath at the Institute for Specialized Medicine in San Diego.
The amount of each hormone that is released and how quickly the body then clears it depends on your genetics, environment, and health. “Genetics give the body a general outline as to how to operate,” McLarry explains. “One’s health and surroundings also play a role in how stress is both perceived and tolerated.”
We also all have a unique “stress reserve,” says Beverly Yates, N.D. She compares this reserve to a “backup battery”-like a booster for a smartphone. Not everyone has the same reserve to draw on. The deeper the well, the more resilient the body’s natural reactions to stress. “We each have our own unique experiences in life, and the sum of these lived experiences determines our stress response,” Yates explains. “If your life experiences have a number of traumatic events and you did not have the opportunity to fully recover, this leaves you more vulnerable to the next stressful situation.”
So, can we do anything to shift the way our body deals with stress?
Even if we can’t change our genetics or past experiences, we can take steps to train our bodies to cope with stress so that we can spend more time in a relaxed state. To do so, we need to consider the autonomic nervous system. This system has two arms that generally balance each other out: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. But stress can upset that balance.
Stress activates the sympathetic branch, which shoves our fight-or-flight responses into high gear. Our pulse might race, for example. And when we’re in this fight-or-flight mode, our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our “rest and digest” responses, typically takes a back seat. (That’s why stress may cause your gut to not feel so great.)
Tools like breathwork can help us activate our parasympathetic nervous system so that we can better cope with stress the next time it crops up.
You’ve probably heard the advice to take a few deep breaths when you’re stressed. If you’ve ever wondered about the science behind it, breathing can help you change which system is in control. “[Breathwork] helps your body’s nervous system switch into a parasympathetic state that is more calming and relaxing, versus the sympathetic state that is stressing you out,” says Michael Smith, N.D., of Carolinas Natural Health Center. The parasympathetic nervous system will send the blood flow back to your brain, Smith explains, and you’ll be able to think more clearly. It can also help reactivate your digestive system.
And you don’t have to wait for a stressful moment to arise to flex your parasympathetic nervous system. Research shows that the more we activate our relaxation response, the more we train it like a muscle. Regular parasympathetic nervous system activation can even combat how stress affects the body. Smith says this happens on a cellular level via a reduction in oxidative stress, an imbalance between the body’s free radicals and antioxidants.
What else can you do to help your body deal with stress before it comes up?
“Under ideal conditions, our bodies react to the perceived threat (stress) and then return to a resting state,” McLarry says. “Sometimes this doesn’t happen naturally and a calm resting state must be learned.” Here are a few ways to relearn or train your body to get into a more relaxed baseline state and better cope with stress as it comes up:
1. Try mindfulness and meditation.
“I would recommend starting small with 3- to 5-minute guided meditations or a morning 10-minute yoga flow, focusing on breath,” naturopathic doctor Tess Marshall, N.D., says. The calming effects of just a few sessions can be beneficial in helping to set a new habit, she adds.
You can also be mindful of your mind and start to train your brain to have more empowering thoughts. For example, the next time you think, “I can’t do this,” try to catch yourself and transform that thought into, “I can’t do this yet, but I’m working hard to master it.” The brain believes what it hears.
2. Take a hemp oil extract supplement.
Taking a hemp oil extract supplement may help keep your endocannabinoid system (ECS) in homeostasis, which, in turn, can combat stress and anxiety by keeping your autonomic nervous system on an even keel.* When the autonomic nervous system is balanced, it helps prevent fight-or-flight mode from taking over when it doesn’t need to. Be sure to look for a full-spectrum product since it’ll contain more beneficial phytocannabinoids (plant-derived compounds that seem to help balance out the ECS).*
3. Move your body.
“Exercise is just as important for your mind as it is for your heart,” says naturopath Lanae Mullane, N.D. “Exercise can help reduce the body’s stress response by balancing cortisol levels while also stimulating the release of mood-elevating endorphins.” She recommends finding an activity you love, whether it’s running, dancing, or spin class.