The Science of Being Stressed Out (And What We Can Do About It)

 Image by Stuartpilbrow

Image by Stuartpilbrow

Life gives us a lot to get stressed about.

Though no one likes feeling stressed out, sometimes it’s exactly what we need. Stress can be a great motivator and there are some people who have a hard time focusing without a little pressure. However, it’s all too easy for stress to get out of hand. When stress doesn’t let up it can be unpleasant psychologically, but also devastating physically. There are a number of ways our bodies suffer when we can’t find relaxation.

The heart is one place where stress strikes. Chronic anxiety or stress puts people at a higher risk for heart disease and raised blood pressure. An intense and sudden onslaught of stress, like the death of a family member, spikes the risk of cardiovascular events. Digestion takes a heavy hit from stress too. Irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal issues are common for the chronically stressed among us.

The permanent effects of chronic stress are even more worrisome. If a child is exposed to chronic stress it can alter the development of their amygdala, a structure involved in emotional regulation and the fight or flight instinct. For adults, premature aging can be a concern. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the chromosome from degradation. Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides and once the telomere is gone, the cell dies. Chronically stressed people have shorter telomeres than those with more relaxed lives, raising their risk for premature age-related diseases.

 Cortisol, the enemy. Image by Jynto

Cortisol, the enemy. Image by Jynto

Many stress-related ailments can be traced to one hormone: Cortisol. Extended periods of stress lead to elevated cortisol levels, which result in a cascade of negative health consequences. Cortisol raises blood pressure, but it also suppresses your immune system, decreases bone density, and alters learning and memory. It can be hard to relax in this rapidly changing world with our elevated cortisol levels making us feel even worse, but there are ways that science can help.

I won’t tell you not to worry, but if you are, consider some of these scientific methods to ease your stress.


Exercise

It’s probably not surprising to see exercise on this list. Exercise simultaneously lowers cortisol levels while also triggering production of endorphins. Endorphins are neurochemicals that decrease pain and improve mood. Elevated levels of endorphins induce a sense of euphoria, like the famous “runner’s high” that keeps people jogging.

Exercise has so many other health benefits that it’s something that everyone should consider, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only solution or the easiest. Stressed out people may not have the time to go exercise, or may have medical issues contributing to their stress that prevent them from moving around. Fortunately, there are plenty of other options to decrease your cortisol levels!


Listen to music

If you’re feeling tense, it’s time to put on some tunes. Scientific study has shown classical music to be ideal for unwinding, but all you really need is music you enjoy. Listening to music slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and decreases cortisol levels. It also triggers the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that improve mood.

Music helps people who are feeling stressed in general, but it also can relax people in the midst of immediately stressful situations, like surgery. Patients who listened to music prior to surgery reported less pain and anxiety and needed fewer painkillers as a result.


  Küssendes Paar vor Marmorbüste im Park by Josef Schusser

Küssendes Paar vor Marmorbüste im Park by Josef Schusser

Get kissing

Exercise isn’t the only way to unleash the endorphins. Kissing and cuddling also raise endorphin levels, as well as oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that enhances social and parenting behaviors while easing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Couples that kiss more often report less chronic stress and depression, so this seems like a particularly effective remedy.


Sleep more

On a personal level, I’ve noticed a large correlation between how much sleep I get and how affected I am by stress. Science backs up this linkage. People who get less sleep report higher degrees of stress. It’s easy to tell stressed out people to sleep more, but the nature of stress makes it a complicated prospect. Insomnia is a symptom of stress. Getting less sleep causes more stress. More stress leads to more insomnia. This can form a feedback loop that it is hard to break out of, but there are a number of resources and guides available to help you get better sleep and break the cycle.


Meditate

Here is a meditation you can try yourself if you have five minutes.

Time and time again, scientific studies have shown the benefits of meditation.

Meditation decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. It also can boost immune function, decrease pain, improve focus, and even increase grey matter volume. You don’t have to adhere to any particular religion to practice meditation either. Mindfulness meditation encourages focus on the breathing, clearing the mind, and being aware of your senses and surroundings. There are plenty of free meditations online and even meditating for as little as three minutes can help. If you find yourself stressed out at work and have a few minutes to spare, a little meditation can go a long way.


Unplug

It’s fine to browse social media accounts while unwinding after a long day, but if you find yourself continuously checking in, you may want to reconsider your habits. Studies have found that the more people use Facebook the less their reported happiness is. Even checking email can be problematic. People who were asked to limit their email checks to three times a day reported less stress than those who checked more often. Smartphone use has a similar effect.

The permeation of technology in our lives creates a constant stream of information that demands continuous attention. Give yourself permission to unplug a little and you may be surprised at how much better you feel.


Contemplate life under the sea

 Image by Klugschnacker

Image by Klugschnacker

Watching fish is a personal favorite stress reliever of mine and the correlation between fish-watching and stress relief is strongly supported. Numerous studies have found that the presence of a fish tank in a doctor or dentist’s office reduces anxiety about procedures. The National Marine Aquarium had a chance to run tests of their own during a period when they were restocking one of their tanks. They took measures of participants’ heart rate and blood pressure while they contemplated the tank. Watching the empty tank with slowly billowing seaweed helped somewhat, but the real benefits began when fish were added. The more fish there were, the better people felt.

It does seem that you need the real thing when it comes to fish, though. Experimental comparisons between the effect of watching fish in person versus recordings of fish show that the fish recordings just don’t measure up.


Everything else

There are many other options for science-based stress relief. Therapy can provide the support people need to build internal strategies for stress management and medication can help when stress turns into anxiety or depression. Other people respond well to aromatherapy or yoga, and tea, laughter, and even chewing gum are other science-backed cortisol reducers. It can feel like you’re boxed in with no way out when stress levels get too high, but finding the right stress reliever can make all the difference.

If none of the above methods help, we personally recommend watching cute cat videos. They’re another proven stress-buster, and one that boosts focus and attention too (See our previous blog: A Kitten a Day Keeps Distraction at Bay).

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow (who is listening to sea shanties and feeling less stressed already)