How Neuroscience Offers Long- and Short-Term Ways to Cope with Stress

June 03, 2022

By Natalie McVeigh

Everyone experiences and copes with everyday personal and workplace stresses in different ways. Stress, more specifically our body’s reaction to when we feel overwhelmed with mental or emotional pressure, causes physical changes that can raise our blood pressure, heart rate and sugar levels—among others.

Interestingly, our bodies do not care if the root cause of the stress we experience is a monumental event or trivial problem; it’s processed all the same. This can leave us with an accumulation of stress in our bodies, whether we realize it or not, that can snowball if never acknowledged or resolved. That’s why it’s important that we each use different ways to deal with the everyday stresses with which we’re presented.

What Really Is Stress?

We first need to break down what it means to be stressed, from both endocrinologic and neurological perspectives.

Stress is caused by the increased production and buildup of cortisol hormones in our bodies. This makes us feel upset, untrusting or agitated almost immediately. One of the most powerful hormones in our body, cortisol, can quickly compound once activated and if not addressed. Unlike some of our other stress-causing hormones, such as testosterone and epinephrine, which can often feel nice but short lasting, cortisol has an approximate 26-hour shelf life.

When accumulated, cortisol has direct impacts on our executive functions, such as decision-making, judgement, reasoning and memory. The buildup, when not addressed, can also have physical effects as well, including weight gain, weakened immune systems and chronic muscle tension or pain.

How do we manage or prevent those increased cortisol levels? By participating in activities and practices that create hormones to create feelings of trust and comfort. Oxytocin, one of the best cures for stress in the short term, is produced when we connect with others and ourselves in meaningful ways and can often overpower the feelings increased cortisol cause.

When those cortisol levels go unaddressed and accumulate over time, we can develop a baseline—sometimes not even realizing we are stressed because we are simply used to it. Here, oxytocin becomes less effective when breaking down cortisol. When it comes to long-term stress, we turn to dehydroepiandrosterone (“DHEA”) to break down those higher cortisol levels that we may not even recognize. DHEA is related to our emotional and mental state as individuals. As such, it is a form of “renewable stress-breaking energy” for our bodies.

Stress often comes from situations where we may feel like we are not in control. One thing we can control, though, is how we respond to stress and the feedback our body experiences. When it comes to the production of these hormones to fight increased cortisol levels, there are both short-term quick-fixes and long-term habit-forming solutions. Let’s cover some of the different ways we react to stress in both the short and long terms.

SHORT-TERM EXAMPLES

Find an Escape

Whether it’s exercise, videogames, shopping and so forth, finding an escape is an avenue someone uses to take them out of the moment, not addressing the cause of their stress but distracting them from it. As many of these escape mechanisms can release dopamine or make you feel good in the moment, they can often become addictive over time.

Numb Yourself to the Issue

Similar to escape, numbing is using or abusing something that numbs your feelings to stress or doesn’t make you feel like yourself. Someone may turn to alcohol or drug use to “forget” their challenges.

Isolate Yourself

Isolating is the act of actively avoiding interaction with others or the outside world. While sometimes taking time to think and process whatever things are creating stress can be beneficial, over isolating is often used to completely avoid or not address them.

Take Overt Risks and Be Compulsive

When someone experiences major stress, they can’t feel much of anything else. Whether it’s gambling, making risky investments or putting your body at risk, people will often turn to risk taking just to feel anything at all.

During the peak of COVID, acute stress levels were high across the board. Whether it was going out in public or not wearing a mask, many people would take these risks because it gave them something to worry about other than the pandemic.

Look to Humor

Making light of a challenging situation or current problems is used to mask the stress it creates. While this isn’t necessarily bad all the time, forced humor can be used as a mechanism to hide how you truly feel to both yourself and others.

Utilize Compensators

As mentioned, stress can physically affect us, making it more difficult to focus, sleep, stay awake, etc. Continuingly leveraging crutches to fix these issues—whether it be caffeine, drugs or alcohol—without addressing the root problem can both create an unhealthy reliance on them, while not actually reducing your long-term stress levels.

Hyper-Focus on the Past or Future

When dealing with high stress levels, we tend to dial in to either the past (whether it be our mistakes or experiences) or the future (thinking about a time where you won’t need to deal with your stressors). This mindset can create even more stress because it removes you from the moment by avoiding whatever problems you may have.

LONG-TERM EXAMPLES

Find a Support System

A great way to lower stress levels from a long-term perspective is by being open and addressing with your support system. Whether it’s close friends, family or a professional, sometime just confronting the stress- causing issue by talking about it can lower chronic stress levels.

Take Relaxation/Regular Breaks

We’re all very busy, which inherently raises our stress levels when we may not even notice it. Whether it’s at work, in a social situation, or you’re simply just feeling stressed or irritable, consider taking time to take a breath and relax. Breaking your day up with small relaxation periods of even five minutes makes a massive difference in reducing the buildup of long-term stress.

Have a Hobby

Having a hobby where you can dedicate your time can invoke feelings of personal fulfillment and enjoyment that can reduce chronic stress. It could be anything from creating art or music to reading to gardening. Making time for activities in which you are interested is a great way to reduce long-term stress levels.

Develop a Routine of Physical Activity

Physical activity and exercise are great ways to reduce stress levels and take steps toward living a healthier lifestyle. Recreational sports, lifting weights, yoga or walking are all great ways to both stay fit and help our bodies break down long-term stress by lowering our baseline. As with anything, moderation is key when it comes to exercise, so be careful not to increase physical stress on the body through injury due to excessive amounts. First check with your doctor for the type and amount of exercise that may be best for you.

Work on Breathing

When we’re stressed, we can often lose control of our breathing due to the fight-or-flight response that is triggered in our bodies. This can amplify our stress levels and make things worse. Taking time to employ deep breathing exercises can help us calm down from both short-term stress in the moment as well as long-term, chronic stress by making it a habit.

Get Quality Sleep

Heighted stress levels cause us to both lose sleep and reduce the quality of it without ever knowing it. In fact, multiple nights of poor-quality sleep can have a domino effect on our stress levels, continuing to raise them as we grow increasingly tired. A full night of quality sleep can change our moods and reduce stress in many ways. For the long-term, feeling well rested and levelheaded can help you better address the stressors in your everyday life.

Eat Better

Eating a balanced diet regularly can reduce chronic stress and is healthy over the long term. Not only does this help reduce stress through your mindset, but when you include vegetables and healthy fats in your diet, they can reduce cortisol levels in your body, breaking down the level of stress.

Be Present

A great way to keep our stress baselines in check is to remember to live in the moment. A big reason we accumulate chronic stress is by putting off the issues causing it. By both identifying the reason we feel a certain way and addressing it, we can do wonders for mitigating long-term stress.

Stress can be a powerful tool for motivation. We can help our stress to be eustress (good stress) or allow it to become distress (bad stress) based on our reaction to it as well as our frame of reference.

About Natalie M. McVeigh

Natalie McVeigh is a Managing Director in the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and the Center for Family Business Excellence Group within the Private Business Services Practice and has more than 10 years of experience as a consultant and coach.