In a special to the Vancouver Sun, Neuropsychologist, Dr. Elisabeth Sherman and Registered Psychologist, Richelle Mottosky, explain the different types of stress, what is happening in our bodies when we experience stress, and the short and long term effects it has on our health and wellbeing. The two experts also discuss several ways to manage stress both physically and emotionally.
In life, stress is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
Whether you’re undergoing a messy divorce, the loss of a job, or daily traffic jams, how you respond to life’s stressors determines what happens to your body over time, says Copeman Healthcare psychologist Richelle Mottosky.
“Human beings are very resilient and can handle a lot, but if we’re always reacting rather than transcending it, we get flooded with stress hormones on a continual basis. Over time, stress limits our ability to think clearly and can lead to cognitive decline and situational depression,” she says.
“We can either change the situation or our perception of how we see that situation. If we allow ourselves to remain in a ruminating place from which there is no exit, we lose our ability to see what we can or can’t control.”
Temporary stress versus chronic stress
Some types of stress, such as within the psycho-spiritual realm, are long-term and pervasive, and can arise from financial or career pressures, trouble reaching life goals, or transitions such as divorce, death or retirement. Another lingering type is mental stress, related to perfectionism, long hours and lack of work/life balance; while emotional stress sees us battling feelings of loneliness, anger, guilt, sadness and/or fear.
Temporary stress that is often situational can arise from day-to-day triggers, such as having to rush from task to task because we’ve over scheduled ourselves. These can eat away at our ability to handle the bigger stressors. Regardless of the type, each time we react to stress, it exerts a physical toll on the brain, aging it faster.
Individuals with chronic stress will have thinner grey matter, or hippocampus, in their brain, which is responsible for memory. Other side effects include a suppressed immune system, reduced attention span, poorer decision-making ability and a higher risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Cortisol, the stress hormone, is very hard on the brain – it’s not meant to be bathed in it constantly,” says Dr. Elisabeth Sherman, director of brain and psychological health at Copeman Healthcare.
“It’s activated to help ourselves get out of danger, but when you’re in survival mode, your body is allocating resources away from daily repair and maintenance.
“You also rely much more on your primal survival circuitry, which doesn’t allow you to problem solve and make rational decisions. For executives and knowledge workers who are brilliant thinkers in high pressure situations but often operate at a much higher level than the average person, stress has a cumulative effect, putting them at high risk for burnout.
How to manage stress and find calm
“Olympic athletes train hard but they give themselves recovery time – we need to have downtime too in our daily lives.”
Think of brain health as a tank of fuel that can run low; exercise and sleep are the two non-negotiable ways to keep replenishing that tank, but get sacrificed when hit by stress.
Good nutrition and social support – being able to call people and ask for help – are also vital to your ability to manage stress. So too is making time for things you love to do.
“If you like music, what makes it so powerful is the pause between the notes, as much as the notes themselves,” says Mottosky.
“Life lives you as much as you live it, and stress is a signal for us to take a pause, reflect and think about where we want to be, which is the space between the next note.”
5 tips for managing daily stress
Dr. Sherman has identified three main sources of daily brain stress, including over-scheduling ourselves, interruptions due to multitasking, and constantly rushing. She suggests the following tips to manage stressors before they become chronic:
- Treat breaks/lunch as sacred time. Schedule them using smartphone alerts; aim for 10 minutes every 90 minutes.
- Triage your tasks so they’re not all due the same day or week
- Complete problem-solving and creative tasks first thing in the morning; leave email for later
- Stay away from your phone or the Internet when you need a recharge. Instead, stretch, go for a walk or make a cup of tea
- Break the five-alarm mentality. Not every task is urgent!