Stress is an inherent reality of life. Many people believe that it is a phenomenon that depends on the particularities of the event we are facing, while others believe that the key is in the perception of the person who lives it.

Society unfolds before us an asphyxiating need for achievement and progression (in academia, work, family, etc.); stimulating rivalry and discovering ourselves before the rigors of scarce time.

This is why we run the risk of feeling overwhelmed from both a physical and emotional perspective, which can lead to an accentuated risk of mental disorders and organic problems.

Given this particular situation, knowing how to de-stress is of paramount importance for health and quality of life. In this article we develop a set of strategies, simple to apply, that will help us to achieve this successfully.

What is stress?

Stress is a response of the organism to a circumstance that demands an effort or a proactive response , for which the body is biologically prepared. It implies a series of adaptations at a physiological and psychological level, aimed at quickly resolving the situation that could have contributed to its appearance. In this way, it is possible to recover the balance (alostasis) on which the organs and systems involved must be supported.

Stress cannot be understood by considering only the objective dimensions of the situation, as the person’s view of the situation also contributes. Every time we are faced with an event of this nature, we subject it to a primary assessment (in which we probe its specific characteristics and the degree of demand associated with it) and a secondary one (in which we compare it with all the emotional and material resources available).

Pathological stress (or distress) arises when there is a dissonance between the two types of assessment, so that the individual perceives that the demands of the environment exceed his or her own ability to resolve them. In these cases, a succession of changes is set in motion in the organism aimed at maintaining the highest possible degree of effort, but which tend to collapse when a long time passes without the stressor being resolved or disappearing.

Some of the main changes occur at the level of the adrenal gland, which releases cortisol into the bloodstream as a result of a biochemical signal from two brain structures: the hypothalamus and the pituitary. Sustained stress would weaken the ability to regulate the production of this hormone, causing the body to “flood” with it and end up losing its adaptive properties (since under normal conditions it helps us mobilize energy).

One of the consequences often seen among people suffering from chronic stress is the compromise of cognitive functions, and particularly memory, since excess cortisol generates a harmful (although reversible) effect on the integrity of the neurons of the hippocampus (bilateral structure involved in the process of consolidating long-term memory). Other symptoms can also be expressed; such as fatigue, diffuse pain, sadness and unexpected shocks.

The maintenance of stress eventually leads to a physiological exhaustion response, which is a phase in which the adaptive mechanisms collapse under pressure, favouring the emergence of mood and anxiety disorders that require independent attention. To avoid these dramatic health consequences, it is crucial to have knowledge about how to de-stress in a simple and effective way.

How to De-stress

Stress can be combated through different strategies . Some of them are simple to apply, but others require a little more time. We proceed here to describe a set of activities useful for this purpose, excluding psychotherapeutic procedures and the use of drugs.

1. Organize your time

On many occasions, stress arises as a result of the inappropriate management of one of the most precious resources we all have: time . There are countless acts through which we can turn time into a cruel predator of health, such as postponing the implementation of what we need to solve a particular situation or rushing towards it (without order or concert) dragged by impatience.

The use of avoidance strategies, as well as impulsivity, contribute significantly to increasing the experience of stress. Facing demands without taking short breaks, accumulating the least appetizing to solve them over the horn (without interspersing them with attractive activities) or performing an infinite number of simultaneous tasks can overwhelm anyone’s resources, and are related to greater physical or psychic tension.

Drawing up lists of activities to be carried out and reserving a few minutes between each one to rest can be very useful, as well as analysing at what times of the day we are best able to undertake the most difficult or complex tasks (something that varies from one to another). These are simple methods that require greater self-knowledge about our management skills.

2. Accept the things that cannot be changed

Another reason for stress is the persistence in changing a situation that, by its very essence, is not susceptible to being altered . Learning to recognize that there are circumstances in life that do not depend on us, or that are unchangeable despite the efforts we may invest, is fundamental to optimize the use of our resources.

In this type of situation the most useful thing is to orient ourselves towards the emotional correlates that they provoke.

3. Learn relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are effective in reducing stress levels resulting from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, an autonomous branch that accentuates anxiety symptoms. Procedures that use controlled breathing allow the oxygen supply to be balanced, which is often altered in those who live under permanent stress (since their breathing tends to be excessively shallow).

Other procedures that follow this same line, such as progressive muscle relaxation, help reduce overload by teaching how to discriminate between muscle contraction and distension. These exercises help to know precisely the points where the body is kept excessively rigid, in order to deliberately relieve it. This problem is common among people subjected to high levels of stress (even though it often goes unnoticed) and precipitates the appearance of contractures or local pain.

4. Exercise

Physical exercise, especially when done outdoors, has proven to be a very useful tool for improving mood and anxiety symptoms in those with a disorder in these areas. There is a broad consensus on the benefits associated with sport, which are not only limited to the reduction of stress, but also extend to self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy.

Regular physical exercise reduces cholesterol levels, heart rate and blood pressure; three physiological indicators associated with sustained stress that negatively impact quality of life and morbidity and mortality. The scientific literature on the subject describes that people who exercise (at least twice a week) perceive themselves more positively and report a greater sense of calm.

5. Sleeps properly

Stress is one of the most common causes of insomnia , while the latter is also associated with the experience of stress. That is, people who sleep with difficulty report feeling much more stressed, while those who report high levels of emotional distress report poorer quality of sleep. Both phenomena, therefore, are directly related and can contribute to a self-feeding cycle.

There is a set of brain regions linked to both stress and sleep, so that their balance will preserve the architecture of the latter. The best known linkage areas are the hypothalamus, the locus coeruleus and the amygdala. On the other hand, it has been proven that stressors that are perceived as unpredictable generate a much deeper impact on sleep, this effect being mediated by the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex.

It is known that, in addition, stress-induced insomnia can compromise the neuroplastic processes that consolidate during sleep, increasing the likelihood of dementia in old age. Therefore, adequate sleep hygiene is essential to reduce physical and emotional stress levels, as well as to maintain health throughout life.

6. Take advantage of your social support network

The theory of cushioning establishes that social support, understood as the efficient use of emotional and material resources that the environment can provide, is a mediating factor between stress and the development of health problems. Thus, resorting to the help of the people around us can provide us not only with moments of pleasure, but also with a qualitative and quantitative reduction of the stress we may be experiencing .

Carrying out shared activities, especially those that have recreational components or that require collaboration for their adequate resolution, contribute in a notable way to feeling less overwhelmed by adversity. It is also known that the simple fact of sharing what we feel has a beneficial effect on the internal experience, and at the same time contributes to strengthen the bonds with others.

7. Take a break

Some people, especially those in jobs that place excessive demands on them or who care for someone with high levels of dependency, may experience a type of intense stress known in the literature as burnout. This manifests itself as sadness, loss of motivation, irritability, self-abandonment and general dissatisfaction.

This stress is particularly toxic, so it is recommended that those who live with it can participate in respite programs . This therapeutic modality consists of guaranteeing moments of recreation and self-care, in which the overwhelming tasks that are usually assigned to them in their daily lives can be delegated to other individuals, at least temporarily. Such procedures are used in clinical and community settings that are sensitive to this issue.

And if the stress doesn’t resolve…

In some cases, despite deliberate efforts to improve stress levels, stress continues to be sustained too long and ends up affecting our physical and emotional health. If you feel that you are in this particular circumstance, you need to consult a health professional so that they can offer you the best possible solution.

Currently, there are many therapeutic programs aimed at reducing the level of stress, from those that make use of Mindfulness to those that use cognitive or behavioral models (training in decision making or problem solving, cognitive restructuring, etc.). A well-trained therapist will be able to guide you and customize a treatment program suited to your needs.

Bibliographic references:

  • Geus, E. and Stubbe, J. (2010). Aerobic Exercise and Stress Reduction. Encyclopedia of Stress (Second Edition). Academic Press: New York.
  • Sanford, L. and Sucheky, D. (2014). Stress, Arousal and Sleep. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 25, 379-410.