We Can All Be Stress Busters
By Pamela Cantor, M.D.
- Cumulative stress can cause a healthy person to become injured and ill.
- When stress hits the brain, it can make you lose focus, become tired, cranky, overreactive, and even lose hope.
- Human connection can have remarkably powerful positive effects on the body and the mind.
Stress. There is no shortage of it today. Pick a source: mass shootings, inflation, the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, record-setting temperatures, fires, floods. Stress is constant, unremitting, and, for many, exhausting.
Stress is not benign. It can move us along the continuum from health and wellness toward illness. This is because the human brain and body are living structures. Every single cell and structure we are made of can get frayed and worn out because of cumulative stress and will then carry the history of what has happened to it. This is the developmental principle called embodiment.
Stress and Sports
Think about sports, and what can happen to knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders from running, football, tennis, basketball, gymnastics, you name it. Cumulative stress on any body part is called allostatic load.
Allostatic load describes the impact of stress on any living system. For a while, the body will adapt to stress, and adaptation is a good thing. If we take care of our bodies with sleep, nutrition, visualization, and stretching, with the guidance of good coaching, we can increase our performance because we have taken care of ourselves in the most important ways.
But if we don’t protect our joints and muscles and expose them to too much stress through overtraining and inadequate rest, they will wear out. Then we can suffer an injury that will take time to recover from. Cumulative stress can also weaken our immune systems, making us more prone to illnesses such as asthma, hypertension, and diabetes.
Stress and the Brain
The brain is a target of stress, too. Under stress, the body will release a flood of hormones, including cortisol, which targets the structures of the brain responsible for memory, focus, and emotional regulation. If the stress is moderate, we adapt and we can be resilient.
But if stress hits the brain and we don’t do things to offset it, we start to move from health toward illness, and symptoms appear. We lose concentration. We might feel tired, cranky, and experience symptoms of depression. We might become easily triggered and overreact. We may even lose hope.
This is what is going on today for many of us. But it is going on for young people, especially those between the ages of 10 and 25, more than any other group. For example, 37 percent of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic and 44 percent said they felt persistently sad or hopeless.
Ways to Combat Stress
So what can we do about this? Some of the same things athletes prioritize:
- Get enough sleep (7-9 hours per night)
- Make healthy choices about food and drink
- Exercise regularly
- Practice mindfulness
- Service to others and acts of kindness are also active buffers against stress and hopelessness.
An Antidote to Stress
The body has another mechanism to combat the effects of stress. Just as experiences filled with stress cause the release of the hormone cortisol, experiences and relationships filled with trust and safety release a powerful hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin hits the very same structures of the brain as cortisol. However, it is more powerful because it can literally protect us at the cellular level from the damaging effects of cortisol.
This is why the effects of stress and trauma are reversible–not the events, of course, but the feelings and emotions are reversible. Relationships that are strong and positive are the antidote to stress and even produce resilience to future stress.
When we speak about the human relationship, we are not just talking about being nice to a child. We are speaking about a connection that is built through consistent caring, protection, presence, and trust. We’re speaking about the kind that can make someone believe something about themselves that they couldn’t believe until you entered their life.
It makes me crazy when people talk about relationships as the “soft stuff.” Relationships are the electrical source for the growth of the brain. The neurochemicals and hormones like oxytocin that are released develop the motivation systems of the brain—the systems that encourage exploration, curiosity, practice, persistence, and fuel neurons, causing them to fire and connect to other neurons.
And as the brain gets increasingly wired, neurons that fire together wire together. This is called Hebb’s Law, and it means we can do increasingly complex things, whether it is reading, riding a bike, or building a robot.
An Ounce of Prevention
Injury prevention in the context of sports is fairly common knowledge. What is less well understood is the power each of us has to prevent injuries to our emotional and mental health. In fact, the very same systems of the brain and body that we harness for learning and building other complex skills can simultaneously reduce stress and illness and promote health.
Human connection—being around people who make you feel good about yourself and positive about life—can have remarkably powerful effects on the body and the mind.
That’s right. We can be stress busters and brain builders, all of us, at the same time.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today.