Neuroscience & Mind: Healing the Vagus Nerve with Sally Gray, ND
How to Use Stress Beneficially
Most people associate stress with feeling bad, overworked, or tired. However, stress can benefit you when you in some situations. To benefit from stress, you first need to determine your stress level and determine whether or not the stress you are feeling is helpful. Knowing what types of stress may benefit you can also make it easier for you to use stress to your advantage. If you are in a highly stressful situation, then there are also ways to reduce stress to a more manageable level.
Assessing Your Stress
Check your pulse.Between 70 to 80 beats per minute is the average pulse rate for adults. If your pulse rate is higher than 80 beats per minute, this may help you to determine if you are stressed. Take a moment to count your pulse to start assessing your stress level.
- You can find your pulse by placing your index finger and middle finger on your wrist. Then, look at a clock or set a timer for one minute and count your heartbeats.
Count your breaths.On average, adults take 12 to 16 breaths per minute. If you are taking more than 16 breaths per minute, then you may be stressed. Set a timer for one minute and count your breaths.
- Just breath normally as you count your breaths. Another option is to have someone else count your breaths while you take your pulse. This may provide a more accurate respiration rate.
Read your body’s other signals.Stress can also manifest as other bodily symptoms. Consider the other types of physical sensations you are feeling that may indicate that you are stressed.
- For example, does your stomach feel like it is in knots? Do you have a headache? Do you feel stiffness in your neck or other parts of your body? Do your shoulders feel tense?These types of physical sensations can also help you to tell if you are stressed.
Score your stress level.You may already know that you are stressed and have some sense of how stressed you are. Another way to gauge your stress is to score it on a scale of 1 to 10. Take a minute to think about what you have been dealing with in the past week or month and assign a score to how stressed you have been.
- For example, you might decide that based on how you feel and what you have been dealing with recently, your stress level is at an 8. This is a high stress level, so you would need to do something right away to bring it down.
- Try to keep your stress level in the 1 to 4 score range. If your stress is in the high range, 7 or above, then you need to reduce it right away.
Determine if you are experiencing good stress or bad stress.Not all stress is bad. In small and moderate doses, stress can help you to perform better and even enhance your immune functioning. Small amounts of stress can also improve heart functioning and buffer infection.Consider what you are stressed about and how much stress you are feeling. Keep in mind that no matter what the situation is, if you scored your stress level as high, then you will need to reduce it. Some situations where a mild to moderate amount of stress might be helpful include:
- before or during a test or presentation
- when attempting to meet a deadline
- before a job interview
- before a first date
- while studying for an exam or writing a paper
Develop strategies to reduce stress.If your stress levels are high or if you just feel uncomfortable due to stress, then you will need to do something to reduce your stress. Try to include a stress reduction technique in your daily routine to reduce stress to a mild or moderate level. Some good stress reduction techniques include:
- Deep Breathing. Taking deep, slow breaths is a quick and easy way to relax and get stress under control.Place one hand on your stomach and another on your chest and inhale slowly through your nose. You should feel your abdomen expand as you do so. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth and feel your abdomen deflate. Repeat this process for about 10 minutes.
- Meditation. Meditation can relax you, reduce stress and other negative emotions, and help you to find positive ways to manage the stress that you have.Learning to meditate takes some practice and patience, but you can teach yourself or take a class to learn this skill.
- Yoga. Practicing yoga is a good stress reduction technique and it can offer some benefits for your physical health as well.Try taking a yoga class once or twice per week.
Experiencing Stress Positively
Try to view stress as helpful.Having the mindset that stress can be a good thing may help to reduce an intense stress response.If you go into a situation with the mindset that you can do well under stress, chances are you will be less negatively impacted by stress and actually benefit from experiencing stress.
- People who like to work under pressure practice this principle. Having the pressure of a deadline or expectation can help fuel helpful stress to get the project done.
- Consider imposing a deadline for your work, even if no deadline exists. Or, if you have something due in a long time, make progress deadlines, just to make sure you’re working on it steadily.
Take advantage of stress for learning.A little stress can be helpful, while ongoing stress is damaging to your health and well-being. For example, having a moderate amount of stress before an exam can help you to perform better and recall more information in a short amount of time.Over time, your brain may learn to respond to similar stressors in the same way.
- You can create situations that are moderately stressful if you need to learn and remember information. For instance, you can work under a close deadline, sit with slight discomfort, or create a challenging to-do list for the day. If you’re studying for an exam, cramming can help you remember immediate information effectively. But remember, you won’t remember it long-term.
Create stress to increase your alertness and performance.Moderate and short-lived stress can help you with alertness, performance, and memory.Think about board games you play that have a timer; you try to write down all of your answers before the timer goes off, which creates stress. This pressure can help you remember more items and help you come up with more answers.
- Try setting a timer for yourself when you are studying or working on a project. Set a goal to accomplish before the timer goes off. For example, you might set a timer for five minutes and set a goal to write at least one page before the timer goes off.
- Stress can also help with memory function. You may be able to access memories that you had no idea you remembered when under moderate or low-level stress. For example, you might be able to recall more of the vocabulary words you studied if you challenge yourself to write them down while a timer is going.
Use stress to avoid threats.The stress response functions to help you quickly react when something potentially threatening or dangerous occurs.For example, if you walk near the edge of a cliff, it’s likely your body will begin to experience stress. This response helps you realize that there is a potential danger and that you should be careful. While it may appear obvious, it’s important to acknowledge these responses and be grateful that they are innate, as they likely save many lives of children and adults.
- Sometimes people also call this response intuition. If you get a “weird feeling” about a situation and feel like you should avoid it, chances are that the indication comes from a stress response.
- A stress response can also alert you to danger and heighten your senses.For example, if you’re in the middle of a conversation and suddenly hear a car horn, you likely jump out of the way to avoid danger. Your stress response helps send chemical signals to alert you to harm, and you rapidly avoid the situation. This response is often triggered by loud noises, sudden movements, or situations that suddenly turn ominous.
Expose yourself (or your child) to moderate stress when young.Being exposed to moderate stress as a child can help you to increase resilience against stress in adulthood. Minor stressful events in childhood can help decrease anxiety and increase cognition in adulthood. This is possible because young exposure changes levels of stress hormones in the brain. Young exposure to moderate stress can even prevent against adult bodily inflammation, such as heart disease.
- For new parents, it can be difficult to separate from your child when he or she is crying and upset that you are leaving. However, these small stressors can be the buffer against higher stress in adulthood. When you’re worried about your child’s well-being, it’s important to remember that a moderate amount of stress is okay.
- Don’t try and stress your child on purpose, and don’t try to shield your child from all stress. When your child does encounter stress, help him or her to cope with stress by spending time together or preparing for future stressful situations (like talking about going to the dentist or getting a shot). Talk about what causes your child stress, and ask what may be causing it and what you can do about it.
Buffering the Negative Consequences of Stress
Monitor your perception of stress.If you don’t perceive stress as affecting your health, you may experience greater longevity in your life. In studies comparing stress, responders who indicated high levels of stress yet little health impact tended to live longer than those who reported high levels of stress and large health impacts.
- If you find yourself thinking about how stressful your life is and how it’s affecting your health, make some health changes. If you’re overweight, start dieting and exercising; find activities you enjoy and go do them! Don’t allow your thoughts on health to be blamed on stress.
Identify what types of stress benefit you.You may feel like your stress largely originates from your career, your role as a parent or spouse, your busy schedule, or in relation to volunteer positions you hold. Some of these sources of stress may be benefitting you, while others may be harming you. Determine what types of stress help you to function and what types of stress are harming you.
- For example, maybe you find that your thrive when you have a deadline at work or that you are more productive if you have a lot of housework accomplish in a short amount of time. On the other hand, you may find that your commute home from work or problems in your relationship are causing you negative stress.
- Embrace the positive forms of stress in your life and work to eliminate the negative stressors. For example, you might plan one busy housework day per week because you know that you will get more done that way than if you do a little bit each day. However, you might need to find ways to minimize the stress of your commute, such as by listening to books on tape or taking a break halfway through.
Maintain a positive attitude.If you perceive stress as catastrophic, you’re much less likely to perceive a stressful situation healthfully than someone who has a positive attitude.If you believe that you can endure the rough patch, it’s likely that you’ll get through it with more ease. Remind yourself that you have what it takes to get through difficult times.
- If you find yourself stuck in negative thoughts, acknowledge the negativity, and begin thinking more positive thoughts. You can replace the thoughts with things you are grateful for instead. For instance, if you are caught up in feeling upset that your car needs repair and the repairs are expensive, tell yourself that you are lucky to have a car and to have access to repairs. Remind yourself that it will work out well, even if it means you lose some money.
- For more information, check out How to Build a Positive Attitude.
Lean on your family and friends.Stress may benefit your relationships with family and friends by giving you more opportunities to confide in them and ask for their support. By reaching out when you have something stressful going on, you can invite your friends and family into your life in a more intimate way. Having friends and family to lean on during a stressful period also means that you’re more likely to handle the stress better.
Combat stress by helping others.Stress can make your health more vulnerable as well. If you experience a major life event, such as a divorce, losing a job, or moving to a new city, it can increase your chances of illness and death. However, one study showed that people having experienced a major stressful event that engaged in helping other people seemed to eliminate this chance of death. The study suggests that helping and giving to others greatly reduces mortality related to stress.
- Start volunteering at an afterschool club for children, or at your local animal shelter. Giving back makes you feel good and is good for you!
- Keep in mind that have a high level of stress only increases your risk of illness and death. It does not mean that you are definitely going to get sick and die.
Move your body.Moving in response to stress may also help you to respond to it in a more beneficial way. When you start to feel stress, you may notice that you begin to fidget, walk or pace, or feel the need to stand up. It’s common to move as a result of experiencing stress, and the body often responds to stress through movement, which helps it cope in the moment.
- Let your body move in the way it wants to in response to stress. You may feel the urge to go for a walk or a run, or to leave the house or your workplace. If you feel the need to move, move.
Exercise before a stressful event.Exercising before a stressful event can boost immune function, which may make it easier for you to handle the stress. By incorporating regular exercise, you may be better equipped to respond to stress and benefit from it rather than experiencing the negative effects of stress. Studies indicate that exercise before vaccinations or surgery increase immune function and can improve outcomes.Physical activity after a stressful event can also help moderate the effects of stress.
- People who are active respond to stress better than those who are inactive.
- If you want to exercise but don’t know where to start, begin with a walk around your neighborhood or with your dog.
Video: How to Practice Deep Breathing for Stress Management
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