Keating, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is the author of Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity – and How to Break the Cycle.
There are two major reasons that for several decades more Americans become stressed, agitated and anxious — which in turn increases their daily physical stress, which itself in turn has led to the ongoing decades-long epidemic in stress-related disorders and diseases.
The first reason is societal. As inequality rises, so do our fears about affording basic necessities — or if we’re relatively well off, about losing social standing and financial security for ourselves or our children.
The second reason is more personal. Many more of us suffer from stress dysregulation than we did 40 years ago. Mainly through excess cortisol — a key stress hormone — this dysregulation makes the typical stress response too easy to trigger and too hard to turn off. This leaves us feeling highly agitated (even with no reason) and without effective ways to self-regulate and get back to a calmer, more functional state.
In recent years, though, we have gained a much better understanding of this stress epidemic (which, it should be noted, is significantly different from clinical anxiety disorders or related diagnoses that merit consultation with a physician). We can use the knowledge learned to help protect ourselves from many of its consequences. Here’s how.
Build Social Connections
Strong social networks — especially if they include some close confidants — help us regain our emotional balance and rein in our anxiety. The psychological benefits are well known, and social networks become even more important when ambient stress increases sharply. But also, biologically, they release the “good feeling” hormones serotonin and oxytocin, both of which counter cortisol. Social engagement itself also promotes the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we use for regulating our emotions and making thoughtful decisions.
We can also protect ourselves from the stress epidemic by exercising conscious mindfulness that allows us to focus on what is happening in the present moment, rather than indulging in past anger or remorse, or fear of the future. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis improves the brain functions that enhance our ability to avoid excessive stress responses. This doesn’t change the underlying stress physiology, but it allows us to interrupt the stress cycle by consciously controlling our reactions. This is not the same, though, as ignoring what is happening by burying our heads in the sand. Taking some time away from the relentless flow of societal stressors — now consistently present due to 24/7 exposure to social media and online news — can help. But disappearing from the scene altogether generates additional stress; people then lack information and become concerned about what they should be doing.
A perceived lack of control is among the most debilitating factors in terms of stress biology — in the extreme, learned helplessness leaves us shattered. We can look for opportunities to expand our sense of control, both at work and in daily life, through asserting ourselves and through seeking beneficial partnerships. There are limits, though: Perceiving that we have control where the reality is the opposite is short-lived. But even planning to exercise more control and taking initial steps to enact a plan can have beneficial effects.
Stay Physically Active
Physical activity directly reduces excess cortisol — also known as the “fight or flight” hormone, since its job is to make more energy available in stressful situations — by using that energy. This works to dispel cortisol that may be lingering from problems at work or at home. It also provides a host of direct benefits to many stress-related difficulties — obesity, diabetes, metabolic disorders — but also in increased brain functioning that supports self-regulation.
Avoid the Alcohol and “Comfort Food” Traps
Certain choices we make may reduce stress temporarily, but then have long-term negative effects on health and well-being. “Comfort foods” with high calories and fat do counteract cortisol, but at the risk of increasing the chances of heart diseases and other disorders. In the same way, substances like alcohol and other drugs can briefly alleviate the feelings of being over-stressed and agitated, but at a risk of becoming a “go-to” solution that can cause serious problems down the road.
Forget “Magic Bullets”
Being aware of the major stressors that are propelling the existing stress epidemic is a first step, but we all understand that no one thing solves everything here. Making use of our social connections, practicing conscious mindfulness, taking back control where we can and staying physically active are evidence-based pathways for dealing with stress. There are no shortcuts, but persistent efforts will pay off.