Abby has been working extra hours for months in order to earn enough money to help pay for a family vacation this summer. Even though she loves her job, she’s been finding herself focusing on what’s wrong in her world.
She’s acutely aware of what she finds annoying about her husband, and her appreciation of what he’s doing right has dwindled. They’ve been squabbling, increasing Abby’s stress level and accelerating her negative reactions.
Without balance between work, love and play, our bodies become stressed and start pumping out the neurotransmitters that cause fight or flight reactions. Long-term stress leads to an accumulation of these chemicals, which compromises our well-being and causes us to feel emotionally frayed and physically fatigued.
People deceive themselves about their capacity to work hard for long periods of time. They tell themselves that the goal they have in mind is worth the overexertion necessary to achieve it. At first, this is true. But when we wear ourselves down our brain develops a “negativity bias” — it literally looks for trouble. This was helpful for our forefathers who had to be alert for hungry bears and warring tribes. Our ancestors needed those fight-or-flight chemicals.
In today’s world we’re confronted by different threats — people’s critical comments, unrealistic demands on our jobs and extremely unpleasant images on the news — none of which require a physical reaction.
We tell ourselves we don’t have enough time or energy for regular exercise. But our bodies are built to move in order to burn off the stress chemicals. If those chemicals are allowed to accumulate, bad things happen to both our body and mind. We feel overwhelmed, worried, edgy, unhappy or irritable. Digestive difficulties such as stomachaches or diarrhea are stress signals. An inability to get to or stay asleep are also symptoms.
Our body’s immune system becomes weakened when our body isn’t working well and our mind’s flooded with negative feelings. That’s when we’re prone to picking up all sorts of illnesses.
Instead of exercising, many people try to combat stress by soothing ourselves with substances: alcohol, food, tobacco or even prescription medications. While such tactics work in the short run, these pacifiers have well-known, long-range consequences that only add another significant source of stress to life.
Over time substance use becomes abuse because our body’s adaptation system requires ever increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect. This creates a downward spiral that ultimately compromises our body’s ability to deal with stress. When we’re hungover, carrying too much weight, out of breath or suffering from addiction, it becomes more and more difficult to get ourselves to exercise.
The good news is that a small amount of exercise can produce big results. A half-hour of walking, even if it’s done in three 10-minute stretches throughout the day, can burn off a substantial amount of stress chemicals. And starting with small time intervals makes beginning to exercise easier to do. The benefits can be immediate: improved sleep, reduced tension and a better mood. If you can walk outdoors during daylight hours, the combination of sunlight and movement will boost your body’s production of healthy chemicals.
It’s hard to fight millions of years of biological evolution, so make exercise your first line of defense against stress. Once you’ve done that, there are other strategies that can help you cope with stress as well. Changing how you think about distressing events has also been proven to be remarkably effective.
Your reactions to stress are in large part shaped by your thought process, which is something that you learned early in life from people who may not have developed their own healthy coping mechanisms. But your mind can be rewired to respond more effectively to stressful events. Alex Korb writes in his 2015 book “The Upward Spiral”:
“The first step is to simply imagine the possibility of positive future events. You don’t have to believe they will happen, just that they could happen. It’s possible that you could find true love tomorrow. It’s possible that you could find a better job. It’s possible that things won’t turn out in the worst conceivable way. The second step to strengthening optimism circuits is not just recognizing that good things could happen, but expecting that they will happen.”
Train yourself to ask, “What would it look like if things turned out well?” Then come back to the present and determine the first step YOU are willing to take toward that outcome.