The Science of Stress and 5 Ways to Reduce It

You’re laying in bed, eyes wide open staring at the ceiling. You glance at the clock on your nightstand—3:04am. A surge of energy rages through your body as you make a quick calculation—if you fell asleep right now, you could still manage four hours.

But there are so many thoughts racing in your head:

  • I need bring extra diapers to Lucy’s daycare tomorrow, she’s been out for three days already.

  • When am I going to have time to practice my presentation before the board meeting next week? I still have to finish that marketing report, train the new hire, and put the final touches on the new campaign.

  • Ugh, I should really start looking for a new job, I’m so tired of the way this company treats me!

  • If I’m lucky, maybe I can squeeze in a workout before I run to the dry cleaners and pick up Lucy.

  • What should I make for dinner tomorrow? We really haven’t had enough veggies this week.

  • How am I ever going to get all of this done? Am I ever going to fall asleep tonight?

This list goes on, and on, and on …

We’ve all been there. Stress can build to an overwhelming level, and we seem to have stress about our stress. But what exactly is stress, and why do we have it? And better yet, how on earth do you manage it when your life isn’t going to slow down anytime soon?

What's Happening in the Brain

When you experience an actual or perceived threat, the area of your brain called the hypothalamus releases hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare you for whatever threat is looming—like an angry bear—and you (usually unconsciously) decide whether fight-or-flight is the best course of action.

Adrenaline is responsible for increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, while also providing an additional surge of energy to help you respond to the situation. Cortisol releases glucose into the bloodstream, which also gives you additional energy. As a result of preparing you for survival, the parts of your body that are considered non-essential for the task at hand are curbed for the time being.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Stress can be beneficial at times. It can help us stay focused and motivated on a difficult project, or it can keep us alert and ready to respond during a threatening situation. Normally, our bodies return to a healthy level of homeostasis. But when we leave stress left unchecked and it becomes chronic, stress can have severe ramifications to both our physical and emotional health.

Have you ever struggled to sleep because of overwhelming thoughts? Ever had pesky headaches that just don’t go away? What about when your digestive system is under attack for no apparent reason? Have your blood pressure results come back really high? Stress can result in numerous physical systems, and prolonged levels can even increase your risk of stroke or heart attack.

Stress can also impact our emotional state. Have you ever felt like you’ve completely lost control of everything in your life? Perhaps small things set you off because you’re easily agitated. Or maybe you’ve stopped socializing, even with the people you love most. These may also be signs of stress.

Ok, now I have stress about my stress. So, what’s the solution?

As a Millennial woman, stress in inevitable—work, finances, relationships, parenting, the list seemingly goes on forever. While acute stress is unavoidable at times, chronic worrying is something that we can control, at least to some degree, and addressing it can help alleviate some of these scary and unpleasant symptoms.

Here are 5 ways you can start reducing your stress right now:

1. Treat yourself! All jokes aside though, do something to break up the stress cycle. It can be as small as grabbing a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks (it’s back early this year!), getting a mani/pedi, or grabbing lunch with a friend.

2. Get some sleep. I know, it’s easier said than done when you’re ridiculously stressed out. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (or as close as you can get). It will help your biological clock get back on track. Read a favorite book for 20 minutes before bed to let your thoughts settle down. Avoid your phone an hour before before laying down, as the backlight can activate your brain when you really need it to chill out.

3. Be active. Don’t wait until the New Year to make this resolution, start right now! You don’t have to train to run a marathon—a simple walk around your neighborhood will do the trick! If you like being more social, join an intermural league, or give yoga a try. If you’re nervous about comparing yourself to others, do yoga in your own home.

4. Take a break from some habits. I’m talking about alcohol and caffeine—what a buzzkill! This doesn’t have to be forever, but if you’re feeling like the pressure is really on right now, consuming these can actually increase your stress, so try eliminating or at least limiting them for a bit. Decaffeinated beverages still taste great, and bartenders can make just about anything non-alcoholic—virgin strawberry daiquiris are delicious!

5. Time management. Get out your bullet journals and get ready to list everything out! Don’t feel guilty about migrating a task to the next month, just putting it down on paper can help make it feel more manageable. Say no to non-essential commitments—they can wait for a while.

Stress doesn’t have to consume your life. Start doing something about it today! Check back next week as we explore some more unique and fun ways to alleviate stress!