the need of Stress Management
The ability to manage incoming stress has always been a central element of growth and success. As seen in society, the most effective and fast-moving individuals all share the unique ability to handle acute stress levels without it influencing their normal functioning. Conversely, there are many who find themselves at the whims of stress and become engulfed in the uncomfortable feeling when it arises in life. Ultimately, stress is something we feel daily, and to varying degrees, depending on the intensity of a given thought or event. Everyone shares this process, and there exists no human mind that is not subject to a stress reaction. The theory is that with prolonged exposure the baseline of stress is increasing gradually, leading to the development of many psychological illnesses in case of inability to manage and cope with the consistent pressure. Accordingly, managing stress and moving through stressful situations with efficiency and prowess is a high-demand skill that makes the individuals able to mediate the degree to which stress impacts their mind and behaviour, using different forms of stress management techniques to control this reaction.
Over this following essay, we will discuss the various element surrounding stress and its subsequent management. Additionally, we will explore stress management through the two crucial interrelated topics of mental toughness and emotional regulation. To begin, we will provide a quick overview of the science behind stress and how it affects the brain and body. Following this, we will describe the benefits of effective stress management and how it can be cultivated.
Stress – What Is It?
We have mentioned stress multiple times and briefly explored how it can affect the human mind. However, what is stress at its base? Moreover, which neurochemical processes create the stress response that we all experience? To better understand the function of stress, we must first understand its evolutionary purpose.
According to research, stress is a natural response that arises to support an organism to cope with situations that require action or defense (Worthman, 2015). Essentially, it is like a signal that indicates to the mind and body that a behavioural response is required to handle incoming stimuli (Nesse et al., 2016).
In itself, this process is highly beneficial to many aspects of human functioning as stress in these cases can create motivation to get a promotion at work or finish a difficult physical task or getting fight ready in a competition. Basically, it makes us care and attend to important things that demand our attention.
In more severe cases of stress, however, we find that various events can activate our sympathetic nervous system, producing the infamous fight-or-flight response (Nesse et al., 2016). This response acts as a survival mechanism that helps us fight a given threat or flee to safety if the opportunity presents itself.
All these processes are adaptive in nature, meaning they serve a fundamental evolutionary purpose to ensure our survival. However, if the stress response becomes chronic (e.g., persistent), the long-term impact of neurochemical and physiological impacts can engender adverse effects on our brain and body (Azza et al., 2020). This is because the stress response and fight-or-flight mode are marked by the production of specific hormones such as norepinephrine (i.e., adrenaline) and cortisol that prompt our bodies into action. Despite their short-term adaptive purpose, having these hormones consistently released into the body can abnormally increase our heartbeat, breathing rate and blood pressure, leading to changes in how our brain receives its blood supply (Goldstein, 2011). Remember that the brain is meant to stay within a balanced state, called homeostasis. Here, it can undertake its neurological functions effectively, knowing it has a safe and balanced baseline to return to. Hence, if the brain is continuously pumped with adrenaline and cortisol, our neurological processes begin to work in a dysfunctional way. Researchers attribute many psychological disorders to the brain’s inability to return to homeostasis, claiming that prolonged stress response can lead to severe psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety and hypertension (Romero et al., 2009).
How We Experience Stress
We need to learn how to effectively manage stress in order to stay physically and psychologically healthy. Not only does stress dysregulate physical homeostasis, but it also leads to a cascade of various emotional and psychological reactions. Stress can induce anger, fear, anxiety and confusion – Emotions which make normal functioning difficult and burdensome (Zautra, 2003). Hence, we must learn how to manage our levels of stress given to environmental stimuli in a way that helps us avoid those negative feelings and regain agency over our bodies and minds. For many, it isn’t easy to control strong feelings and emotions, and oftentimes, people find themselves mentally swayed by such feelings when they arise. Effectively, this is primarily due to the lack of access to knowledge and specific techniques required to manage difficult feelings and highlights the need for them to be purposefully acquired.
To better understand how to manage stress, it is vital that we first highlight how it is experienced physiologically and psychologically. The primary issue of managing stress is how powerful a reaction it causes in the body. To reiterate, when the body feels threatened, the parasympathetic system will activate the fight-or-flight response leading to the release of stress hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline), leading to an increased heart rate, blood sugar level and blood pressure. Psychologically, this response is marked by a spike of fear, excitement and anxiety due to the production of cortisol and adrenaline (Nesse et al., 2016). Research into the neurobiological origins of stress has shown that stress and anxiety share similar underlying neural circuits and are highly intertwined (Daviu et al., 2019).
In stress, negative emotions come up which have been shown to evoke the fight-or-flight response, causing our bodies to release various hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These contribute to decreased appetite, reduced need for sleep, and a faster heart rate – Side effects have similar overlaps to those produced by the stress response (Gross, 2001).
When we consider how impactful the stress response is to our minds and bodies, we see that it significantly deviates from our normal physiological and psychological processes. This significant deviation is precisely what makes stress hard to control and manage, as the acute sensations that arise possess a powerful influence over our minds and bodies.
The General Principles of Stress Management
Managing stress can be boiled down to implementing adaptive coping mechanisms to mitigate the psychological and behavioural impacts of a given stress response. Stress is described as a change that engenders physical, emotional, and psychological strain. It is essential to note that stress management does not entail removing the experience of stress altogether, as this is impossible. Most stress management models agree that there is no getting rid of the stress reaction evoked through the fight-or-flight response, as everybody experiences stress to some degree (Goldstein & McEwen 2002). However, effective stress management can ensure that the psychological, emotional, and physiological impacts are significantly reduced.
More specifically, stress management corresponds to developing specific coping mechanisms that do not allow the stress response to translate into overwhelming sensations, thus improving homeostasis and everyday functioning (Holton et al., 2016).
The concept of stress management also highlights a conscious effort put into shaping how you will allow stressful stimuli to affect you or not – It works towards having conscious control over your own outcomes instead of being at the whims of any random events.
Stress management is an umbrella term that encompasses a broad range of practices and techniques. Ranging from general physical exercise to ancient spiritual teachings, the list of stress management techniques is extensive and has been taught throughout the ages (Baqutayan, 2015). To place into context, we can reduce stress through mindfulness practices, self-care practices and exposure to the sun. These practices are revolving around evoking calming emotions via internal and/or external sensations.
In research, hundreds of additional techniques have been shown to reduce stress levels. These include getting good sleep, eating well, meditating and spending time in nature. Techniques such as these, that mainly approaching stress from the physical self-nurturing side, are simple and available to anyone who seeks to mitigate the stress levels that they feel on a day-to-day basis.
However, there are areas of stress management that go beyond simple techniques and outline compelling and highly dynamic processes that have been shown to act as robust inhibitors of stress. In case of high-intensity sports, special military operations, high-performing entrepreneurs and leaders we’re talking about positions that demands extensive responsibilities and accordingly requires a mastery of stress management abilities. Stress within these contexts is enormous, and equally strong management techniques must be implemented to cope with it. Hence, research has highlighted two crucial processes that have been shown to effectively manage high-stress environments such as these: Mental Toughness (full literature review on mental toughness) and Emotional Control (full literature review on emotional control).
Stress Management and Mental Toughness
More complex processes have been cited within research that has been shown to control stress significantly – Mental Toughness. It can be broadly defined as the process by which an individual can confront and adapt to difficult experiences by recruiting mental, emotional and behavioural flexibility to external and internal demands (APA, 2014). Considering this, a mentally tough person is someone who can sustain performance, achieve goals, thrive and persevere while facing high degrees of stress and pressure (Cowden, Anshel & Fuller, 2014; Hardy et al., 2014).
Research has demonstrated that aspects of mental toughness arise from situational factors such as stress, pressure and adversity (Guillen & Laborde, 2014). More specifically, studies have shown that being faced with stress and psychological challenges, when comes in manageable doses and reflected properly afterwards, can prompt the development of mental toughness within an individual’s cognition and personality (Gucciardi et al., 2008).
One distinction that has to be made is that mental toughness does not always arise out of stress and adversity, the deciding factor that prompts this is how one copes with the stress at hand – This is called adaptive coping. Research suggests that those who confront their stress voluntarily and strategically and take a proactive stance to overcome the uncomfortable feelings will be more predisposed to develop a form of resilience to it in the future (Bennet et al., 2018). Conversely, if one attempts to avoid stress and pressure when confronted with it actively, they risk being more psychologically and physiologically vulnerable to the stress response (Berman et al., 2010).
Additionally, another process that is linked to mental toughness and stress is called habituation, which is essentially how the mind adapts to acute stress through progressive exposure to it (Bennet et al., 2018). When individuals voluntarily undergo stressful experiences, this indicates to the mind that there is less threat present and, therefore, less of a need to produce stress-related hormones such as cortisol. This was made apparent by the Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl who survived the holocaust and explained how the human mind could adapt to the harshest of environments (Frankl, 1984).
Stress Management and Emotional Regulation
Stress is strongly linked to our emotions. When stress is high, it’s often results in the emergence of negative emotions such as anger and fear. For those seeking to improve their everyday functioning, emotions must remain regulated and controlled. This is because the way our emotions are expressed can be significantly overwhelming to other individuals and impact how they think and feel. Accordingly, for most people who find themselves in professional or social contexts that demand a certain degree of control, it is crucial that one’s emotional state is controlled. Maintaining mental toughness can contribute to this and vice versa. Put simply; emotional regulation supports mental toughness, and mental toughness supports emotional regulation.
Effectively, research has shown that emotional regulation techniques have significantly reduced the impact of perceived stress in one’s life. Many emotional regulation strategies have been proposed over the years. However, the most valid approach can be boiled down to leveraging one main strategy – Cognitive reappraisal (Moore et al., 2008). Cognitive reappraisal is an emotional regulation strategy that helps the individual reinterpret emotional experiences through a positive lens instead of a negative one. This is a complex practice to develop and requires the review of the belief system as well, usually involve some form of cognitive behavioral practice.
The Bottom Line
Stress management is an extensive research topic that spans many different domains of human performance. There is an exhaustive list of techniques that preach effective stress management. However, only few of them that capture the most intrinsic elements to stress management.
Research has illuminated two pathways that have been proven to induce a reliable state of effective stress management. The first is through the cultivation of mental toughness or resilience. The capacity to endure and confront challenging experiences is significantly associated with effective stress management. Most individuals in the highest echelons of human performance, such as elite athletes, government and special military operations, possess exceptional stress management skills. However, their skills must be learned and honed over multiple periods of adversity and challenge until they are adequately habituated and coped with. The second process that is linked with stress management is how we regulate our emotions. Research has shown that negative emotions and stress overlap in many aspects. Considering this, if we can build a practice to minimise them, we will escape the discomfort caused by acute stress.
Through these processes, the findings agree that you will be able to develop an effective layer of stress management that will allow you to improve your everyday functioning. In the end, stress is a debilitating experience that has the capacity to inhibit many of life’s positive aspects.
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