In these uncertain times, nothing has come to the forefront of the collective conversation quite like stress. From financial anxiety to serious questions around health, it's easy to see why people seem more stressed than ever. But while we understand the concept of feeling stressed, as well as recognizing it in others, what is stress at its core? And, probably most importantly, what can we do to help keep it under control?
Stress is any situation that triggers our biological fight-or-flight response. Whenever we encounter something stressful (like something perceived as a dangerous threat), nerve and hormone signals fire to get us into action. First, your hypothalamus sets off a kind of “alarm system” that tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These then cause all of the natural signs of stress...
Adrenaline is responsible for one of the most recognizable signs of stress: an increased heart rate. Cortisol (known as the stress hormone) releases more sugars into your blood, which help to ensure that your brain is fully fueled to make any necessary “fight or flight” decisions. Together they put your body into high alert — good if you find yourself running away from a wild animal, but maybe not ideal if you’re trying to look calm and collected during a big presentation. Because while people can’t see what’s going on inside your body, the emotional, cognitive and physical signs of stress are hard to ignore. Things like nervousness, anxiety, shaking, racing thoughts, forgetfulness, inability to focus, and becoming easily agitated are all less-than-ideal symptoms of this natural (and fairly common) occurrence.
As a biological function, stress exists for a reason. Your gut instinct might be to say that it’s a largely negative one you wish you could do without — and I’d be pretty inclined to agree — but stress is also here to keep you safe. The fight-or-flight response might not serve the same day-to-day function as it did when our ancestors were evading animals and natural disasters in the wild, but it is still a beneficial warning system telling us to stay alert if we ever encounter danger or threats. In smaller doses, a little stress can add needed “pressure” to ensure you stick to deadlines and accomplish daily tasks more efficiently. There have even been studies that show a moderate amount of stress can fortify your immune system, improving the functionality of your heart and help ward off infection.
But we should obviously acknowledge the negative side of stress. While some people like stock brokers may claim to thrive in high-stress workplaces and environments, it’s hard to ignore the damage it can impact on your life if left unchecked. If you’re living a high-stress life for too long, the long-term consequences can include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, developing problems with mental health, and even physical problems like acne and permanent hair loss. You’ll not only feel bad on an emotional level, but physical as well.
So now that we understand the causes and general symptoms of stress… how do we keep it under control? While what works varies from person to person, here are some general activities you can try to work on stress management.
One of the best stress management activities is exercise, and it’s been proven to benefit you from the inside out. My hero Elle Woods in Legally Blonde summarizes it well: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” The release of these feel-good neurotransmitters aren’t the only benefit of exercise; it’s also been shown to help increase your self-confidence and self-image, help you relax, and lower symptoms associated with anxiety and mild forms of depression. I started doing pilates and cardio as a way to release stress on the weekends, and have considered getting into rollerblading through the park once the weather improves. So get moving to release the endorphins that come from physical activity, or just to focus on something that gets your mind off of any troubles for a while.
For anyone looking to live mindfully and become more centered, meditation is one of the best relaxation techniques to try. Rather than dwelling on bad news or problems in your life, daily meditation helps you release negative thoughts and look inward (with practice of course). And it’s easy to get started: apps like Headspace let you practice at your own pace.
Yoga is like the intersection of physical activity and mindfulness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve entered a lunchtime yoga class feeling stressed and tense, and left feeling calmer, more centered, and slightly more flexible. There are many different kinds of yoga, but hatha in particular is great for stress-relief. Hatha yoga focuses on balancing your energy and strengthening your mind-body connection. This is done through stretching, deep breathing and meditation, all working together to release any pent up energy or stress you may be holding on to. I might not be able to touch my toes yet, but I can definitely vouch for the benefits of yoga when it comes to stress relief and my overall sense of well-being.
Since different aromatherapy scents can have different effects on people (especially since we know how personal scent is), you should test out different fragrances to find one you like. Try lighting a candle made with essential oils (I find lavender very relaxing) or burn a diffuser while you engage in a quiet activity — like meditation, journaling, yoga or drawing.
My favorite techniques for stress relief often center on the idea of distracting yourself from things that could be causing you anxiety or worry. But journaling has the added benefit of potentially even helping you process your worries and get to the root of what’s really stressing you out. Take some time each day to write — whether it’s a log of your daily activities, recaps of conversations with friends, or problems you’re working through. Even if you can’t find solutions to everything, it can be just as therapeutic to get everything out of your head and onto a page.
Makers, this one’s for you. You don’t have to be an artistic genius to get the stress-relieving benefits of creating something, just try something new! To maximize your potential to unwind, don’t focus on being great or super productive right away. The first three loaves of bread I made from scratch were questionably passable, but even getting my hands floury was enough to help me relax and distract my mind from daily worries. Draw, paint, doodle, cook, build, organize, invent… if it’s something you enjoy doing, it should bring you a sense of relaxation, happiness, and hopefully way less stress.
Now more than ever, it's important to stay connected for our mental well-being and happiness. Even if you can’t be with friends or loved ones in person, a simple phone call, Skype session or group chat will help ensure you don’t lose touch. People can have a lot of anxiety and hopelessness over feeling alone, so this is a very crucial step to managing stress.
Now that we’ve discussed specific stress management activities, here are some lifestyle changes and mental practices you can try as well.
Stress and lack of sleep can be caught in a vicious cycle: since the brain chemicals connected with “deep” sleep are the ones that tell your body to stop producing stress hormones, they’ll boost the level of stress hormones present if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. And then when you feel stressed out about not being able to get enough sleep… the cycle continues. Getting enough sleep is crucial in helping to ward off high levels of stress, so test out different stress-relieving techniques to find one that works for you.
“You are what you eat” is a cliche that might be worth listening to in this case. Certain foods can actually help curb the effects of stress: complex carbs like whole grain bread tells your brain to make more serotonin, foods rich in vitamin C like oranges have been shown to decrease the presence of stress hormones, and foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon) have a similar effect on stress hormones. Changing your diet may not be a cure-all, but it's definitely worth looking into swapping in certain foods to see if they help balance out your stress levels.
There’s so much power in positive thinking. Even though it can seem easier to reflect on the negatives, give your mind a break and spend time thinking about what really matters. Prioritizing your thoughts should help clear the clutter in your head, and bring a sense of calm. Designer Stella Simona has recently adopted this practice as a stress management tool: “Stressing our bodies and our world out does not always mean we are accomplishing a lot. These last few weeks have allowed me to do something that has been an ignored priority on my to-do lists — to pause and recenter. These days, every morning when I wake up I ask myself ‘What do I really need’ and ‘What would I be doing now if all of this hadn't happened?’ and ‘What should really be my focus, and my priority?’” And stylist Miska Sykora has had a similar shift in thinking: “I’ve realigned my focus to realizing what is essential to everyday life — food, productivity, the sunshine, hobbies, routine, etc. Finding pleasure in the simple things.”
I know this probably seems like an annoying thing to hear, but no one wants to work with the pressure of a deadline or obligation always looming. All throughout college I struggled with forcing myself to complete tasks I was dreading, especially when it came to writing speeches for my public speaking class. And yet, without fail, I would always feel a rushing sense of relief and calm when I finally forced myself to just get them over and done with. The sooner you can cross items off your to-do list, the sooner you can relax. Develop your time management skills by writing down your tasks in a planner or calendar, and work on completing tasks in descending order of importance. It may be causing you stress now, but being able to cross it off of your to-do list should help you find a sense of calm and peace when it’s done.
While social media is obviously an amazing tool to keep us informed and connected, sometimes it can actively contribute to negatively affecting your mental health, well-being and stress-levels. From perfectly-curated images of amazing lives being lived on Instagram, so the never-ending (and currently very alarming) breaking news cycle on Twitter, it's easy to see how these platforms can cause us additional stress. So try and take a break! Recently, I’ve set up a notification that tells me if I’ve been scrolling Instagram for too long, and even deleted the Twitter app off of my phone. I’ll never quit social media completely, but it’s been refreshing to not have to see “BREAKING NEWS ALERT! VERY BAD THING HAPPENING!” on my feed 900 times a day.
Here’s something that’s stuck with me from my “Psychology of Childhood Development” class in college: you know the practice of letting your baby cry itself to sleep as a method to train it to self-soothe? While this practice can be controversial, the ability to calm yourself down is very valuable. Learning different breathing techniques can be super helpful for when you need to de-stress.
Self-care is personal, but the idea is to take the time to enjoy the hobbies and practices that have you feeling your best, mentally, physically or emotionally. While my youngest sister unwinds by playing Animal Crossing or video chatting with her friends, I’ve been known to spend many, many hours relaxing with some knitting, extensive skincare routine, or a good book. As long as you’re spending time doing something that brings you happiness and peace, even if only temporary, that’s a good self-care practice. And if you’re looking for new ideas of practices to adopt, be sure to check out the favorite self-care tips of the Davines North America team.
It’s definitely an important time to focus on keeping your stress levels under control: while we recognize that stress keeps us focused and alert should threats arise, no one wants to deal with the side effects of things like racing thoughts and agitation. Luckily, there are simple steps and lifestyle changes that you can make to help control stress: everything from exercise and meditation to self-care and aromatherapy can make a huge difference. And if it helps to lower your stress levels even slightly, we want our community to know that we’re taking action to help those affected by COVID-19. Whether it’s by donating money to City Harvest, sharing resources for you to support affected salons, or just helping you feel comfortable that you’ve mastered proper hand washing, we hope we’re able to help our extended Davines family and community breathe a little easier.
By Lauren Hannel, staff contributor
Illustrations by Emily Poulin