Every day, we are all subjected to stress, and if we don't learn to handle it, we can quickly reach a point of general breakdown and burnout. Stress weakens the body and puts you at risk for certain diseases.
There are several different kinds of stress, and each one has a different degree of difficulty in coping with it. Everyone responds differently to the various stressors in our daily lives, but the end result is the same for everyone: Nervousness, anxiety, and overall discomfort. All of these things contribute to worsened social dynamics/soft skills, and lower working efficiency.
Let's look at the most critical aspects of stress, how it functions, why it puts our wellbeing at risk in some situations, and what genes are linked to stress.
What Is Stress?
Any change that induces physical, mental, or physiological tension is generally referred to as “stress”. When the present situation exceeds our ability to handle it, we become stressed. It is
often perceived to be that normal, everyday tension we all feel, but in truth, this type of stress can actually be categorized as “constructive stress”. We actually need stress in order to perform at our best, but the issue arises when the stress becomes excessive.
Excessive stress may be the product of a heavy emotional load, a significant loss, or a series of mild, consecutive headaches that we are unable to recover from because they occur much too often. When we reach our physiological optimum, optimal stress leads to optimal efficiency. After that, the stress grows, and our efficiency decreases proportionally.
Common for most people, is that we subconsciously and consciously intensify the stress levels, by investing in our negative thoughts and worries. "I'm not good enough", "I look silly doing this and that" or “This is not going to end up well for me” are common thoughts.
The psychological mechanisms that occur inside of us begin to work against us, and we begin to experience the well-known stress symptoms as a result. There are also other factor that affect our reactions and tolerances to stress such as - Genetics!
The Genetic Response
Before we talk about ways to deal with stress and anxiety, it is important to point out that perception and tolerance to stress are also linked to your genes. The catechol-O-methyltransferase gene, or COMT for short, is one of the genetic factors that influences stress tolerance. This enzyme is in charge of degrading catecholamines including dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which is quite a difficult job.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries various signals between nerve cells, and it plays a role in the transmission of pain/stress signals across the body. So, effectively, this enzyme may be one of the determining factors of how we perceive pain and stress. Too much or too little Dopamine can impair cognitive function, so we need to find that sweet spot. Dopamine levels increase when we are stressed, and if you generate more dopamine, you can perform poorly under stress. Of course, if you generate less dopamine, you would do better since your dopamine levels are close to optimal, but then again, too little wouldn’t be good either.
When it comes to COMT, gender is just another deciding factor. This is mainly because estrogen suppresses the COMT enzyme, meaning that the activity of this enzyme in the prefrontal cortex in females is significantly lower than in males. Females, by default, are closer to optimal dopamine levels, as opposed to males. So, while there are many variables that affect our ability to cope with pain and stress, at the end of the day, it's all about how you RESPOND to your perception of stress, which will determine your outcome.
Does this then mean that the stress response is not all automatic and can be controlled and regulated? ABSOLUTELY! Here are our BEST actionable tips to manage stress. There isn't a one-size-fits-all option when it comes to stress relief, however. What works for one person might not work for another.
Guided Imagery - involves imagining yourself being in your "happy place"— eg sitting on a beach, or on your favourite couch at home. It can be done with a recording or music. Think about all the sensory experiences you'd engage in and allow yourself to feel as though you're really there.
Meditation - brings short-term stress relief as well as lasting stress management benefits. There are many different forms so try a few to see what works best for you.
Progressive muscle relaxation - involves relaxing all the muscles in your body, group by group.
Focus on Breathing - Breathing techniques can calm your body and your brain in just a few minutes. This is a really useful tool to do anywhere, while out and about.
Take a Walk - Exercise is a fantastic stress reliever that can work in minutes, as it stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Listen to some music – studies have shown music can help relieve depression, reduce burnouts and improve mood.
Make self-care a priority - The simplest things that promote well-being, such as enough sleep, food, downtime, and exercise increase self esteem and help manage stress levels.
Develop a Positive Self-Talk Habit - Harsh self-criticism, self-doubt, and catastrophic predictions aren't helpful. The way you talk to yourself matters. Be kind to yourself.
Yoga - combines physical movement, meditation, light exercise, and controlled breathing—all of which provide excellent stress relief
Express Gratitude - helps you recognize all the things you have to be thankful for, and reminds you of all of the resources you have to cope with stress