The pace of life and the environment we live in in this day age make it nearly impossible to live completely stress-free. However, Vilnius University (VU) psychologist Inga Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė points out that this may in fact be for the better, as the body’s reaction to short-term stress is useful in mobilizing us to act in a highly effective manner.
“A stress reaction, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is itself very beneficial, because it energizes our body, enabling us to do whatever we have to, which is key in moments like that. There are known cases of people saving their loved ones and lifting very heavy objects during a stress reaction,” Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė said on the Mokslas be pamokslų podcast. She adds, however, that this intensified engagement of the resources or our body is only beneficial when it is short-term; a long-term state of this kind can have serious negative health effects.
What kind of stress may be beneficial?
According to Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė, stress is our body’s physiological response to a certain perceived or experienced threat. In such a state, our breathing becomes faster, muscles tense up, the heart rate accelerates, and our internal organs send more blood to the limbs, making it seem that we suddenly have more energy to expend.
During a stress reaction, several a number of hormones is released into the blood, namely, adrenaline, which speeds the reaction and helps us act with urgency, norepinephrine, which increases our alertness and improves our grasp of the situation, and cortisol, which mobilizes the energy within our body necessary to deal with the situation. These are physiologically active substances that mobilize the body and give it extra energy to flee immediately, fight, or act with urgency.
Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė is convinced that stress is beneficial to us in all situations requiring prompt and effective action. In situations like that, a moderate amount of stress helps us focus, concentrate our energy, and swiftly complete the required tasks. If, for example, one has to deliver talks in front of an audience on a regular basis and is experiencing a moderate amount of stress, this allows them to focus, feel the energy they have, and do really well in front of a large number of people.
It should be emphasized, however, that only moderate or short-term stress can be considered a beneficial or good reaction, because the body is then able to easily return to its normal state of calm. If, on the other hand, a person has to complete something very quickly on a near-constant basis, these extra resources are employed for days rather than hours, and the stress reaction lasts for extended periods of time, one then faces the risk of serious health problems.
“Extended periods of stress are harmful both psychologically and physiologically. This raises the risk of heart disease and gastrointestinal issues. Moreover, the excess cortisol released into the body due to constant stress accelerates the build-up of fat, which leads to not only weight gain but also artery stenosis. There is substantial scientific research to suggest a link between levels of stress and the risk of anxiety and depression,” Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė says.
We experience stress in different ways
Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė emphasizes that high levels of stress can make each of us feel like our body is paralyzed, when it seems that the challenge is insurmountable and the situation is completely hopeless. “If our level of stress is such that our body informs us that the fight-or-flight response is the correct one in the circumstances, then the stress we’re experiencing is truly beneficial to us; if, on the other hand, it is such that it seems as if nothing can be done, with our brain interpreting the situation as hopeless, then we freeze. This can happen, for example, if, on a given day, we have six deadlines to meet.”
Deadlines, excessive workloads, meetings, high expectations of others, relationship, and raising children are some of the major causes of high amounts of stress in modern society. The level of stress increases when we want to accomplish an important task on time or when we have a short deadline for it. “If you’re given two weeks to complete a task, this is the amount of time it will actually take for you to do it. If, however, the very same task needs to be done in two hours, your body is able to concentrate its energy and employ all its resources due to the tension and stress it’s experiencing, and you’re able to do the required task sooner,” she says.
Nonetheless, tasks of the same kind may cause different levels of stress for different people and different physiological reactions to it. According to Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė, some of us need a very considerable stimulus to prompt a physiological reaction of this kind in our body, necessary to begin to feel anxious or stressed. Which is why the usual stress situations do not affect them quite as much, enabling them to take on some of the more stress-inducing tasks such as participation in military missions or working as combat medics.
Quick ways to relieve stress reactions
Asked about ways of dealing with major stress reactions when the brain tells one that the situation is hopeless and they should give in, Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė remarks that many of us are often completely unaware of the wide variety of relief methods actually available, which could help us calm down.
One of the most important of these is breathing. A stress reaction can actually be relieved by just taking deep and slow breaths for at least three minutes.
“When we’re consciously taking in breaths, we both inhale more oxygen and actually take charge of our body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Once our stress reaction is activated, our body’s sympathetic nervous system speeds up our breathing. However, this works the other way round, too. If we consciously slow our breathing down, we consciously engage our parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down our heart rate and other bodily functions, helping us to slowly relax,” she explains.
Another method she suggests is to try and return yourself to the “here and now”. If you’re experiencing significant stress that makes everything seem impossible, you should first engage your breathing and, then, your senses: take a look around and identify five things you see, hear, and smell, the taste you feel in your mouth, the things you could touch. Stress reactions can be caused by our thoughts or the planning we do in our minds, when our body is gearing up for executing those plans. Our sensory system is very effective in ‘transferring’ itself from anxiety-inducing thoughts to the present moment, thus relieving the stress we are experiencing.
Dealing with long-term stress
If you are experiencing too much stress or it lasts for extensive periods of time, this as a signal to immediately take systemic measures and come up with tools to help your body recover after stress and maintain a healthy balance between the fast-paced workflow and the time to unwind. Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė suggests four key ways that, once they become a habit, will help to manage your rhythm of tense periods of work and downtime in the long term.
One way of maintaining a healthy level of stress is forming the habit of relaxation, learning to unwind both physically and mentally. According to her, this doesn’t always come naturally to us, inert as we become in the work we do: we settle on a rhythm of work, do one task after another, and thus entering a calmer state and slowing ourselves down after may require conscious effort.
What works for some people, may not work for others: some may need relaxation or meditation exercises; others, long walks, running, physical activities; yet others, dancing or listening to music. “The exact method is less important than the ability to transition from the state of agitation to the state of calm. If we’re unable to relieve the body’s agitation, the quality of our rest and our sleep will both suffer.”
Another technique she recommends is correctly separating work and leisure, drawing a psychological dividing line between them. “If you keep thinking about work on coming home, planning your tasks for tomorrow and finding yourself unable to break free from those thoughts, the stress reaction does not recede and stays exactly as it was. This psychological dividing line between the work or tasks you have to complete and the time you can set aside for unwinding and doing something you find pleasant or even housework is therefore very important.”
According to Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė, coming back from work, changing one’s surroundings is usually associated with rest, with taking work off your shoulders and transitioning to the recreation regime. “However, these days most people work from home, eating, resting, and sleeping in the very same space, too, which makes it far more difficult psychologically to transition between work and recreation,” she says. Her advice here is to consciously plan the time for relaxation, disabling email notifications, and muting the chat apps you use for communicating with your colleagues.
A third crucial method is incorporating small breaks into your daily routines. Though many see them as a luxury, these small breaks are a good means of reducing stress during daytime. Only on the condition, however, that they are used for effective relaxation.
Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė points out that the opposite is often the case: “When we take a coffee break, we often find ourselves thinking about the upcoming meeting, catching up on the latest headlines, scrolling through social media on our phones, and continuing to tire our brain, because we make it focus on things and take in even more information. It comes as no surprise, then, that after such breaks we feel even more tired. That’s why, when you’re resting, you should be doing the opposite of what you do while working.”
Finally, the she recommends having a set of leisure activities that not only inspire, help to unwind, and leave a pleasant feeling but also let you feel you are good not only at your job and that life is more than just work.
Rising level of stress among students
People have recently been experiencing increased levels of stress. This is also demonstrated by the research conducted by Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė and her colleagues at VU Centre for Psychotraumatology. “When it comes to students at secondary schools, we see a worrying trend of rising levels of stress among teenagers, with the general psychological wellbeing falling by as many as 70 per cent. What this means is that seven out of ten children now feel worse than they did before the pandemic,” she says, adding that this decline in mental wellbeing is attributable to the completely transformed educational process and environment, with children lacking stimulation and, more than anything else, interactions with other children. This is why, she thinks, children should return to schools as soon as possible, to be able to grow in a normal, healthy manner.
Schools may be teaching many good things, but their key value, according to Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė, is that they are a place for children to meet others, interact with them, and learn from each other. Having kept her daughter at home and away from the kindergarten for a few months during the peak of the pandemic, she witnessed a slowing down in the child’s development. Children cannot grow as fast at home as they would if they interacted with others.
This is why her advice to school-leavers this year, who are currently under a lot of stress and have to take their exams in very unusual circumstances, is to talk to each other as much as possible, support each other, instead of shutting off from the world and drowning in their stress and exam preparation.
“Most people feel exactly the way you do. Exams are a major cause of stress for most, even in the absence of a pandemic. However, social support and sharing how you feel with a person who understands you are very effective at reducing stress. People need interactions, human contact, and warm, close connection,” Dr. Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė believes.