The burden we all carry
An ailing parent. A struggling child. Jobs lost. Unexpected bills. Frustrating relatives and coworkers. Everyone has to deal with stress in some fashion, and at times it can seem like the bad news is piling up. This is especially true in our current time, with the added issues created by COVID-19 - social distancing, travel restrictions, and economic uncertainty - piled on top of all the usual stresses.
In her book The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal describes data from the American Psychological Association (APA) describing ineffective and effective stress reduction strategies.
Ineffective stress relief
According APA, the actions people most commonly turn to for stress relief were also rated as highly ineffective at actually producing the desired result - a reduction in the feelings of stress. These strategies include:
- Watching TV
- Surfing the web
- Playing video games
Each of these is thought to activate the brain's reward system. This system relies on dopamine and creates a sense of craving as we anticipate reward rather than actually helping us feel rewarded. For instance, only 1 out of 6 people who eat in response to stress report that they actually feel less stressed when they're done eating.
The reward system can actually activate the body's stress response system, increasing rather than decreasing our sense of stress. We need a better approach if we want to actually reduce the negative effects chronic stress produces.
Better options for effective stress relief
Also from the APA, highly rated stress reducing strategies all appear to involve different neurological systems separate from the brain's reward center, and rely not on dopamine but rather serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin release.
The highest-rated strategies include:
- Prayer/religious services
- Listening to music
- Spending time with family/friends
- Getting a massage
- Spending time in nature
- Engaging in a creative hobby
Getting lost in the shuffle
Because these strategies don't activate the stress system, they tend not to feel exciting, and we forget how effective they are. I'd like to encourage you to peruse this list, and notice if there is something that has worked for you in the past, or that you've always wanted to try, but aren't using currently to help with your stress.
It's very unlikely your stress will ever go away completely, at least not in this life, but there may be a better way for you to manage that stress in a healthy way.
Dr. Topher Fox