I’ve been slow and steady with my reading of ‘Why zebras don’t get ulcers’ by Robert M Sapolsky, and I am learning an awful lot in the process about the effects of chronic stress on the body. It requires much concentration to take in the physiology, but it’s so interesting and I am hoping that some of it will stay embedded in my brain.
One key factor in reducing the effect of a stressor is to have an outlet for frustration, e.g. to punch a wall, go for a run, find solace in a hobby. Apparently we can even imagine those outlets and derive some relief from the stress. Outlets for frustration obviously distract you from a stressor, but they must also be something positive for you – a reminder that there is more to life than whatever is making you stressed at the time. A stress response is about preparing your body for an explosive burst of energy consumption right now, inhibiting long term metabolic processes and getting your body ready to fight / run via various hormones flooding your body, and a redirection of blood flow to leg muscles. Exercise provides your body with an outlet that it was preparing for.
A caveat to this is that for the exercise to be effective as a stress reducer it must be of a desirable form. For example, let an experimental rat run voluntarily on a running wheel and stress responses go down, but force it to do the same amount of exercise and it gets a massive stress response. Clearly finding a mode of exercise that is pleasant is important not just in terms of adherence.
Other modulators to the effects of psychological stress are, briefly, having a sense of control, having some predictability and receiving social support.
More on stress in my next blog …