What happens to the mind and body when they are in a constant state of stress—when the “fight or flight” mechanism never turns off? Over the course of the last 14 months, we have individually and collectively experienced the multilayered effects of this chronic global and personal stress.
Healthcare providers, parents, teens and young adults, and people of color are among the groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the stress of the past year, according to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America report. In a February 2021 poll, 84 percent of US adults reported at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress, and a survey released in March found that close to half of parents have noticed a new or exacerbated mental health condition in their teen since last spring. In turn, the mental health crisis is causing high levels of burnout among therapists and counselors.
Stress is leaving us mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted. “We’re tapped out,” says Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, Executive Director of Newport Healthcare’s teen and young adult programs in Northern California. “We don’t have many resources left to fend off stress the way we usually do, so things that used to be little now feel much bigger. The volume has been intensified on everything.” And all that stress isn’t going to go away by itself when the pandemic does.
Chronic Stress and Allostatic Load
The body’s stress response—the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—was designed to activate for limited periods of time in order to address short-term stressors. When the SNS takes over, the body prepares to fight, flee, or freeze: Our muscles tense, adrenaline and cortisol flood the bloodstream, the heart rate increases, digestion slows down, our vision narrows, and we begin to breathe more rapidly. When the stressor passes, the relaxation response, or parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), kicks in, rebalancing the body.
In his research on trauma, Peter A. Levine, PhD, studied animals in the wild, who face a variety of stressors and mortal threats on a daily basis. He found that after drawing on heightened amounts of energy to escape or overcome a dangerous situation, an animal expends this excess energy by shaking, bucking, or running. Humans, however, don’t have a built-in system for releasing trauma and stress. Hence, over time, chronic stress erodes our resilience (the ability to bounce back from difficulties) and adds to the body’s allostatic load—the cumulative burden of ongoing tension, anxiety, and challenge. When a stressor never passes—due to external events and/or our internal reactions to those events—the SNS gets flipped to “on” and stays there. The result is allostatic overload, which is directly related to declines in mental and physical health.
“We’re not made to sustain the stress response for more than short periods of time, and as a society we’ve now been there for more than a year,” Dr. Dragonette explains. “Our bodies have adjusted to operating in this chronic state of distress, resulting in a long-term drain on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other body systems that becomes problematic.”
Under stress, respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD get worse. The risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke increases. Chronically tensed muscles lead to headaches and back pain. Communication is disrupted between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, which produces 95 percent of serotonin, one of the primary hormones involved in mood and emotion regulation. And the constant release of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-related chemicals wreaks havoc on the endocrine and immune systems.
5 Ways to Reduce Your Allostatic Load
Rebuilding our resilience—which Dr. Dragonette refers to as “our ability to do hard things”—is key to reducing the impact of chronic stress. To foster resilience and rebalance the nervous system, we need to kick-start the PNS, also known as the relaxation response. Here are five evidence-based tools to reduce allostatic load.
Mindfulness: The deep, slow breathing done in yoga, meditation, and conscious breathing exercises turns on the PNS and slows the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain that drives the fight-or-flight response. Just a few moments of a mindful practice, such as Lovingkindness Meditation, is proven to increase positive emotions, which in turn builds resilience and personal resources.
Movement: Physical activity counteracts stress by increasing endorphins, supporting cognitive function, and altering blood flow to stress-affected areas of the brain. Exercise also shifts us into the present moment, focusing our attention on what we’re doing right now rather than worrying about the future.
Sleep: Lack of sleep multiplies the effects of stress, impairing judgment and concentration and intensifying negative emotions. To improve sleep quality, try to get at least seven hours each night. Creating a regular bedtime routine can help, along with unplugging from devices 30–60 minutes before bed, cutting down on caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and eating an early dinner.
Food as Medicine: Research, including the groundbreaking SMILES Trial, demonstrates the impact of food on our mood. Moreover, specific nutrients have been linked to measurable positive outcomes in mental and emotional well-being. Among the most beneficial foods for mental health are whole grains, good fats (such as omega 3s), fruits and vegetables, and yogurt and fermented foods containing probiotics that support gut health.
Balance: A whole-person approach to wellness and well-being is the most effective antidote to stress. That means practicing self-care in all aspects of life: physical, psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual. Beyond work-life balance, strive for balance in relationships with friends and family, between play and rest, and between looking forward and acknowledging the moment. Ask yourself what categories you’re doing well in, and which ones you could attend to more.
“When we’re chronically stressed, we often tell ourselves that once we feel better, we’ll start doing all the right things—exercising, eating well, connecting with others. It doesn’t work that way. We have to do all those things first in order to feel better,” says Dr. Dragonette.
Care for yourself the way you would for a small child, she recommends. “You would go above and beyond to make sure that child is eating good food, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep, having time to be active outdoors. If we can take that advice and turn it back to ourselves, we’re on the right track.”