- Mental Health
How to Manage Stress With Science
Stress can have a significant impact on everyday life. While some stress is, in fact good or beneficial, the negative physical impact of other types of stress, including chronic stress, can show up as chest pain, trouble sleeping, digestive discomfort, muscle aches, headaches or shaking, among other uncomfortable but common natural reactions. Emotional stress can manifest as struggling to complete everyday cognitive tasks, like making decisions, focusing, or regulating mood. Stress affects the body and mind in various ways that can disrupt your ability to complete daily tasks and meet important work and family obligations. But learning how to identify stress and manage stress and manage it with WHOOP can help you take action before your stress levels rise. In this article, discover more about the impact of stress on the body and effective research-based interventions to mitigate this.
What is Stress in the Body?
Stress is the overarching term that refers to the body’s built-in emotional and physical response to experiences that may be difficult, challenging, exciting, or overwhelming. If you’ve ever been under immense pressure or anxiety, you probably recognize the feelings: heavy chest, racing heart, tight muscles, and overall feeling of angst. When faced with upsetting circumstances, challenges beyond our control, or new and highly demanding situations, the mind and body react—and it often doesn’t feel great. That said, stress can also be positive, temporarily increasing our energy and focus, which can be helpful to prepare the body for action in stressful situations like giving a presentation. In response to stress, hormones activate the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, and trigger the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, surge through the body, elevating heart, respiratory, and blood pressure. This natural fight-or-flight response aims to help the body's responsiveness to external stimuli, life-threatening or not. Ideally, once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, will be activated to reverse the changes induced by the SNS and return the body to homeostasis. With constant or chronic stress, however, this natural calming process does not occur, and the body stays primed to deal with a threat. Research shows that persistent activation of the fight-or-flight response can take a severe toll on the body over time and may negatively impact the cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, endocrine and musculoskeletal systems. When the PNS and SNS function optimally, they send signals to the body to help keep it balanced. This is measurable as heart rate variability or HRV, one of the key metrics that powers Stress Monitor. The interaction between the PNS signals the heart rate to decrease and the SNS telling it to produce fluctuations or variations that show up as HRV. A high HRV indicates that the body is responsive to signals from the nervous system and can adapt to change when necessary. A lower HRV could indicate that the body is under excessive stress and cannot adapt well to change.
The impact of stress is not limited to how stress affects you physically. Emotional stress is another crucial type of stress. Recognizing stress symptoms in your daily life involves identifying how stress makes you feel. With constant stress, it’s common to feel:
- Anger or irritation
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Significant dread
- Disinterest in everyday activities
- Excessive worry or tension
- Isolation or loneliness
- Inability to control racing thoughts
How to Manage Stress with Science
Many scientifically proven methods help you manage stress in any situation. Learning to deal with stress using science-backed techniques will help prevent it from taking over your everyday life and increase your overall wellness and health. Expert-tested and recommended solutions for how to manage stress include:
1. Exercise Regularly
Maintaining a consistent fitness routine can positively impact both physical and mental health. Exercise increases muscle strength and endurance, boosts bone health, reduces the risk of developing many health conditions, increases energy levels, improves mood and helps with sleep quality. One study found that 62% of adults surveyed report using exercise as a stress management technique and find it helpful in achieving this goal.
2. Get Enough Quality Sleep
Getting enough good quality sleep is also a way to improve HRV. According to the American Psychological Association.), adults who sleep for at least eight hours a night report lower stress levels than those who do not. Consistent, high-quality sleep is associated with many stress-relief benefits, including reduced cortisol levels in the body, decreased muscle tension, lessened feelings of anxiety and a boosted immune system.
Breathwork is another highly effective, tested method to reduce heart rate and blood pressure and calm the CNS anytime. Additionally, a recent study conducted by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a member of the WHOOP Scientific Advisory and a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology, compared breathwork to mindful meditation and found that different breathing modalities were more effective in improving mood and reducing feelings of stress. Stress Monitor provides members with two types of breathwork exercises, developed in partnership with Dr. Andrew Huberman, that can help manage stress levels in real time.
4. Maintain Connections
Connecting with people you are close to helps combat feelings of isolation and loneliness that come along with stress. Connecting with friends or loved ones and spending time together can distract you from negative emotions, and increase your overall health and wellbeing, as Time magazine reports. If you’re not part of our WHOOP Community Group on Facebook, join today to connect with other members. Or if you’re not on social media, WHOOP also offers in-app teams to provide accountability and partnership.
5. Eat a Healthy Diet
Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet promotes overall health and puts your body in an excellent position to deal with the negative effects of stress. New research links some specific foods you can add to your diet to stress reduction: For example, research indicates that vegetables and omega-3s might play a role in moderating cortisol levels in the body. A healthy diet also prevents the negative impact on HRV that poor nutrition can cause.
6. Think About What You Can Control
A significant part of stress is feeling like you’re out of control or have no way to change the negative situation that you’re in. One way to manage stress is to think about and focus on the parts of your life you can control. For example, focus on optimizing your diet, trying new activities linked to stress relief, maintaining a consistent weekly routine, improving sleep hygiene and completing household chores. Feeling in control of your life and stressors promotes vagus nerve stimulation, which supports optimal interactions between the nervous and cardiovascular systems. This, in turn, increases HRV.
Track HRV and Manage Stress with WHOOP
There is no single definition of stress, and everyone experiences stress differently. Feelings of stress can be self-reported based on how you feel, or measured with biomarkers, like cortisol. Stress Monitor measures your heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) in the moment as indicators of your physiological response to stress.
Your reading is then compared to your personalized baseline from the past 14 days, and any motion is taken into account to help distinguish known stressors, like exercise, from other stressors. Stress Monitor then identifies your stress levels on a scale of 0 (low stress) to 3 (your peak stress level) to help you manage stress in the moment, or to understand your daily and weekly stress triggers.
To better understand the psychological experience of stress, you can use the WHOOP Journal. You can log your perceived stress levels and WHOOP will analyze how self-reported stress effects your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, recovery, and duration of each stage of sleep.
Stress Monitor continuously updates your score throughout the day, and you can track changes and trends in your stress level by checking your Stress Monitor graph. You can also manage stress by implementing scientifically validated breathwork interventions developed in partnership with Dr. Andrew Huberman as you track your stress levels. Research shows that these breathing exercises can mediate symptoms of stress by boosting mood, lowering anxiety, and decreasing respiratory rates. As you incorporate the solutions above for managing stress and the Stress Monitor’s breathing interventions, you can monitor their impact by looking at changes in your HRV and your real-time stress score, or by viewing your daily stress graph.