Comfort is a funny thing. People coping with stress find comfort in a variety of things – from the smell of your grandmother’s pot roast, the crispness of fresh bedsheets, drinking tea on a rainy Sunday afternoon, hitting the road for a long run on your favorite trail, or immersing yourself in the familiar routine of your daily work schedule. Each person has a different way of coping with stress through a ritual or item or environment for finding something that improves their lives, even for just a brief moment in time.
Some days we seem to forget how to seek out this comfort, instead immersing ourselves in our daily stressors, with agitation and anxiety becoming our baseline behavioral traits. Ironically, after prolonged periods of constant stress, we can begin to find comfort in this very state – if we are not feeling stressed or under pressure, we feel more stressed because something must be amiss. Finding comfort in the stress is an ever increasing pattern, much like an ouroboros, we are serpents eating our own tails and constantly recreating this destructive cycle.
Other sources of comfort that are not healthy include: over-immersing oneself in work to avoid reality, binging on your favorite junk foods, oversleeping, engagement in risky behaviors…you name it, everyone has participated in at least one method of comfort that, while it took your mind off stress for a short period of time, probably did more damage than good.
In healthy adults, your immune system can adapt and respond in a timely and effective manner to both the short term stressors and ill-chosen coping mechanisms. However, the aging process, disease, and chronic stress begin to compromise your immune system, losing the ability to self-regulate when dealing with long term stressors.
So what is the problem with letting stress get the better of you? Inflammation. Loss of flexibility and adaptability of the immune system allows inflammation to continue unchecked, as opposed to the acute, but short lived inflammation one may experience after a wound occurs during the healing process. A meta-analysis of studies on stress found that “stressful events reliably associate with changes in the immune system” and that the types of stressors have different impacts on the immune system and the amount of inflammation an individual experiences. Not only do the stressors have a negative impact on our health (take for example, loss of one’s job) so do the methods in which we actively cope with with stress (excessive alcohol, indulging in unhealthy foods). While donuts may make us emotionally feel better in the moment, our immune system was already suppressed by the loss of our job and our high-fat, high-sugar indulgence has not only compromised our healthy daily caloric intake, but has also led to further inflammation in our system. Or, perhaps you alter your sleep schedule because of your job loss, binge watching your favorite television shows into the early hours of the morning. Your already compromised immune system is further compromised by sleep loss, and so the vicious cycle continues. A suppressed immune system and rampant inflammation can exacerbate existing health issues and trigger new, life-altering diseases.
In a historical analysis of stress levels across the United States, one study found that perceived stress across all ages has increased up to 30% from the year 1983 to 2009. The added complexity of constantly changing technology, overwhelming amounts of information, and economic pressures add a level of chronic stress to already present stressors in an individual’s life. It is no wonder that when coping with stress we seek comfort from “quick fixes” that are easy to access yet destructive to our physical and mental health.
When it comes to coping with stress, it is crucial to work with what we can alter and control, and the most important factor is how we deal with stressors. While there is no one-size-fits-all coping mechanism, here are a couple methods for coping with stress that are easy to complete and good alternatives to seeing how many marshmallows you can fit in your mouth.
– Take a deep breath and a time out: Instead of giving in to the immediate feeling of throwing something or bursting into tears, take a deep breath and count to five. Now do this six more times, just focusing on your breath. 30 seconds of mini-meditation can get your feelings in check and clear your head to allow for a more rational response to your stressor.
– Go for a walk: Numerous studies have found that getting outside into nature gives your brain a chance to de-stress and even boost self-esteem, making your decisions more likely to be positive in nature (literally!).
– Limit alcohol, caffeine, and low nutrition food choices: Not only can all of these negatively impact your diet, they can also negatively impact your thought processes sleep duration and quality, leading to poor decision making.
– Sleep! (but not too much): Just like Goldilocks found with the Three Bears, you can get too little, too much, and just enough sleep. Adults aged 26-64 should get 7-9 hours of pillow time nightly – both too little and too much sleep (i.e. oversleeping on the weekends and frequent naps) can have an impact on the immune system and exacerbate existing health conditions.
The important part of coping with stress is finding a healthy method that works for you. Sometimes this can be difficult, so be sure to seek out help and support: The National Alliance on Mental Illness has some great resources – by the way, did you know that May is Mental Health Month? Take comfort in that you are not in this alone – stress is an unseen and unrelenting force that everyone deals with on a daily basis and you never know what the person next you may be experiencing or how much support they may need.