Like so many others, I think that I have had a love hate relationship with stress all my life. In one respect, it can feel like stress is important and essential to my survival in school and a career- how else would I meet deadlines and make meetings on time? In another way, stress leads me to constantly think about what I could and should be doing, and leaves me exhausted at the end of the semester. Stress can minimize the enjoyment I believe we’re intended to experience on a daily basis. Through the years, I have tried all sorts of methods to cope with stress, some that stick around, and some that have fallen by the wayside.
My initial efforts were in high school and early college. I never had really thought about how stress was impacting me, until I joined a dancing team and realized that I simply was not as stressed when I was dancing. I had less time for homework as a result of practices, but was always confident the homework would get done in a timely manner. Because I knew time was limited, my habits became more efficient, and in turn, I was able to spend more time with my family and friends. After practices, I was tired, and yet I felt focused and calm. The differences between my stress levels during exam periods when I was on and off the dance team were remarkably different. Exercise and the variety of dance combinations explored in practice created a sense of peace and centeredness that I had never experienced. And yes, of course there were times (like exam periods) when I would become extremely stressed, but I knew the solution was often to ‘dance it out.’
Scientifically, as Sapolsky (2004) points out, exercise can be a great source of stress relief. Particular aerobic exercise, like dancing, has been shown to improve mood and blunt stress-response for a few hours after exercising. In a 20-week aerobic exercise intervention study, von Haaren and colleagues (2015) found that students had lower emotional stress reactivity during an exam than inactive students. However, it is important to consider that the type or style of exercise that a person gravitates toward should not be forced. Sapolsky discusses a study that demonstrates that health can actually worsen in rats that are forced to exercise. Therefore, while dancing is a great stress reliever for me, it’s possible that memorizing all of those combinations of steps would be stressful to another person, and not their preferred type of exercise. And as for me, well, no rock climbing please.
As I got a bit older and moved on to later college years, I became more involved in the community and eventually attended a week-long retreat where 20 minutes of guided meditation was a part of every morning. Talking with another person about what we were grateful for that day was a practice each night. Interestingly, even though I did not have my typical outlet of dancing that week, I found that I was still experiencing a sense of stillness, and framing the world differently in my mind. Because I knew that I would have to tell someone several things that I was grateful for each day, I was searching for reasons to be grateful all day long. Small things, like how the color of the leaves change in New England in the fall, came to my attention in a way that typically do not when I’m bustling around campus. Going into breakfast after a 20 minute meditation, I was contemplating where my food came from, and actually thinking about how it tasted instead of scarfing it down.
Sapolsky (2004) also highlights meditation as a form of stress management. Studies have shown that individuals can experience positive health outcomes from meditation (i.e. lowered blood pressure), but it is unclear how long after meditation the effects last. Despite this, I was experiencing positive effects all day, so what’s going on here? I think the key is mindfulness. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to lead to better psychological outcomes (Alsubaie et al., 2017). Although it is possible to experience meditation for a short time, it is possible to experience mindfulness all day everyday (likely after many years of practice). Because I was actively searching for reasons to be grateful, I was mindful of the present moment, and thinking without judgment, but rather with curiosity throughout the retreat. It seems that this is the key to practically bring the psychological and health benefits of meditation into everyday life.
We live in a highly stressful world. Stress can certainly serve us during times of fight or flight, but we need to remember that on a daily basis, we probably don’t need to be as stressed as we are. For me, dancing and mindfulness do the trick, and for you it might be something different. However, the key is to find what works for each of us to truly manage the stress, so that the stress does not manage us. As a result, we can all hope to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.