Coping with Stress

Our Stress-Reduction Strategies
Have a Lot To Do With Who We Become.



We all have our own ways of dealing with stress. Many factors influence how stressful stress becomes ... most importantly the way we respond to it. All organisms, including man, instinctively develop stress-reduction strategies.1 Some approaches are more successful than others.

We’ll look here at six common stress control strategies: Control, Predictability, Co-operation, Displaced Aggression, Comfort Foods and Changing our Thinking. The rest of this site, and our book Before Meds / After Meds: Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Anxiety and Depression introduces strategies focused on helping reset the brain's inner "stress thermostat."

Control

Stress turns out to be much less stressful if we think there's something constructive we can do about it.2,3

Some of us are lucky enough to believe instinctively that the things we do and the choices we make will influence what happens to us. This optimistic attitude helps us deal much more easily with stressful situations than if we're convinced that what happens to us is outside our control.

This makes intuitive sense. If we're trying to sleep at night and there's a barking dog nearby with an owner who's missing in action, we'll experience a lot less stress if we know we can reduce the noise by closing the window or if we've got some way to get in touch with the dog-owner. If the dog's so loud that closing the window doesn't reduce the noise, or if we don't have a relationship with the owner the barking is much more stressful.

One of the prime reasons we've written our book and put up this site is to let you know that there's a wide range of tools and techniques you can use to control your own stress ... and thus gain a measure of control over the situation. The worst thing about being anxious or depressed is the feeling that one can't do anything oneself about it.

Predictability

Knowing when a stressor will occur and how long it will go on is much less stressful than not knowing .4,5,6 If we're already aware that when we get home in the evening our neighbor's dog will start barking at 6 and stop by 6:15 it's a lot less stressful than if the barking starts and stops at odd times.

Predictability figures into the stress equation in yet another way. If we know enough about the stressor to judge just how dangerous it is it's a lot less stressful than if we can't tell. It's easier if we know the barking dog is safely behind a fence than it is if we're afraid the dog's right outside and strong enough to break in through the window.

Novelty, the opposite of predictability, can be stressful in itself. An interesting study of people who lived through the bombing of London during World War II demonstrates this in graphic terms. At the beginning of the bombing, central London was hit every night, whereas in the suburbs the bombing was more intermittent and unpredictable. Suburbanites living through this experience had a significantly greater incidence of ulcers than those living in the more regularly-bombed urban core. By the third month of the bombing, after everyone had had a chance to get used to it, ulcer rates dropped back to near-normal.7

Co-operation

It's no surprise to anyone living with high stress levels that having some company is one of the best stress-relievers. Stress loves company.8,9 Robert Sapolsky, author of the landmark work on stress and its effects, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, spent much of his life researching the coping behavior of baboons. Highly intelligent and social, these higher primates serve well in many ways as models for human behavior.

Baboons typically live in groups of 50-150 and structure their societies hierarchically. Alpha males are the dominant baboons in their tribe. Sapolsky has identified two distinct styles of alpha-male baboons: the competitor and the co-operator:

  • The competitor climbs to the top and stays on top (while he can) by being the baddest baboon in the tribe. He intimidates, he beats up the opposition, he takes no prisoners.
  • The co-operator builds alliances and relationships, spends more time playing with young baboons and grooming younger females in a non-sexual manner.

Guess which one has higher stress levels and a shorter life?

That wasn't too hard. The competitor, reminiscent in many ways of classic human Type-A behavior, always has to watch his back. The co-operator tends to live a whole lot longer, aging much more gracefully.10 Studies in humans also show that stress is much less stressful if we get along well with others.11,12,13,14,15

Displaced Aggression

Displaced aggression is the ugliest stress management technique.16 If we can't confront the threatening situation or person head-on, if we don't have control over our circumstances and if we don't have help, some of us deal with our feelings by attacking someone or something weaker than ourselves. If such a one's boss is making work life difficult, they won't assert themselves or quit. Instead they come home and pick a fight with their spouse, abuse their kids or kick the dog.

  • One set of reports detail how baboons who displace their aggression have lower circulating levels of glucocorticoids (GCs), the worry-inducing, slow-to-disappear, age-inducing stress hormone, than baboons that don't. It doesn't seem to matter whether the baboon is dominant or not in the local baboon social hierarchy.17
  • GCs keep organisms tense and in a hyperalert state that can't be maintained for long before brains and bodies start to suffer damage.
  • Another study of a territorial species of fish (cichlids) showed that dominant individuals tended to direct their aggression more toward an offender, while non-dominant fish tended more to attack innocent third parties.18
  • Rainbow trout demonstrate similar behavior.19
  • The same phenomenon has been observed in humans.20
  • It's been suggested that racist behavior is a form of displaced aggression.

Comfort Foods

One common way we deal with stress is to console ourselves with food, especially sweet, fatty foods.21 This problem may be one cause of the epidemic of obesity in economically advanced nations.22

For most of human history our ancestors regularly lived through times when they didn't have enough food. Evolution seems to have designed our endocrine systems in such a way that when we're stressed glucocorticoids and insulin combine to deposit more fat in and around our abdomens,23 probably as a survival mechanism. If one might not have enough food tomorrow, storing some away as abdominal fat is a smart strategy.

  • Serotonin is a relaxing, anti-stress neurotransmitter. Lower serotonin levels, particularly in women, appear to give rise to a craving for carbohydrates.24
  • When glucocorticoids act on the central nervous system they increase hunger and the eating of pleasurable foods.25
  • In rats, stressful conditions lead to an increase in the consumption of sweet, fatty chow.26

These effects are mediated through neuronal activity in a brain structure known as the nucleus accumbens,27 the same part of the brain involved in addiction to drugs. A 2004 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences observed that stress-driven comfort eaters gained more weight and had higher levels of insulin, cortisol and cholesterol during periods of stress than the population at large. These researchers suggested that stress-eating might in some people set the stage for the combination of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity known as "metabolic syndrome" or "Syndrome X."28

Part of the problem is that our bodies generate our own natural opiates when we eat, particularly when we eat sweet foods.29,30 Opiates of course ease stress.

Eating sugar also releases dopamine, the "reward" neurotransmitter involved in addictions of all kinds.31,32,33 It's important to remember that large quantities of cheap, refined carbohydrates have only been available to humans since the late nineteenth century and the development of advanced industrialized food processing machinery.

Changing Our Thinking

Perhaps the best way of dealing with stress is by changing our thoughts. We do have the ability to come to new realizations about our behavior change our habits. Sometimes this takes some help - this is one of the foundations of psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, as any therapist knows, this ability to change is not evenly or generously distributed throughout the population. Part of the reason we have such a hard time changing the way we think about things is that modern dietary habits can actually create neuroendocrine imbalances in our brains that make our thinking rigid and inflexible. Excessive glucocorticoids, the "worry" neurotransmitter, can inhibit a part of the brain just behind our foreheads called the cingulate gyrus. When our brains are healthy this brain formation helps us consider different points of view and make sense of new information. When stress overstimulates the hypothalamus (the stress-control brain center) it inhibits the cingulate gyrus’ function, interfering with our ability to adapt to change, respond to the ideas and behaviors of others ... and get along..

*

 1. This discussion is condensed largely from the excellent 1994 work by Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. Many of the citations in this chapter were originally cited in Sapolsky.

 2. Ericksen, H.R., et al. 2005. Cognitive activation theory of stress (CATS): from fish brains to the Olympics. Psychoneuroendocrinology. June 15.

 3. Bollini, A.M. et al. 2004. The influence of perceived control and locus of control on the cortisol and subjective responses to stress. Biological Psychology. 67(3):245-260.

 4. Abbott, B.b., et al. 1984. Predictable and unpredictable shock: behavioral measures of aversion and physiological measures of stress. Psychological Bulletin. 96(1):45-71.

 5. Lawler, J.E., Naylor, S.K., Abel, M.M. 1993. Predictability of foot shock differentially affects the phasic blood pressure of SHR, BHR, and WKY rats. Physiology and Behavior. 54(2):369-374.

 6. Arthur, A.Z. 1986. Stress of predictable and unpredictable shock. Psychological Bulletin. 100(3):379-387.

 7. Stewart, D., Winser, D. 1942. Incidence of perforated peptic ulcer: effect of heavy air-raids. Lancet. 28 February:259.

 8. Sachser, N., Durschlag, M., Hirzel, D. 1998. Social relationships and the management of stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 23(8):891-904.

 9. DeVries, A.C., et al. 2003. Social modulation of stress response. Physiology and Behavior. 79(3):399-407.

10. Sapolsky, Robert. 1998. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York: Freeman & Company. 263-264.

11. Auerbach, S.M. et al. 2005. Optimism, satisfaction with needs met, interpersonal perceptions of the healthcare team, and emotional distress in patients' family members during critical care hospitalization. American Journal of Critical Care. 14(3):202-210.

12. No authors listed. 2005. Depressive symptoms in mothers of pre-school children Effects of deprivation, social support, stress and neighbourhood social capital. Child Care, Health and Development. 31(4):489.0.

13. Henderson, D., Vandenberg, B. 1992. Factors influencing adjustment in the families of autistic children. Psychological Reports. 71(1):167-171.0.

14. Pardini, D.A. et al. 2000. Religious faith and spirituality in substance abuse recovery: determining the mental health benefits. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 19(4):347-354.0.

15. Boden-Albala, B., et al. 2005. Social isolation and outcomes post stroke. Neurology. 64(11):1888-1892.0.

16. Marcus-Newhall, A. et al. 2000. Displaced aggression is alive and well: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 78(4):670-689.0.

17. Sapolsky, R. Ibid. 268.0.

18. Clement, T.S., et al. 2005. Behavioral coping strategies in a cichlid fish: the role of social status and acute stress response in direct and displaced aggression. Hormones and Behavior 47(3):336-342.0.

19. Ovedrli, O. et al. 2004. Behavioral and neuroendocrine correlates of displaced aggression in trout. Hormones and Behavior. 45(5):324-329.0.

20. Lawton, R., Nutter, A. 2002. A comparison of reported levels and expression of anger in everyday and driving situations. British Journal of Psychology. 93(Pt. 3):407-423.0.

21. Dallman, M.F., et al. 2003. Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of "comfort food". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 100(20):11696-11701.0.

22. Epel, E. et al. 2004. Are stress eaters at risk for the metabolic syndrome? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1032:208-210.0.

23. Dallman, M.F. et al. 2004. Minireview: glucocorticoids - food intake, abdominal obesity, and wealthy nations in 2004. Endocrinology. 145:2633-2638.0.

24. Bjorntorp, P. 1995. Neuroendocrine abnormalities in human obesity. Metabolism. 44(2 Suppl 2) 38-41.0.

25. Dallman, M.F., et al. 2004. Chronic stress-induced effects of glucocorticoids on the brain: direct and indirect. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1018:141-150.0.

26. Pecoraro, N., et al. 2004. Chronic stress promotes palatable feeding, which reduces signs of stress: feedforward and feedback effects of chronic stress. Endocrinology. 145(8):3754-3762.0.

27. Dallman, M.F., et al. 2005. Chronic stress and comfort foods: self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain, Behavior and Immunity. 19(4):275-280.0.

28. Epel, E., et al. 2004. Are stress eaters at risk for the metabolic syndrome? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1032:208-210.0.

29. Levine, A.S., Billington, C.J. 2004. Opioids as agents of reward-related feeding: a consideration of the evidence. Physiology and Behavior. 82(1):57-61.

30. Erlanson-Albertsson C. 2005. Sugar triggers our reward-system. Sweets release opiates which stimulates the appetite for sucrose--insulin can depress it. Lakartidningen. 102(21):1620-1622.

31. Smith, G.P. 2004. Accumbens dopamine mediates the rewarding effect of orosensory stimulation by sucrose. Appetite. 43(1):11-13.

32. Hajnal, A. et al. 2004. Oral sucrose stimulation increases accumbens dopamine in the rat. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 286(1):R31-37.

33. Rada, P., Avena, N.M., Hoebel, B.G. 2005. Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience. 134(3):737-744.