General Education Requirement
Semester Stress Project
Stress is a broad term that includes the psychological perception of pressure, and the body’s response to it. Anxiety, depression, worry, fear, and grief are all types of stress. Stress is a naturally occurring part of life and can prevent us from making many poor and life-threatening decisions. It includes the fear that keeps us from absent-mindedly stepping in front of a bus, and the worry that encourages us to focus our attention to tasks we may not necessarily want to do at the moment, but need to for our long-term good or the good of others.
Unfortunately, stress can become a problem. The physiological mechanisms designed to protect our ancestors from the life-threatening dangers posed by starvation and predators in the African savanna aren’t always adept at reacting appropriately to the mild everyday stressors of modern life. Furthermore, not everyone experiences stress to the same degree, with biological variations in brain structure and chemistry, as well as environmental causes such as an abusive upbringing, traumatic life events, and/or physical health problems and sickness, affecting the amount of anxiety and negative emotions someone encounters on a daily basis.
These factors combine to make treating stress difficult. Nonetheless, over the years many treatment strategies have developed. These strategies include various forms of psychotherapy and anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications in a supervised clinical setting, as well as pet ownership, meditation, GABA supplementation to reduce anxiety, and various other strategies for use in day-to-day life. This paper will focus on three of the latter strategies that I’ve used to decrease the levels of stress in my own day-to-day life.
Stress Reduction Strategy #1
If you’re an introvert like me, adopting a dog can be a life-changing experience. I was only 13 when my parents took me to the animal shelter where I adopted my Australian Cattle Dog, Bullet. He’s still with me nine years later, and having him has provided me with several ways to lessen my stress. Here I will go over two big ways Bullet helps me handle stress on a day-to-day basis, and why they work.
Companionship: Not unlike a human partner, dogs can offer physical warmth and companionship, but unlike a humans they do it unconditionally and without judgement. Consequently, petting a dog has been shown to release the “love hormone” oxytocin, which has stress-reliving properties (Beets et al., 2012; Zak, 2008). This makes interaction with a dog ideal for coping with stress and loneliness in people with shyness and introversion, social anxiety disorder, and/or autism spectrum disorder, who may find interacting with a human partner increases rather than decreases the amount of stress.
Exercise: Dogs have exercise needs, and this is particularly true for an active breed such as the Australian Cattle Dog. As a dog owner, it’s important to satisfy these needs, and a great way to do that is by taking the dog for a walk. Going for a walk every day has numerous mental and physical benefits for humans as well (Rodale, 2017), especially for people like me with an otherwise sedentary tech-focused lifestyle. Going on a walk works to reduce stress (Gidlow et al., 2015). Walks are a great time to listen to some music and decompress, although I discovered they may not always work to reduce my rumination- caused stress. What I find most effective in preventing rumination is listening to a podcast or paying attention to my surroundings during my walks, which helps distract me from my negative thoughts. If someone is shy and anxious about walking alone, a dog companion can help with that, too.
Numerous studies have found that found dog ownership reduces activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and was even associated with a reduction in mortality, especially with regard to cardiovascular mortality (Kramer et al., 2019), likely due to a combination of lessened physiological stress response and increased physical activity. Owning a dog is good for your heart (both literally and figuratively).
Of course, there are also downsides to dog ownership. Having a dog adds another mouth to feed, and the dog may misbehave frequently, require training, or bring unexpected vet expenses. These things increase stress. But overall, for many people, including myself, the benefits outweigh the downsides, and a dog is an excellent tool for managing stress. Dogs have been shown to improve one’s health and help you live longer, but only if you’re willing and able to put in the time and money required to keep one healthy.
Stress Reduction Strategy #2
Taking a Break
Taking a break may seem like common sense, but is an important and often overlooked strategy for managing stress. A convenient acronym to remember is STOP (Goldstein, 2013). Stop what you’re doing, Take a few deep breaths, Observe your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and Proceed with what you were doing after you’ve changed your negative thought patterns and mindset. This strategy is helpful for me when I’m in the middle of a particularly stressful assignment or project, and works especially well to fight my often overblown reactions to these acute stressors. It can also be thought of as a shim to use in conjunction with other stress-reduction strategies. For example, if I’m at home and working on a stressful homework assignment for a class, I’m able to use the STOP strategy to take a break and pet my dog to decrease my level of stress, then proceed with working on the assignment.
Stress Reduction Strategy #3
Negative, intrusive thought patterns are chronic, pervasive and often happen automatically (Wilkinson, 2015). I’ll find myself thinking about and ruminating over such things as the fixed nature of personality, and seeing myself as forever a shy introverted guy in a world that profoundly favors bold extroverts. Sometimes these thoughts will undermine any new advice or experience I encounter, causing me to only see the negative side of it and its flaws. Other times the stress itself becomes a source of negative thoughts, resulting in an endless loop of distressful thoughts and emotions. These negative thoughts can easily lead to anxiety, anger, and depression, which makes it important to develop strategies for reducing them (Wilkinson, 2015).
The goal of cognitive therapy is to replace many of the negative and stress-inducing thoughts with more positive ones (King, 2019). This process is known as cognitive reframing. For example, when thoughts about being a “shy introvert” enter my mind, I immediately try to spin them as a positive. As an introvert, I’m more self-sufficient, have better judgment, and engage in less risky behavior compared to a lot of extroverts, things which are strengths rather than weaknesses (Cain, 2013). Another approach I use is to simply discredit the use of such labels as “shy” and “introvert”, by considering that the use of these labels incorrectly describe situational influences on personality.
When I was able to practice cognitive reframing successfully, I prevented myself from entering into rumination and a negative state of mind. It’s a strategy I now try to use regularly, especially as the Coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of slowing down.
Although the pandemic is something external and outside my control, bringing my focus inward has been helpful as a coping strategy. Unlike the pandemic itself, my negative thoughts about it are fully within my control and malleable. And even with something as disastrously negative as the pandemic there are ways to use cognitive reframing, such as considering the increased number of online work-from-home jobs and academic courses the pandemic has forced us to create, which is a positive for people who are more introverted.
I found all three strategies mentioned above to be useful for managing my stress. However, the most important one of the three for me was cognitive reframing, especially as I’d been experiencing a lot of negative thoughts during the Coronavirus pandemic. There are still more strategies I’d like to try in the future. Time management is one such strategy. This has long been a problem area for me, so scheduling and chunking could help me avoid being stressed about doing assignments on the day they’re due and get them done ahead of time. Another future strategy would be to find a hobby I truly enjoy doing, and friends I could share it with.
This project has helped me think about the stress in my life in new ways. The health issues posed by chronic stress and frequent activation of the sympathetic nervous system were not something I really ever thought about before, but now that I’m aware of them, I’m more motivated to do what I can to manage my daily levels of stress. Dealing with stress can be difficult, especially during periods like the Coronavirus pandemic, but as these strategies have shown it’s definitely not impossible.
List of Consulted Works
Beets, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., Kotrschal, K. (2012, July 9). Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/
Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that just can’t stop talking. Broadway Books.
Gidlow, C., Jones, M., Hurst, G., Masterson, D. et al. (2015, Nov. 23). Where to put your best foot forward: Psycho-physiological responses to walking in natural and urban environments. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494415300438
Goldstein, E. (2013, May 29). Stressing Out? S.T.O.P. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/stressing-out-stop/
King, Laura A. (2019). Experience Psychology, Fourth Edition. McGraw-Hill Education.
Kramer, C., Mehmood, S., Suen, R. (2019, Oct. 8). Dog ownership and survival, a systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.119.005554
Rodale, M. (2017, Dec. 6). The Many Benefits of Going for a Walk. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-many-benefits-of-goin_b_10702306
Scott, E. (2020, June 24). How Owning a Dog or Cat Can Reduce Stress. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-owning-a-dog-or-cat-can-reduce-stress-3144701
Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming anxiety and depression on the autism spectrum, a self- help guide using CBT. Jessica Kingsley.
Zak, P. (2008, Nov. 8). The Oxytocin Cure. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-moral-molecule/200811/the-oxytocin-cure