You are not a Water Bear: 5 Powerful Strategies to Combat Stress
Think for a moment of a bear, then unleash the magic of your imagination to shrink it down to the size of a grain of sand. What emerges is the astonishing likeness of a water bear, a miniature marvel that defies expectations and sparks the imagination. You’re holding in your thoughts something so small it makes an ant seem enormous. A slender wonder, 0.5 millimetres long, challenging the limits of the ordinary. It’s shorter than the width of a paperclip, and yet possesses a captivating presence that defies its size. Welcome to the world of the infinitesimally small, where even the tiniest measurements hold the power to intrigue and amaze.
Water bears (scientific name tardigrades) are microscopic animals with incredible resilience. They can survive extreme conditions fatal to most other life forms, including radiation, freezing, boiling, and the vacuum of space. Tardigrades live in diverse environments, from the deep sea to the highest mountain ranges, and even in the mosses of Antarctica. Their ability to enter a state of cryptobiosis, essentially drying out and shutting down metabolic processes, allows them to endure harsh conditions and revive when more favourable conditions return. Tardigrades are part of an exclusive group of organisms classified as extremophiles. The existence of extremophiles challenges our preconceptions about the limits of habitability and the conditions under which life can thrive.
First World Problems
Although it sometimes feels like “first world problems”, our society is throwing many of us into circumstances that the human body perceives as extreme, with the expectation we can thrive like a tardigrade. Your unconscious brain doesn’t differentiate between a threat to your ego (a psychological stressor) and a threat to your life. It doesn’t switch off when you feel pressure at work or with family and friends. It reacts to save your life. The same with all the other things that you find stressful, traumatic events, information overload, social and performance expectations, uncertainty, and change.
It’s different for everyone, but most of the things that cause stress in our world are psychological stressors. You didn’t evolve to deal with psychological stressors. You evolved to deal with threats to your life. “The lion wants to eat you for dinner” type stress, “we’ve no meat left, time to go and hunt” type stress, “oh no, the weather is getting colder, we must make more fire” type stress.
This stress needs cardiovascular output to deliver oxygen and energy to your muscles. Pretty much all this requires is your heart beating faster. To make this happen, your body flicks a few switches and increases your blood pressure. Your body wants all resources in the most important places (to fulfil the imminent need). So there is a big decrease in blood flow to non-essential parts of your body. To conserve water, your body decreases blood flow to the kidneys and reabsorbs any water used in the formation of urine.
There is another reaction when the body slows down, enabling you to slow down and hide. Regardless of which reaction your body chooses, you’ve reacted accordingly. The stressor passes (generally quickly in the natural world) and your body returns from allostasis to its regular state of homeostasis.
Some key points
- Internally, your body reacts in the same way, whether a lion is coming to (eat you for) tea or you feel pressure at work.
- Your body reacts to stress with the expectation that it’ll pass quickly.
- You are not a water bear. You should not shut down metabolic processes for a long time to endure harsh conditions and revive when more favourable conditions return.
When you expect your body to perform as an extremophile, there are consequences, such as heart problems, metabolic issues, auto immune diseases, fertility complications, sleep disturbances and more. Thankfully, there are many things you can do to combat stress. Below are five small things you can change in your life to combat stress and alleviate the physiological effects of stress in your body.
Find an Outlet for your Frustration
Research shows a rat, when subject to mild electric shocks, experiences less physiological suffering if it can then gnaw on some wood, eat something, drink some water or run on a wheel. The equivalent for you is to punch a pillow, ‘do’ a hobby or exercise. Some people find they get results from absorbing themselves in an imaginary world, such as imagining a game of golf in intense detail.
The stress response of primates decreases when they are put into a room with their friends. Robert M. Sapolsky explains in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers that male baboons with many friends have lower glucocorticoid concentrations than males of the same rank without friends. The same is true for humans. People who are socially isolated have an overly active stress response.
Meditate to Combat Stress
Research shows that regular, sustained meditation (e.g. fifteen minutes daily), decreases the internal signs of stress. The studies demonstrate lower levels of stress during meditation. Results are less clear whether your body sustains this once the meditation finishes (kudos to the monks who meditate for upwards of eight hours each day). However, a good fifteen minutes of reduced stress will not hinder your health.
Get Some Control – or at least believe you have it.
When scientists performed an experiment in which they placed two people in adjoining rooms and played both intermittent, unpleasant noises. They noticed, if one person has a button, and the belief that pushing the button decreases the likelihood of more noise, they experience less physiological stress. Even if they don’t push the button. Having control is not the important factor – believing you have control is what matters. This (of course!) isn’t fool proof. The more disastrous the stressor, the worse it is to believe you have control. Therefore, the sense of control works for mild stressors. In our mostly comfortable, first world, strengthening your internal locus of control might help you experience less physiological symptoms of stress.
Eat Well & Sleep Well
Us humans often call psychological stressors anxiety. Dr. Ellen Vora in her book Anatomy of Anxiety speaks about true anxiety and false anxiety. She explains how your body can react in such a way to certain things, such as poor nutrition and lack of sleep, that feel like anxiety. Thus, you can trigger your stress response by not providing your body with the nutrition it needs or getting inadequate sleep. Give yourself a chance by prioritising healthy habits. If nutrition is a minefield for you, speak to a nutritional therapist. Sleep is a vicious circle, as anxiety impedes sleep, but poor sleep enhances anxiety. Sleep hygiene is important, some sessions with a hypnotherapist will help you combat stress when the problems are deeply rooted.