21st-Century Stress Management

By Casey-Lee Flood, RN, HWNC-BC

Oh, stress! We hear the word all the time, and we all feel its effects at some point in our lives. We see the products and services being marketed to us to “melt our stress away,” yet we rarely wonder why humans feel stress. Is it just a reaction our brains have to certain events, or does it happen in our bodies as well?

To answer that question, we will briefly touch on what stress is and why humans have it. We’ll then discuss ways to manage stress in our modern world by focusing on recovery and resiliency. 

There are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to decrease stress. The methods I have chosen to highlight are free and accessible to most people. They rely only on the person trying to manage their stress and have scientific evidence behind their effectiveness. In other words: they are cheap, easy, and effective ways to reduce stress and increase resilience. 

Are you in? Great! Let’s get started. 

Why Do Humans Stress Out? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” It goes on to explain that stress is a “natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats to our lives.” So the very thing we are trying to avoid is a protection mechanism. 

You can also see how, in our modern world, seemingly small stressors happen more often than in previous evolutionary periods of time. Your alarm goes off late, that email you thought you sent is still in your inbox, your boss gave you a new deadline, you dropped your smartphone in the toilet, your kids’ school needs you to volunteer again despite you working full time, and the list goes on and on. 

So, if we are constantly being exposed to these stressors or threats, then how can we avoid stress or decrease it? Avoiding stress altogether is not an option for most people (if anyone). If we can’t avoid it, and it is a natural bodily response, the best thing we can do is manage our bodies, minds, and emotions to decrease the negative effects of stress. 

You see, the goal isn’t necessarily managing the actual stressors but supporting yourself in such a way that the triggering event or events have minimal impact on your physical and mental health. Two main ways to help do this are focusing on building up your stress resilience and allowing time for recovery.

For recovery, we will focus on how spending time in nature benefits your well-being alongside ways to help deal with day-to-day uncertainty. To build resilience, we will look at movement and how you can support your body’s stress response by nourishing the gut and decreasing cortisol levels. 

Stress Resilience: Exercise & Movement

Before you go and buy a gym membership or sign up at your local yoga studio, let me first describe what I mean by exercise and movement. They may not come in the forms we are used to seeing. Everyone’s body is different, and everyone's movement needs are unique. Keeping this in mind, the following information is not meant to take the place of your primary medical provider. Especially if you have any health conditions, please clear any new moment or exercise regimens with your provider before starting them.

Movement is critical to our bodies and an essential aspect of managing stress. Not only is it a common suggestion from friends and family, but the effects of movement on stress resilience have been clinically tested as well. In one study, regular exercisers were compared with their sedentary peers. The 111 participants were asked to complete two stressful activities in front of two interviewers they had never met before: a five-minute speech and five minutes of a mental math session. This activity is called the Trier Social Stress Test Exercise (TSST). 

The exercisers were found to have “a smaller decline in positive affect during a stressful situation.” This means that their perceived distress or the impact of the TSST was less noticeable to them. What I found interesting is that at baseline, neither of the two groups differed significantly in their mood or personalities. After being exposed to stress, however, we can see the benefits of exercise in dealing with a stressful experience.

It is often recommended to have 150 minutes of exercise a week, typically divided into 30 minutes on five separate days, including aerobic and weight-bearing exercise each day. When you are stressed, setting aside that much time for exercise can seem very far out of reach. So, I want to give you some 21st-century-style things to try as well, that will hopefully feel less intimidating.

  • Dancing at home to your favorite songs
  • Playing with your kids at the park
  • Walking your dog
  • Online Zumba, yoga, dance, and barre videos (which can be found on YouTube for free)
  • Vacuuming and other cleaning tasks that you find soothing
  • Physical therapy for those who need more therapeutic movement
  • Joining a walking group or sports team
  • If you live somewhere safe, walking to the store instead of driving

If you are non-ambulatory, you can still get movement by focusing on your upper body and moving in any way you can. As the Disability Pride movement continues to grow, there are even dance classes that are incorporating wheelchairs into the choreography! It truly is amazing how movement – and all its stress-reducing benefits – are becoming accessible to every body. 

Stress Resilience: Reducing Cortisol

Another aspect of being more resilient to stress is finding ways to help decrease cortisol levels in your body. A simple but perhaps surprising way to do this is by nourishing your gut microbiome.  

There is a lot of emerging research on our gut-brain axis and how our microbiome can influence the production of happy hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. In times of stress, you might not be focused on diet and making sure you get the nutrients and probiotics needed to help keep your gut’s microbiome healthy and making those happy hormones. A good probiotic can really help, not only to make our guts healthy but also to decrease some of the symptoms associated with stress. 

There are certain strains of probiotics called psychobiotics that are found to directly nourish our guts in a way that helps support our brains. Psychobiotics are defined as "probiotics that confer mental health benefits to the host when ingested in a particular quantity through interaction with commensal gut bacteria…” So they are not your typical drugstore probiotics. They are geared towards helping manage stress via your gut. 

Since not all probiotics are created equal, I wanted to mention Neuralli Mood. It contains a psychobiotic strain called PS128 that has been shown in pre-clinical studies to increase dopamine and serotonin. PS128 has also been shown to improve sleep quality and reduce job stress in other studies. 

Neuralli Mood also contains a heat-treated psychobiotic strain called HT-PS23 that may affect cortisol – the body’s main hormone that triggers your stress response. A recent randomized, controlled study followed highly stressed nurses over the course of eight weeks. Some of them had a placebo, others took HT-PS23. At the end of the eight weeks, those who took the psychobiotic had lower blood levels of cortisol compared to those who took the placebo. 

Cortisol reduction is correlated with decreased perceived stress. Why not nourish your gut microbiome to help your physical body be resilient to stress?  If you want to read more about how this specific probiotic + postbiotic supplement can support your stress management, check out this blog

Recovery From Stress: Time in Nature

Most of us have heard yoga teachers, health coaches, and New Age people talk about  “grounding,” “earthing,” or “forest bathing.” Perhaps you have just rolled your eyes at the idea.  Trust me, for as non-scientific as those things sound, there has been some serious science to back up the idea that being in nature helps us humans to manage our stress. In fact, well-known Western medical organizations like The American Heart Association and The American Psychological Association have published articles detailing how just short bursts of time in nature, as long as the person feels safe, decrease stress hormone levels, including cortisol. 

Nature time does not mean you have to pack up your car and drive to a remote forest somewhere. It can simply mean finding a green space in your neighborhood. Most urban areas are now incorporating green spaces, areas where there is intentionally planted grass, trees, or other vegetation. Look for parks in your area or simply Google “green spaces in [your city]”.

Try finding a little green patch of earth today and be in it for 5-20 minutes (perhaps even barefoot if you can!), without being on your devices, and see how you feel. Now that you know that there is good evidence that spending just small amounts of time in a natural green space can reduce your perceived stress, don’t you think it is worth a try?

If leaving your home is not possible, or you just can’t break away from your 9-5 grind, there are reported benefits of even looking at pictures of nature and decreasing stress. There are indications that exposure to photos of nature activates the part of our nervous system (parasympathetic) that is in charge of our “rest and digest” or “recovery” modes. 

Looking at nature could possibly trigger our bodies’ automatic responses that help us recover from stress. Images on screens like computers or projectors also showed a positive response. Maybe you want to print out a picture of a natural place that you know and love or one you dream of going to. You can also use the image as your phone’s lock screen to have an easy on the go way to have little micro moments of stress recovery.   

Even if researchers don’t understand exactly why it works, one thing is clear: being in or looking at nature is a free and simple way you can help manage all the day to day stressors that unknowingly can build up and cause discomfort in our bodies and minds. 

Recovering from Information Overload 

Let’s face it, life can be crazy, and with all of society's technological advances, there is often an overwhelming amount of stimuli coming at us. Not to mention social media and its influence on our day-to-day lives and all the random short bits of information it puts in front of us. 

The internet started out as a simple tool but has drastically grown to what we know and use now. Our world’s interconnectedness enables us to have access to other places, news, and events, but it can also expose us to an increased number of tragedies. This can increase our stress even when we are witnessing these events from a distance. Scientists and medical professionals have become increasingly interested in how news consumption affects our mental health.

Surprisingly, I am not going to tell you to just disconnect and turn off all your devices for a set amount of time. If that works for you and helps you recover, please continue to do so. For others, we do not need to completely disconnect to reset our nervous system.

In our day-to-day life, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by our technology. The connection to our global community is a beautiful thing, so you probably don't want to let it go completely. I want to instead give you a few tips on handling this 21st-century stressor that our ancestors did not have to contend with. 

The following tips will allow you to ways to potentially recover from the stress this information overload can cause.

Take action. If you see something that unnerves you and you can act in your physical community, do so. 

Consume media and news mindfully. It might be better to listen to the radio once a day to get your news or watch only one news program a day. Try to avoid scrolling through a social media feed for hours, getting consumed by all the world's happenings. 

Keep a journal. Do not let emotions fester. Sometimes writing down the uncertainties that are troubling you provides emotional release and can help you process the situation, therefore decreasing stress.

Connect. We were not meant to handle everything alone. Form a support system, join a support group or a group with similar goals. 

Breathe. As simple as this sounds, take three deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through an open mouth. Sometimes this will help our minds adjust to whatever change or event triggered our stress response. 

Dealing with Stress: It Is a Process

As you can see, managing our stress in this complex world can be challenging and requires effort on our part. It is easy to get lost in our busy days and not even think about how stress is affecting our mental and physical well-being. If nothing else, I hope I have provided you with some insight into why it is important to manage your stress and a few actions that you can choose to take. 

As you embark upon exploring your life, your stressors, and your health, please remember that you might need professional support. There is no shame in asking for this support especially if you are not able to function in day-to-day life or are not satisfied with your quality of life. I strongly recommend that you ask your primary care provider or a trusted person for help. I am confident that, with your own efforts and support, you can manage your stress and navigate life’s uncertainty. I know you can.


About the author: Casey-Lee Flood blends her experiences as a registered nurse and a late diagnosed neurodivergent human into her life and work as an author, board certified Health and Wellness Nurse Coach, and artist. Casey-Lee founded the Art-Full Apothecary to increase accessibility of holistic healthcare to all who need it.


Recommended reading:

What to Know about Neuralli Mood

Three Methods for Natural Stress Relief

What Is the Gut-Brain Axis? How Your Microbiome Can Influence Wellbeing


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