We're all feeling much more stressed out these days, showing up as increases over the last few decades in how many of us suffer from stress-related diseases and disorders. Even if we're not sick yet, we carry more of the physical markers of stress that lead to future illnesses. We have a full-blown stress epidemic on our hands.
To figure out what to do, we need to understand how it works. The basic story is fairly simple. When we are facing a challenge or threat, our stress system releases cortisol, the "fight or flight" stress hormone. This provides a boost of energy and focus to deal with the stressor. So far, so good: we need a well functioning stress response to navigate our everyday lives.
The problems come when we have excess cortisol in our body over an extended time. Why is this happening so much more often now? One reason is that there are more stressors, experienced more frequently. A second, hidden reason is biological. As stress increases overall, more of us will develop a poorly regulated stress system as a result of stressful experiences in early life, while we are still in the womb or in the first year of life. If we become "stress dysregulated" (SDR), we react more often, more strongly and for a longer time.
Stressful social experiences "get under the skin" through an "epigenetic modification" that changes how our genes work, leaving the DNA in our genes intact. This makes it difficult or impossible for the stress response to shut down, because a key gene in the feedback loop has been "methylated." This leads to excess cortisol, which has in turn been clearly linked to many diseases and disorders, as well as early mortality. A harsh early life environment sends a signal that "amping up" the stress system is the best defense against danger — in other words, it is a chance for the genes to "listen to the environment" in terms of what that young life is likely to encounter.
With SDR, we feel more anxious, uptight, agitated and overwhelmed much of the time. We may over-react by lashing out at others in situations that don't call for it — think of road rage as a good example — or we may withdraw from interacting with others because it feels too threatening. For children and adolescents, this gets in the way of healthy development, because it limits or mars peer interactions that they need to become socially skilled. For adults, it can drive others away, making family and work life difficult. And it leads to a number of stress-related diseases.
But even if this SDR pattern is "biologically embedded" from early life, there are things we can do to change the pattern of our lives, even if it doesn't change the basic physiology.
- Start before birth. A first goal should be to minimize early life stress, by providing more support for expectant and new parents, to avoid the early onset of stress dysregulation from stress methylation.
- Supernuture fussy babies. For infants showing the pattern of high fussiness, difficulty in soothing, high sensitivity, and trouble sleeping - beyond the occasional episodes that most babies show — finding ways to provide "supernurturing" can turn the pattern around. Persisting in soothing for longer times, even though it is stressful, helps the infant toward better regulation of stress and emotions. This usually requires more than one caregiver to provide respite to the primary caregiver, and can come from partners, extended family, or others.
- Pair stressed teens with a trusted adult. For children and teens, finding a strong social connection with a trusted adult — a family member, coach, teacher, mentor, or as they grow older, a romantic partner — can provide a positive path to reduce the effects of SDR. Strong social connections are almost always found in resilient individuals, who have bounced back from early adversity to succeed in many aspects of life.
- Recognize your stress patterns. For adults, there are a number of steps one can take — for oneself, or by encouraging family and friends with SDR. The first step is awareness that the pattern of agitation and over-reaction is not typical or inevitable. Learning to "read" one's own physical reactions is a key way to learning to manage them.
- Adopt healthy habits. Beyond awareness, changes in behavior and in how we see our stress reactions have biological effects that counter stress. Physical exercise burns cortisol and helps us to regulate our emotions and moods. Social connections remain important, and release chemicals — oxytocin and serotonin - that counteract cortisol. Becoming mindful helps us keep stressors in perspective, and also reduces cortisol.
- Avoid "comforting yourself" with food and drinks. Avoiding easy but risky choices that provide quick relief but longer-term damage is equally important. "Comfort food," alcohol, and other drugs are a pathway to obesity, metabolic disorders, and addiction that are major causes of early mortality.
None of these changes are easy — especially for those with stress dysregulation — but they are attainable and highly effective. And we can benefit from them even if we don't have stress dysregulation — it's stressful out there for nearly all of us.
Daniel Keating, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is the author of Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity and How to Break the Cycle, out now from St. Martin's Press.