Coping with stress

by Sally Colby

Stress is a normal part of life, and there’s simply no way to eliminate every bit of stress. However, understanding the basis for stress and adopting coping mechanisms can greatly alleviate the way in which the human body responds when presented with stress.

Dr. Michael Bailey, physician and researcher at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, said the stress response occurs when a stimulus is perceived to be threatening and when the things we perceive as threatening are things we can’t predict or control.

In most individuals, inflammatory and other chronic disease issues such as inflammatory bowel disease, gum disease (periodontitis), autoimmune disease (MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus), cancer, anxiety and depression tend to become worse during periods of heightened stress. However, stress isn’t always immunosuppressive, and Bailey said in some cases, the stress response can increase immune system activity rather than suppress it.

Responses to stressful stimuli are highly individual, and are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. Bailey said in general, the initial stress response tends to be adaptive. However, as the stress response becomes prolonged, maladaptive effects begin to disrupt the sleep cycle, leading to disruptions in brain biology. These changes can alter mood, and often have a widespread effect on the immune system that can change susceptibility to various diseases.

It isn’t surprising that the volatility in the dairy industry has been quite stressful for dairy farmers who live with uncertainty about the future and who have no control over market prices. “Our ability to control a stressor and to predict its outcome has a significant effect on whether a stimulus will lead to a stress response,” said Bailey, referencing classic stress studies conducted in the 1960s. “We no longer need experiments to determine that stimuli are stressful when we are not able to predict the outcome and unable to control.”

Bailey categorizes the two major ways in which the stress response can be managed: emotion-based coping mechanisms and problem-based coping mechanisms.

“Emotion-based coping mechanisms are focused on managing the emotional response to a stressor,” said Bailey. “Some of these things we do subconsciously. We tend to distance ourselves when things don’t go well, or when things don’t go well, we blame it on something else to distance ourselves from it. We can also engage in prayer and meditation to deal with the emotional component of stress.” Bailey added that one approach that many people find effective is emotional disclosure, or talk therapy. Many people find writing out thoughts in a journal helps them sort out feelings.

Problem-based coping mechanisms deal directly with stressors, and such mechanisms usually include avoiding those stressors. “If jumping out of an airplane is stressful to you, don’t jump out of an airplane,” said Bailey. “A lot of our ability to overcome stressors is focused on our ability to predict outcomes and the ability to control outcomes.”

For example, Bailey works with graduate students who often experience stress when faced with having to give a presentation in front of a large group. “One way to help them get over that is to make them do it over and over again until they learn they can control, or at least predict the outcome of speaking,” he said.

While coping mechanisms work well for some, they aren’t the answer for everyone. Bailey encourages farmers to practice positive, healthy behaviors that suppress nervous system activity and subsequently reduce stress. “One of the best things we can do is exercise,” he said. “We know exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which suppresses the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. As a result, the fight or flight response becomes more regulated. We also know that exercise releases of endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormones, and improves the mood. Exercise has also been shown to help regulate the immune response and can reduce the susceptibility to stressors.”

There’s increased interest in the role of nutrition in promoting a healthy gut biome, and how good nutrition can help balance some of the negative effects of stress. “Some of the new research shows that what we really need to do is feed our microbiome through the consumption of fruits and vegetables,” said Bailey. “Take in a lot of fiber that we know helps promote a healthy microbiome and helps regulate the sympathetic nervous system. A healthy microbiome also helps regulate the immune response.”

Bailey said foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids such as fish and nuts are can reduce inflammatory responses and support brain health, and the oligosaccharides in milk support beneficial bacteria. Reducing the intake of stimulants (caffeine) and reducing depressants (alcohol) can significantly aid in maintaining health.

“Perhaps one of the most important things is sleep,” said Bailey, adding that ample sleep helps maintain the glucocorticoid rhythm, which reduces inflammation. “We’re learning more and more that maintaining a regular sleep cycle helps regulate hormone responses, which helps regulate emotions and functioning of the immune system.”