Is It Possible To Train Yourself To Stress Less? We Dove Into The Science
If you've ever searched for information on how to deal with stress, you've probably found lots of tips for calming down when you're already in the throes of worry. It's great to have tools for the heat of the moment, but is there a way to actively train our bodies and minds—almost like we'd build a muscle—to become more resilient to stressors before they happen?
Short answer: Yes—to an extent. Here, experts share advice on how we can learn more about our unique stress responses so we can start to take steps to change them.
Why does everyone experience stress differently?
We're all a little different when it comes to how our bodies and minds react to stress. And, unfortunately, we don't have control over certain factors that affect our response: "When the body encounters a stressful situation, it releases a triad of hormones, including adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol," says Stacey McLarry, N.D., a naturopath at the Institute for Specialized Medicine in San Diego.
The amount of each hormone that is released and how quickly the body then clears it depends on your genetics, environment, and health. "Genetics give the body a general outline as to how to operate," McLarry explains. "One's health and surroundings also play a role in how stress is both perceived and tolerated."
We also all have a unique "stress reserve," says Beverly Yates, N.D. She compares this reserve to a "backup battery"—like a booster for a smartphone. Not everyone has the same reserve to draw on. The deeper the well, the more resilient the body's natural reactions to stress.
"We each have our own unique experiences in life, and the sum of these lived experiences determines our stress response," Yates explains. "If your life experiences have a number of traumatic events and you did not have the opportunity to fully recover, this leaves you more vulnerable to the next stressful situation."
So, can we do anything to shift the way our body deals with stress?
Even if we can't change our genetics or past experiences, we can take steps to train our bodies to cope with stress so that we can spend more time in a relaxed state.
To do so, we need to consider the autonomic nervous system. This system has two arms that generally balance each other out: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. But stress can upset that balance by activating the sympathetic branch and sending our fight-or-flight responses into high gear.
When we're in this stressed-out mode, our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our "rest and digest" responses, typically takes a back seat. (That's why stress may cause your gut to not feel so great.)
There are practices, however, that can help strengthen our parasympathetic nervous systems—and we can do them long before stress crops up.
Research shows that the more we activate our relaxation response, the more we train it like a muscle. And regular parasympathetic nervous system activation can even combat how stress affects the body. "Under ideal conditions, our bodies react to the perceived threat (stress) and then return to a resting state," McLarry says. "Sometimes this doesn't happen naturally and a calm resting state must be learned."
Here are a few ways to relearn or train your body to get into a more relaxed baseline state and better cope with stress as it comes up:
Take a hemp supplement.
When shopping for hemp oil, be sure to look for a full-spectrum product since it'll contain more beneficial phytocannabinoids.* These plant-derived compounds are what seem to be interacting with the ECS and its receptors, and you won't find as many of them in hemp CBD isolate products.*
Incorporate breathwork and positive affirmations into your routine.
Tools like breathwork can also help us activate our parasympathetic nervous system so that we can better cope with stress the next time it crops up.
"[Breathwork] helps your body's nervous system switch into a parasympathetic state that is more calming and relaxing, versus the sympathetic state that is stressing you out," says Michael Smith, N.D., of Carolinas Natural Health Center.
The parasympathetic nervous system will send the blood flow back to your brain, Smith explains, and you'll be able to think more clearly. It can also help reactivate your digestive system.
"I would recommend starting small with 3- to 5-minute guided meditations or a morning 10-minute yoga flow, focusing on breath," naturopathic doctor Tess Marshall, N.D., says. The calming effects of just a few sessions can be beneficial in helping to set a new habit, she adds.
You can also be mindful of your mind and start to train your brain to have more empowering thoughts. For example, the next time you think, "I can't do this," try to catch yourself and transform that thought into, "I can't do this yet, but I'm working hard to master it." The brain believes what it hears.
"Exercise is just as important for your mind as it is for your heart," says naturopath Lanae Mullane, N.D. "Exercise can help reduce the body's stress response by balancing cortisol levels while also stimulating the release of mood-elevating endorphins."
It also seems to play a role in regulating the autonomic nervous system: One study of individuals with obesity found that 12 weeks of exercise training improved parasympathetic nervous system activities. Another found that runners seemed to have more "parasympathetic dominance" when they were engaging in long-term training. To tap into these benefits, Mullane recommends finding an activity you love, whether it's running, dancing, or spin class, and doing it regularly.
The bottom line:
While we're all wired to deal with stress a little differently, getting regular exercise, practicing breathwork and positive affirmations, and keeping a relaxing supplement on hand are all things that may help support your body's natural stress management reserves.*
Jennifer Chesak is a freelance medical journalist with bylines in several national publications, including Washington Post, Healthline, Prevention, Greatist, Runner’s World, and more. Her coverage focuses on chronic health issues, fitness, nutrition, women’s medical rights, and the scientific evidence around health and wellness trends. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School. In addition to reporting, she also serves as a freelance manuscript editor and medical fact-checker. She teaches copyediting and media studies at Belmont University and several writing courses through the Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville, and she is the managing editor for the literary magazine Shift.