How to recover from stressful life events

(and a little bit on dealing with grief)

We have been writing a lot about how to deal with stress. But let’s face it: everybody will go through phases in their life where they experience intense stress. Even if you are highly resilient and an experienced yogi knowing all the breathing techniques – there are things that won’t leave you unscathed.

We have been through some tough times ourselves and know from personal experience that such times will affect you – not just emotionally, but on the physical and cognitive levels as well. We become tired, more easily irritable, our fitness level decreases. We feel mentally and physically exhausted. In addition, we struggle with everything that has a higher cognitive demand. It becomes harder to focus, harder to engage and our short-term memory is affected.

My (Rebecca’s, it’s me writing today) most intense stress experience comes from my student years, when I just started my advanced master’s courses in neural and behavioral science. At that time, my mum was terminally ill.

My mum and me, probably 25 years ago

First, I struggled with finding a balance between spending time with her, but still living the student life and fulfilling all the very ambitious course work at university. Then she died – and even though I knew it was coming, I felt completely unprepared. I managed to finish my master’s degree, even with good grades, but emotionally, I was a mess. My mum was my best and closest friend. We used to talk every day and about everything. At that point of my life, I was at a deep loss.

 

It took me several years to recover from this experience.

During these years, I noticed something strange: I could not really remember events from the months before her death. Everything seemed blurry. I mixed up names and people, did not remember where I knew them from, and even forgot important things that had happened. The time before my mum’s death, the most stressful time, disappeared in a cloud within my head.

I was studying neuroscience and soon learned that the hippocampus is affected by intense or chronic stress. Just recently, a large meta-analysis with over 800 participants with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) confirmed, that the hippocampus decreases in size when subjected to highly stressful events.

How did I recover?

First of all, the best medicine is time. Traumatic events need time to be processed. Usually it takes longer than our social environment believes we need and is willing to give us. In the case of losing a close one, there is even a prescribed “normal” time window after which we are supposed to function normal again. In the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders, the time defined as normal, non-pathological grief has decreased dramatically over the last years. In the DSM version number 3, it was one year, in number 4 it was two months, in the newest edition number 5, there were rumors it would be reduced to only two weeks (I guess that was too drastic and didn’t happen).

For all stressful events, from an especially hard time at work over heartbreak to losing a loved one, it is important to be patient with ourselves and accept that it might take a while until we “get over it”. Often, we feel fine for a while, and then something triggers the memory of the stressful event or phase and we have to go through another time period of processing it. Be patient with yourself. Don’t get annoyed, if your brain makes you go through it again.

This is actually a fascinating mechanism: our brain gives us a break from processing the stressful life-event for a while. When we have become stable again, it will allow the memories to come back up. The brain uses the calmer times to process difficult experiences. Accept this and see it as a positive process: every time this happens, it is getting easier.

 

What else can we do to recover from stress?

First, stabilize your basis. Make sure, you are exercising, eating well and sleeping enough. After my mum’s death, I started exercising multiple times a week and eating more healthy food. Not really to combat the stress, but to deal with anxiety regarding my own health. However, it did have a positive effect. Especially the regular exercise felt extremely good. When we are stressed, our body prepares for something bad to happen. Stress is an adaptive mechanism to protect us. Our body prepares for the fight-or-flight reaction. So we should use it in that way it was meant to be: go for long runs or an intense sports class. That way, stress hormones fulfill their biological function and are less harmful than when we are sitting on the couch with our 100+ heartrate. People who exercise are reportedly more resilient to stress, which also means they recover faster from it.

Again, meditation becomes an extremely helpful tool during stress recovery. 

However, if you have not practiced meditation before, it might be the wrong time to learn it. If you are still in the stressful phase, it will be hard for you to sit down and calm your mind. Better to train meditation during a calmer time of your life to have this great tool ready, when you need it. If you are currently recovering from stress, don’t feel discouraged to try it out! But don’t beat yourself up – or the method – if it does not have the effect you were looking for. Try to exercise instead and come back to meditation practice when you are further in your recovery journey.

Some other tips:

Try a new hobby like painting or pottery. Start writing or dancing. Choose whichever form of art you are most drawn to and get lost in it for a few hours per week.

Listen to classical music. It has been shown to help your cardiovascular system during stress recovery.

Treat yourself with immersive and positive nature experiences, which can reinforce your recovery process.

 

 

Scientific literature:

Logue, M. W., van Rooij, S. J., Dennis, E. L., Davis, S. L., Hayes, J. P., Stevens, J. S., … & Korgaonkar, M. (2018). Smaller Hippocampal Volume in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Multisite ENIGMA-PGC Study: Subcortical Volumetry Results From Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Consortia. Biological psychiatry83(3), 244-253.

Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical psychology review21(1), 33-61.

Chafin, S., Roy, M., Gerin, W., & Christenfeld, N. (2004). Music can facilitate blood pressure recovery from stress. British journal of health psychology9(3), 393-403.

Reynolds, C. F., Hoch, C. C., Buysse, D. J., Houck, P. R., Schlernitzauer, M., Pasternak, R. E., … & Kupfer, D. J. (1993). Sleep after spousal bereavement: a study of recovery from stress. Biological Psychiatry34(11), 791-797.

Adevi, A. A., & Mårtensson, F. (2013). Stress rehabilitation through garden therapy: The garden as a place in the recovery from stress. Urban forestry & urban greening12(2), 230-237.

Pizarro, J. (2004). The efficacy of art and writing therapy: Increasing positive mental health outcomes and participant retention after exposure to traumatic experience. Art Therapy21(1), 5-12.

Appleton, V. (2001). Avenues of hope: Art therapy and the resolution of trauma. Art Therapy18(1), 6-13.

Marcus, M. T., Fine, P. M., Moeller, F. G., Khan, M. M., Pitts, K., Swank, P. R., & Liehr, P. (2003). Change in stress levels following mindfulness-based stress reduction in a therapeutic community. Addictive Disorders & Their Treatment2(3), 63-68.

 

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photos by Edu Grande and Amy Treasure on Unsplash