— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.
Stress is a constant in our lives, like an alarm clock we cannot turn off. The key to stress-free living isn’t about trying to escape stress, but lowering its volume.
Studies show that stress can trigger depression in some people, trapping them in worry and negativity. And resilience in others, letting them bounce back stronger from stressful situations.
This second group may know how to use the “relief” that follows a stressful situation.
“Relief” is the good feeling that we have after a difficult experience.
- Stress “relief” feels good, but temporarily: The brief, good feeling after being stressed out is our brain getting the reward of pleasure from its dopamine (DA) system.
- Inability to feel “relief” can lead to depression: Not feeling better after being stressed out can make us more likely to get depressed.
- Boosting “relief” can increase resilience: The better we feel after being stressed out, the better we can bounce back from stressful things in the future.
Let’s find out why and how we can prolong the good feeling after a stressful event to fight depression.
Table of Contents
Decoding The Brain After Stress
Stress acts as a psychological stimulus that demands our brain to respond.
When we face stress, a region in our brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) springs into action.
The interesting thing is that VTA activity naturally increases after stress, giving us a wave of relief. Once activated, the VTA releases dopamine, a neurochemical linked to pleasure and reward.
The dopamine surge after a stressful event is not merely about pleasure; it marks a shift from a state of alertness (“fight or flight”) to one of relief and recovery (“rest and digest”).
This transition plays a critical role in how we perceive and process the aftermath of stress.
This research suggests that the way we experience relief could actually protect us from depression and boost our resilience (our ability to bounce back from adversity).
Researchers found that:
- Those who could handle stress without getting depressed also got more relief after the end of a physical stress experience.
- When the researchers blocked stress relief, it made the mice more likely to get depressed.
- And, if the mice got a reward after the stress, it helped them feel better.
More Than Just a Feel-Good Moment
This post-stress relief is more than just a temporary mood boost. It is a crucial element in building resilience and mental well-being.
- This post-stress surge of good feeling can play a major role in increasing resilience to future stress.
- This mechanism can also act as a psychological shield, especially helpful in keeping off depression.
So, the better we feel after stress, the less likely we are to spiral downward into depressive states when faced with negative thoughts or experiences.
Researchers believe that the reason is likely that “relief” may block the negative effects of stress hormones like cortisol.
Harnessing the Power of Relief
The potential to make post-stress “relief” better and prevent depression is exciting.
The basic idea is this: Reward yourself after a stressful experience to sustain dopamine.
Here are some things that can make dopamine release longer after stress is over.
1. Do A Pleasurable Activity
You have to act, not passively scroll through social media. Pick a hobby or activity you find joyful. Dance to your favorite music, get your hands busy with painting, crafting, gardening, cooking, or playing a musical instrument. Do some sports activities like fun dancing, outdoor walking, or playing with your pet or child. Spend time with a loved one. These dopamine-releasing activities also bring on an overall sense of well-being.
2. Reward Yourself Post-Challenge
Buy a small gift for yourself. Treat yourself to a favorite meal or snack. Take a relaxing bath or spa day. Take a mini-break or day trip. Give yourself a self-appreciating pat on the back.
3. Acknowledge and Celebrate
Acknowledging your efforts and successes after facing tough situations fortifies the feeling that you deserve relief. Celebrate small victories to sustain dopamine and reinforce the positive impact of relief.
4. Practice Meditation
Meditation practice helps calm the mind, reduce stress, and increase dopamine production, allowing you to fully appreciate the “calm after the storm.”
5. Exercise Regularly
Physical activity has been proven to increase dopamine levels, making it an effective strategy for stress management and mood improvement.
6. Practice Mindfulness
Being mindful, that is, being fully present and engaged in the moment without judgment, can reduce overthinking, enhance emotional control, increase self-awareness, postpone stress onset, and improve resilience. Learn and practice mindfulness exercises daily.
Of course, everyone is different – experiences, genetics, and personal coping strategies all play a role. So, while promoting “relief” seems to be a powerful tool, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Benefits of Stress Relief
- Improved mood: Stress relief and positive emotional states can help improve an individual’s mood and counteract the negative effects of stress. They may feel more relaxed, content, and happy.
- Enhanced resilience: By experiencing stress relief and positive emotional states, individuals may become more resilient to future stressors. They may be better able to cope with difficult situations and feel more optimistic about their ability to handle challenges.
- Better physical health: Positive emotional states have been linked to a range of physical health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, better immune function, and reduced inflammation.
- Improved social connections: Positive emotional states may also help individuals build stronger social connections with others. They may be more open and friendly with others, which can lead to improved relationships and social support.
- Increased creativity: Positive emotional states have been linked to increased creativity and problem-solving abilities, which can lead to greater success at work and in personal pursuits.
What is relief, according to scientists?
According to scientists, “relief” is the natural state after the end of harsh stimuli. It is the feeling of improvement or comfort that comes after experiencing something unpleasant or stressful. It is a well-conserved phenomenon that has been observed in many animals, including humans.
Can I control how much relief I feel after stress?
While individual differences exist, activities like exercise, mindfulness, and engaging in rewarding experiences can potentially influence your post-stress feelings.
Does everyone experience relief after stress?
Unfortunately, not everyone benefits from this protective mechanism. Some individuals, due to various factors, may experience prolonged negative emotions after stress, increasing their risk for depression.
What are other potential applications of understanding relief?
Beyond depression prevention, understanding the “relief” mechanism could hold promise for treating other stress-related mental health conditions like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
What purpose does stress relief serve evolutionarily?
In terms of evolutionary purposes, stress relief is considered a natural resilience mechanism against depression. Having the ability to respond positively to a negative experience can help individuals adapt to their environment and survive.
How does stress relief help individuals cope with negative experiences?
Stress relief helps individuals cope with negative experiences by providing a positive emotional state that follows the end of a stressful event. This positive emotional state may help them feel more capable of coping with future stressors and less likely to develop anxiety, depression, or other negative mental health outcomes.
What is relief-based learning?
Relief-based learning occurs when a particular action or behavior is reinforced by the sensation of relief that occurs after the termination of a stressful, threatening, or painful experience. In other words, relief-based learning involves learning behaviors that help to avoid or reduce negative experiences.
For example, if a person learns that taking a particular action (such as taking a painkiller or deep breathing) can reduce their experience of pain, they are more likely to repeat that action in the future when they experience pain.
How is dopamine related to relief-based learning?
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is involved in reward processing and reinforcement learning, and its release in the brain is associated with positive emotional states.
When an individual experiences relief after the termination of a stressful, painful, or threatening experience, dopamine is released in the brain. This release of dopamine reinforces the behaviors or actions that were associated with the relief, making it more likely that the individual will repeat those behaviors or actions in the future.
How is stress relief encoded in the brain?
(Sciency answer) Stress relief is encoded in the brain through the activation of the mesoaccumbal dopamine circuit, which projects to the nucleus accumbens shell. This circuit has separate projections to the lateral shell and dorsomedial shell, which prevent distinct aspects of depression-like behaviors. Stress relief also activates reward-related mesolimbic dopamine neurons that are responsible for making us feel good when we get a reward.
The next time you are feeling good after a stressful event, don’t take it for granted, undervalue it, or brush it away.
That wave of relief is your brain doing its remarkable job of protecting you from future struggles.
It gives your emotional system an optimism and motivation boost, helping you face future challenges with greater confidence that you can cope with them.
As research continues, harnessing the power of relief may become a key strategy for building stronger, more resilient, and depression-resistant minds.
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