Taming the stress monster!
Stress is accepted as a normal part of our busy lives, yet few of us understand the toll it can take on our health or the associated risk of a wide range of health conditions and diseases.
What is stress?
Most of us think of stress as an emotion - the feeling of inner tension caused by an external trigger such as bereavement, divorce, work deadlines, unpaid bills and being stuck in traffic.
Factors that can trigger stress include shock, fear, emotional worries and upsetting events, unhealthy food, skipping meals, exercising too much or too little, lack of sleep, plus man-made factors that interfere with our circadian rhythm such as bright lights and the blue screens. Added to this, internal imbalances can put the body under stress, such as inflammation, blood sugar fluctuations, nutrient deficiency or food sensitivity.
What happens when we feel stressed?
Regardless of the source of stress, when our bodies detect a stressor, it initiates the stress response - more commonly known as fight or flight. Our adrenal glands are at the heart of this, as these are the organs that pump out our stress hormones.
· Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase to deliver more oxygen to the brain and muscles
· The immune system is suppressed
· Blood flow is diverted away from the digestive and reproductive systems, liver, kidneys and skin, and sent to the brain and skeletal muscles
· Hearing, sight and smell are enhanced.
While this reaction to stress has developed over millions of years to enhance our survival in the face of acute stress, modern stressors tend to be chronic, numerous and unresolved leading to a repeated and prolonged stress response. You can imagine that if these physical responses to stress are happening regularly, there will be far reaching consequences when it comes to our health, including our endocrine (hormone), immune, digestive, reproductive and cardiovascular systems.
Another problem is that, faced with stress, many of us adopt negative habits in order to cope. This may be overeating generally, bingeing on sugary foods, excess use of alcohol, smoking or even recreational drug abuse. If we can't find a way to reduce stress or cope with it better, we become increasingly predisposed to ill-health, poor sleep, weight gain, emotional turmoil, and over time we may even go on to develop health conditions like autoimmunity, heart disease and cancer.
Thankfully there are plenty of positive ways to mitigate the effects of stress, which is important because for most of us, removing it entirely just isn't an option. Life can be stressful - that's a fact. But we can change the way we perceive it and also how we deal with it when it does rear its ugly head.
Here are some tried and trusted stress tools to help you to live a more peaceful, happy life.
Exercise – regular exercise helps to boost our sense of well-being and coping skills. It helps to balance our stress hormones, improves sleep and increases energy levels. Do something you love, or you're unlikely to stick with it. Ideally go for exercise that isn't too intense to prevent pushing stress hormones even higher. Great options for de-stressing include walking, light jogging, dancing, yoga, pilates, tai chi and rebounding on a mini trampoline. Exercising out of doors is even better for boosting health and reducing stress.
Meditation and mindfulness – it can be nigh on impossible to switch off your monkey mind when you're under stress. And even trying to do so may increase stress levels and leave you feeling like a failure. That doesn't mean you can't benefit from meditation and mindfulness practices. You just need to take time and be creative about it. You could ease in by winding down and relaxing right before you begin meditating, perhaps having a bath or gentle walk beforehand. You can actually meditate whilst walking and many people find the distraction of nature really helps - you focus on your steps and the scenery around you instead of your thoughts. You may also find a guided meditation or mindfulness practice easier to follow too, using one of the many apps or downloads available. And finally, start by only commiting to five minutes at a time, building up slowly as you gain confidence. Pick a time in the day that works for you - maybe as soon as you wake up, before the distraction of kids and work pulls you away from yourself.
Deep breathing - this can be done as a stand alone stress buster, or in combination with meditation/mindfulness. This is my favourite deep breathing exercise, and practiced regularly, it can help to lower stress levels and reduce the effect that stress has on the body. It's called 7/11 breathing and the secret is to make each “out” breath last longer than each “in” breath. This has the effect of stimulating the body’s natural relaxation mechanisms and the parasympathetic (anti-stress) branch of the nervous system.
You can do this breathing exercise anywhere - in bed, on a bus or the train, even whilst walking gently. Find a breathing rate that is comfortable for you and your lungs. It doesn’t have to be particularly “deep and slow” - the important thing is to keep the rate constant without getting out of breath. Aim for around 10 minutes each day. If you are a visual person, you can enhance the experience by imagining yourself in a place that feels safe and calm, perhaps on a warm beach, sunny garden or walking in the woods.
1. Breath in for a count of three
2. Breathe out for a count of five
3. After a few breaths, when you feel relaxed, increase to breathing in for a count of five and out for a count of seven.
4. After a few minutes, increase to breathing in for a count of seven and out for a count of 11. It may take time to build up to this, so be patient and let it develop gradually.
Gratitude - this simple but powerful tool only takes minutes a day, but has been shown to help reduce feelings of stress and hopelessness. By focusing on the things in your life you feel grateful for, the balance shifts and your perception changes. Doing it regularly is key - bedtime is a great time to reflect on the day and pick out the things you want to focus on. Find a notebook or journal, and think about the things you feel grateful for or happy about. Perhaps limit it to three or five things a day, and the things you choose don't need to be big or life changing, it may simply be a chat with a friend, a quiet cup of tea in a sunny corner, or a hug from a loved one.
Time management and organisation – this is a great way to reduce perceived stress and feel on top of your to do list. Prioritising and organising your responsibilities each day, including time for yourself, will help reduce the feeling of overwhelm that can come from a busy workload. Be realistic though, only setting tasks you know you can comfortably achieve.
Diet – there's no doubt that what and how you eat really has the potential to impact your stress levels both positively and negatively. And how stressed you are will influence what and how you eat too. Many quick-fix, convenience foods we reach for when we're busy or stressed don't support the functioning of our bodies, in fact they often make things worse. Everyone's different, but as a general rule, eating high-quality, unprocessed and nutrient-dense foods will equip you with the balance of nutrients needed to cope with life's challenges. This means vegetables, salads, fish, meat, eggs and pulses, plus some whole grains in moderation, ideally gluten free ones - gluten can increase inflammation and digestive problems. In fact, identifying and avoiding foods you react to is an important anti-stress tactic. In addition, you definitely want to restrict your intake of caffeine, alcohol, sugar and processed carbohydrates, as these exacerbate stress and put a strain on the adrenal glands.
So much can be done via diet and lifestyle modifications to help your stress response and encourage the body back into better balance - seek help if you feel you need more targeted advice.