How stress affects your health & some tips for reducing it
Picture this…suddenly you come nose to nose with a saber-tooth tiger. While you were simply gathering, the tiger was actually hunting, and the sight of you makes his mouth water. Luckily for you, millions of years of evolution has endowed you with a set of automatic weapons that take over in the event of an emergency. At the sight of the tiger, your hypothalamus sends a message to your adrenal glands and within seconds, you can run faster, hit harder, see better, hear more acutely, think faster, and jump higher than you could only seconds earlier. Your heart is pumping at two to three times the normal speed, sending nutrient rich blood to the major muscles in your arms and legs. The tiny blood vessels (called capillaries) under the surface of your skin close down (which consequently sends your blood pressure soaring) so you can sustain a surface wound and not bleed to death. Even your eyes dilate so you can see better. All functions of your body not needed for the struggle about to commence are shut down. Digestion stops, sexual function stops, even your immune system is temporarily turned off. If necessary, excess waste is eliminated to make you light on your feet. Your suddenly supercharged body is designed to help level the odds between you and your attacker. Consequently, you narrowly escape death by leaping higher and running faster than you ever could before. With the danger now over, you find a safe place to lie down and rest your exhausted body.
We were designed to handle stress its our survival mechanism. Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. The problem is more and more in modern day life we are under constant stress where faster seems better and we pack more obligations into our ever-expanding schedules. An extreme amount of long term stress can have health consequences, affecting the immune, cardiovascular and neuroendocrine and central nervous systems, and take a severe emotional toll. Every time your body triggers the fight or flight response in modren day life, for situations that are not truly life-threatening, you are experiencing, in effect, a false alarm. Too many false alarms can lead to stress-related disorders like:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- immune system disorders
- migraine headaches
- sexual dysfunction
Long-term (chronic) stress can negatively affect your health. If you feel run down, overwhelmed, or worried on a regular basis, you may have chronic stress. But by finding positive, healthy ways to manage stress as it occurs, many of these negative health consequences can be reduced. Everyone is different, and so are the ways they choose to manage their stress. Some people prefer pursuing hobbies such as gardening, playing music and creating art, while others find relief in more solitary activities: meditation, yoga and walking.
Here are some healthy techniques that psychological research has shown to help reduce stress in the short- and long-term.
Make movement your drug.
Stressful situations increase the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in your body. Exercise is a powerful, well-studied way to burn off stress chemicals and heal the mind. Stress in the modern age is rarely remedied by a fight or flight response, and so physical exercise can be used as a surrogate to burn off the excessive stress hormones and restore your body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state. Studies show exercise works better than or equal to pharmaceutical drugs for treating depression. Try interval training if you’re short on time but want a powerful, intense workout. Or when you feel stressed and tense, go for a brisk walk in fresh air, even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance session in the midst of a stressful time can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours. Try to incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine on a regular basis, either before or after work, or at lunchtime. Regular physical activity will also improve the quality of your sleep too.
Get more sleep.
A lack of sleep is a significant cause of stress. Unfortunately though, stress also interrupts our sleep as thoughts keep whirling through our heads, stopping us from relaxing enough to fall asleep. Rather than relying on medication, your aim should be to maximise your relaxation before going to sleep. Make sure that your bedroom is a tranquil oasis with no reminders of the things that cause you stress. Avoid caffeine during the evening, as well as excessive alcohol if you know that this leads to disturbed sleep. Stop doing any mentally demanding work several hours before going to bed so that you give your brain time to calm down. Try taking a warm bath or reading a calming, undemanding book for a few minutes to relax your body, tire your eyes and help you forget about the things that worry you. You should also aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each day so that your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine.
Take a break from the stressor.
It may seem difficult to get away from a big work project, a crying baby or a growing credit card bill. But when you give yourself permission to step away from it, you let yourself have time to do something else, which can help you have a new perspective or practice techniques to feel less overwhelmed. It’s important to not avoid your stress (those bills have to be paid sometime), but even just 20-minutes to take care of yourself is helpful.
Meditate & Breath
Meditation help the mind and body to relax and focus. Mindfulness can help people see new perspectives, develop self-compassion and forgiveness. When practicing a form of mindfulness, people can release emotions that may have been causing the body physical stress. Much like exercise, research has shown that even meditating briefly can reap immediate benefits.No matter how much or little time you have to commit, find a practice that works for you. Read more on our blog Meditation Tips.
Take care of your vagus nerve (relaxation nerve) by using deep breaths. Most of us hold our breath often or breathe swallow, anxious breaths. Deep, slow, full breaths have a profound affect on resetting the stress response, because the relaxation nerve goes through your diaphragm and is activated with every deep breath. Take five deep breaths now. See how differently you feel?
Eat the right foods.
The right diet can do wonders to reduce stress’s impact. When you eat whole, real foods, you restore balance to insulin, cortisol, and other hormones.
Eliminating mind-robbing molecules like caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars and eating regularly can help you avoid the short-term stress of starvation on your body. You maintain an even-keeled mindset throughout the day, even when things get hectic. You’ll replace those foods with clean protein, healthy fats, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries and non-gluten grains. Food is information that controls your gene expression, hormones and metabolism. When you eat the right foods, you balance blood sugar, restore hormonal balance and reduce stress’s damaging impact.
Talk to Someone
Just talking to someone about how you feel can be helpful. Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it.Stress can cloud your judgement and prevent you from seeing things clearly. Call a friend, send an email talking things through with a friend, work colleague, or even a trained professional, can help you find solutions to your stress and put your problems into perspective.
Stress can be triggered by a problem that may on the surface seem impossible to solve. Learning how to find solutions to your problems will help you feel more in control thereby lowering your level of stress.
One problem-solving technique involves writing down the problem and coming up with as many possible solutions as you can. Decide on the good and bad points of each one and select the best solution. Write down each step that you need to take as part of the solution: what will be done, how will it be done, when will it be done, who is involved and where will it take place.
Manage Your Time
At times, we all feel overburdened by our ‘To Do’ list and this is a common cause of stress. Accept that you can not do everything at once and start to prioritise and diarise your tasks.Make a list of all the things that you need to do and list them in order of genuine priority. Note what tasks you need to do personally and what can be delegated to others to do. Record which tasks need to be done immediately, in the next week, in the next month, or when time allows.
By editing what might have started out as an overwhelming and unmanageable task list, you can break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks spread out over a longer time frame, with some tasks removed from the list entirely through delegation. Remember as well to create buffer times to deal with unexpected and emergency tasks, and to include time for your own relaxation and well-being.
Learn to Say ‘No’
A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it. And yet in this situation, many people will still agree to take on additional responsibility. Learning to say “No” to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce your level of stress, and may also help you develop more self-confidence.
To learn to say “No”, you need to understand why you find it difficult. Many people find it hard to say “No” because they want to help and are trying to be nice and to be liked. For others, it is a fear of conflict, rejection or missed opportunities. Remember that these barriers to saying “No” are all self-created.
You might feel reluctant to respond to a request with a straight “No”, at least at first. Instead think of some pre-prepared phrases to let other people down more gently. Practice saying phrases such as:
“I am sorry but I can’t commit to this as I have other priorities at the moment.”
“Now is not a good time as I’m in the middle of something. Why don’t you ask me again at….?”
“I’d love to do this, but …”
I hope some of these techniques help you, what do you do to manage your stress. Also a very good read that gets further into causes and solutions to managing stress is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky. The books talks about how stress affects sleep and addiction, as well as new insights into anxiety and personality disorder and the impact of spirituality on managing stress.