How to manage stress

We all know what it’s like to feel stressed, but it’s not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure and this pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. Many of life’s demands can cause stress, particularly work, relationships and money problems, and different people handle this in different ways. Stress is not an illness itself, but it can cause serious illness if not addressed. Read below to find out more on stress and the body….

WHAT IS STRESS?

We all know what stress feels like when we’re in its clammy grip, but scientifically speaking, just what is stress? Stress is a mentally or emotionally disruptive condition brought about by external influences—usually (but not necessarily) adverse ones that are capable of affecting not only our state of mind but also our physical health. Typical symptoms include increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, and irritability or depression. These result from a host of physiological changes that collectively constitute the stress syndrome.

Stress can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Eustress is positive and healthful—it’s the kind of good stress we feel when we experience a situation that is inspiring or motivating. Eustress is characterised by the release of “feel-good” hormones, such as endorphins.
  • Neustress refers to the neutral feelings arising from input that may be important but that has no significant impact on us – for example, hearing the news of an earthquake in New Zealand when we live in London
  • Distress is what we usually think of when we hear the term stress. It’s characterised by the release of potentially harmful hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), and it comes in two varieties:Acute stress arises quickly but lasts only briefly, then dissipates quickly— i.e. job interview, exams…Chronic stress, by contrast, may build slowly and may last for a long time – i.e. a stressful job, long term illness, money worries, an unhappy relationship etc…

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF STRESS?

Stress is something that is part of normal life, in that it is experienced by everyone from time-to-time. However, some people suffer from stress which is so frequent or so severe that it can seriously impact on their quality of life. You might not notice you are stressed until symptoms begin to occur, or you start exhibiting certain behaviours:

Irritability or moodiness Interrupted sleep Worrying or feeling of anxiety Back and neck pain Frequent headaches Upset stomach Increased blood pressure Changes in appetite Rashes or skin breakouts Chest pains More susceptible to cold/flu and slower recovery Depression A sense of dread Unable to enjoy life Irritable, aggressive, snappy Finding it hard to make decisions Avoiding situations Snapping at people Biting your nails unable to concentrate Smoking or drinking alcohol more Restless Feeling tearful or crying

These symptoms and behaviours can reduce quality of life, and people suffering from stress may notice that work performance or relationships suffer more as a result. There might be one big thing causing you stress, but stress can also be caused by a build-up of small challenges. This might make it harder for you to identify what’s making you feel stressed, or to explain it to other people.


WHAT DOES LONG TERM STRESS DO TO THE BODY?

Chronic stress can have a serious impact on our physical as well as psychological health due to sustained high levels of the chemicals released in the ‘fight or flight’ response. Below are some effects of chronic (long term) stress on the body:

Long term, people who react more to stress have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease

Stress increases blood pressure in the short term, so chronic stress may contribute to a permanently raised BP and blood lipid levels

When under stress the immune system is suppressed, making you more vulnerable to infections

Stress is known to aggravate skin problems such as acne, psoriasis and eczema

Continued stimulation of muscles through prolonged stress can lead to muscular pain such as backache

Chronic stress may lead to insulin-dependent diabetes in people who are predisposed to the disease

The hormones accompanying stress can cause reproductive problems for both sexes


STRESS MANAGEMENT TIPS

Try the below tips to help reduce that stress load:

Identify your stressors, and see if there are some things within your control to manage better. Some things will be beyond your control, for example if your job that is based on working towards deadlines then you can’t change this without changing jobs. But perhaps you can control some aspects, such as scheduling to have at least a short lunch break each day, or to go to bed earlier so that you have more energy to cope with the daytime

Build regular exercise into your life . As well as being part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle and giving you more energy, many people find that working out at the gym or playing sport helps them to unwind

Make sure that you eat and sleep well . Aim for 8 hours sleep per night

Take time out for family, friends and recreational activities. Most of us know that this is important but we do not all do it. If you find it hard to make time for this, perhaps you need to take deliberate steps to have time out, such as set aside one evening a week where you meet up with friends or enjoy a hobby, or set aside one day of the weekend for relaxing at home

Problem-solving techniques. These can be a useful way of clarifying the problem, brainstorming possible solutions, and then choosing one to put into action after listing the pros and cons of each option

Learn calming techniques. Such as controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, to train your mind and body to become more relaxed. These techniques require practice but can be helpful with regular use

Consider whether there is negative thinking which is contributing to your stress. Negative thinking can make us worry more than is necessary, increasing stress, and generally does not motivate us to take positive actions

Take time out for yourself . Book a massage, have a relaxing bath, turn your phone off and watch a film or read a book. You could also try yoga or meditation which help you to focus inwards on yourself

Make a list of things you have to do. Arrange them in order of importance, and try to focus on the most urgent first. If your tasks are work related, ask a manager or colleague to help you prioritise. You may be able to push back some tasks until you’re feeling less stressed

Vary your activities. Balance interesting tasks with more mundane ones, and stressful tasks with those you find easier or can do more calmly.

Try not to do too much at once. If you take on too much, you might find it harder to do any individual task well. This can make you feel like you have even more pressure on you.

Take breaks and take things slowly. It might be difficult to do this when you are stressed but it can make you more productive


NUTRITIONAL SUPPORT

To support your body in times of stress make sure that you try and maintain a good diet. Try and incorporate the following:

Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale are rich in folate which is needed for your body to produce mood regulating neurotransmitters

Magnesium helps regulate cortisol and blood pressure. It gets flushed out of the body when you’re stressed so it’s crucial to replenish your stores. People with low magnesium levels are more likely to be more stressed and are at a greater risk for depression. Seaweed and green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard can be excellent sources of magnesium, as are beans, nuts, and seeds like pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame. Avocados and bananas also contain magnesium. Juicing your vegetables or having smoothies are an excellent option to ensure you’re getting enough of them in your diet.

B vitamins – Stress depletes our B vitamin stores and snacking on nuts helps replenish them. B vitamins keep our neurotransmitters in their ‘happy place’ and help us handle the fight-or-flight stress response. A couple of servings of potassium-rich pistachios a day, for example, can lower blood pressure and reduce the strain stress puts on our heart.

Vitamin C rich foods – Red peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwifruit, broccoli, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peas, and papayas. Diets loaded with Vitamin-C-rich foods lower cortisol and help people cope. They also strengthen immunity.

Eat Omega 3’s found in salmon, mackerel, sardines. In a study in ‘Brain, Behaviour and Immunity’, people who took a daily omega-3 supplement (containing DHA and EPA) for 12 weeks reduced their anxiety by 20 percent… check out my recipe for Mackerel Pate!

Drink herbal teas like chamomile, peppermint or ginger can be wonderfully soothing to the digestive tract, which can help with stress by calming the nervous system in your gut.

Indulge in Dark Chocolatesmall amounts can be beneficial. Dark chocolate releases a neurotransmitter in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking – these are stimulants that increase adrenaline in the body, the very hormone you are looking to reduce.

Finally,…. remember to smile and laugh, this is a great way to release tension and stress!


Resources: http://www.life-enhancement.com, www.mind.com, Carlson N. R. (2004). Physiology of behavior, 8th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon