Stress is something most of us deal with on a pretty common basis—but common is not necessarily good or healthy. Though stress is increasingly viewed as “just a fact of life,” there are some very real (and harmful) cumulative effects of too much stress.
… But that’s not to say all stress is bad.
WHY STRESS IS (SOMETIMES) HEALTHY The reason we get stressed is actually activation of hardwired survival techniques (like your “fight or flight” response), which mobilize you to take action and avoid danger when necessary. Your body has a very effective system for turning initial alarm (like seeing a bear) into the release of specific hormones that trigger physiological changes that in turn provide you an increased physical ability to run or defend yourself, as needed.
So, your body’s stress response is perfectly healthy and helpful in real emergencies. The challenge is: in our modern lives our nervous system can’t tell the difference between real danger (e.g. a sabertooth tiger chasing you) and perceived danger (e.g. a big presentation at work tomorrow).
Thus, our modern lifestyles often result in very frequent stress triggers, and an almost constant state of heightened biochemical “stress.”
HOW STRESS IMPACTS YOUR HEALTH Though stress tends to be viewed as a mental concern more than a physical one, there are actually many ways chronic (aka long-lasting) stress negatively impacts the body physically. Extended release of stress hormones contributes to:
Decreased immunity and ability to fight off or heal from illness
Stomach cramps, reflux and nausea
Increased blood pressure, heart rate and risk of heart disease
Mood issues, including anger and depression
Fatigue and trouble sleeping
Loss of libido and reduced fertility
Increased fat storage and disrupted hunger cues
HOW TO REDUCE STRESS NATURALLY Though there may not be much we can do to remove the underlying causes of modern stress without all quitting our jobs and moving out to the country, there are (fortunately!) many effective methods to reduce our experience of stress and improve our ability to cope with it:
SLEEP WELL First of all, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Quality sleep is an essential part of overall physical and mental health, and it’s particularly essential for building the resiliency needed to manage stress.
Not getting enough sleep (whether from sleeping poorly or not reserving enough time in your schedule for sleep) is one of the quickest ways to amplify your experience of stress while also decreasing your natural ability to cope with it.
Unfortunately, people who are chronically stressed often have a tough time sleeping well—either trouble falling asleep (due to trouble quieting the mind) and/or trouble staying asleep (waking in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep). Waking in the middle of the night is typically caused by too much cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in the bloodstream. Cortisol levels naturally peak in the morning to wake us up, but too much can lead to an early peak and premature wake-up call. (The solution is to remove excess cortisol from your bloodstream in other ways—which we’ll get into below.)
STAY ACTIVE Moving around in some way each and every day is not just part of a physically healthy lifestyle, but also a mentally healthy lifestyle. Regular moderate physical activity (like walking 10,000 steps a day) helps to combat stress. And, sweating via exercise is one of the most effective methods of removing excess cortisol from your bloodstream. 👍
KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL We’re big fans of practicing gratitude for its many mental and physical health benefits—and stress relief is definitely one of those. The practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal and listing things you’re grateful for each morning and/or evening can have a profound impact on overall stress levels (and can help you sleep better too!).
PRACTICE MINDFULNESS Mindfulness (or mindfulness meditation) is sometimes thought of as a solution for stress—if you’re stressed, pull up your Headspace app and meditate for 10 minutes. While this is certainly a lovely thing to do during stressful times, mindfulness actually works even better as a preventive tool.
A regular mindfulness practice (even just five minutes a day) when you’re not already stressed can do wonders in keeping your stress levels down and improving your resilience when stressful times do come around.
EAT WELL We’re learning more and more about how the food we eat impacts our mental health, including our ability to manage and cope with stress. But the science is clear: maintaining a healthy, balanced diet full of fresh real foods and limiting inflammatory foods (like sugar, sorry!) can help give your body and mind the best fighting chance to handle tough times.
HAVE FUN! All work and no play makes anyone stressed out eventually! In our fast-paced, busy lifestyles we can sometimes forget to have fun and enjoy ourselves too. Whether it’s playing with your dog, taking a dance class, or reserving time in your schedule to watch your favorite TV show, make sure you’re taking time each day to have fun too.
AND IF YOU NEED A LITTLE MORE… The items above are general lifestyle habits that can help to cultivate a lower-stress daily life, as well as boost your resilience for handling any stress as it arises.
However, sometimes high anxiety pops up and we need a quicker fix to calm things down. In those cases, here are some additional strategies that can help:
This is a simple grounding technique for periods of high anxiety. If you’re feeling anxious or worried, you can bring your focus back to the present moment by noticing the following around you:
5 things you can see
4 things you can feel
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
LEGS UP THE WALL “Legs up the wall” is actually a yoga pose called viparita karani (“inverted in action” in Sanskrit). Just like it sounds, you lay on your back with your legs propped up against a wall.
It might sound or look a little funny, but this is a powerful stress-relieving pose. Find a place to lay on your back next to an open wall (laying on your bed works too if it's against a wall). Get your butt right up against the wall and walk your legs up the wall until they're straight. Get comfortable—you can use a pillow underneath your head if you'd like. Stay in this position for 5-20 minutes. This is also a great time to relax, meditate, practice gratitude, or another form of self-care!
MINDFULNESS COLORING BOOK Mindfulness coloring books have become pretty popular recently, and for good reason. They work by helping your brain get into a meditative state (like meditation!). This is helpful not just for overall brain health, but also for relieving stress or anxiety (which it does by calming your mind and bringing it into the present moment—anxiety lives in the future, so keeping your mind in the present is one of the best ways to reduce stress).
FOUR WELLNESS TIP Try the tips above for reducing stress in your daily life (& building resiliency for the stress that does come along).
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Stephenson, M. (2020, April 01). 9 Ways to Reduce Stress (& Why You Need Them) // Four Wellness Co. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://fourwellness.co/blog/9-ways-to-reduce-stress-why-you-need-them
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© 2020 Diet Center of Grand Island Inc.