Feeling stressed is not nice. I think everyone can agree with that. And maybe you’d say that we’d be better off without stress – however that’s not entirely true. Acute stress is important and is the reason why we adapt. Exercise, for example, is an acute stressor, and as a result of it, your muscles will probably grow stronger. The real problem is chronic stress – when you are stressed for long periods of time. That’s when many of the negative side effects of stress start to accumulate.
The Damaging Effects of Chronic Stress
More and more people in modern society are being affected by the damaging effects of chronic stress. As a species we have become more impatient – we want things on demand – we want them now. And because of how addicted we’ve become to doing everything fast in as little time as possible (in order to get more things done) we become more and more stressed as we think about all the things we want to do within a given time frame.
Chronic stress has been connected to:
- Weight gain
- Insulin resistance
- Type 2 diabetes
- Increased blood pressure
- Raised heart rate
- Increased cortisol levels (stress hormone)
Chronic stress occurs when we allow everyday stressors whether that be the work assignment we’re dreading getting done, the workout we feel we have to do every day or trying to remember everything (especially for exams) build up and have a long term effect on our stress levels, usually indicated by prolonged levels of elevated cortisol (stress hormone).
Stress is a state of emotional or mental strain or tension arising from demanding circumstances. Whether something is stressful depends on how you perceive it.
There is such thing as positive stress. It is where there is enough stress to stimulate you to execute a task (such as study or work) without overbearing your mind with mental tension. It helps you to accomplish tasks without any negative side effects.
High levels of negative stress where there is simply too much mental tension for you to handle will result in anxiety, discomfort and will make you feel weak and probably decrease your athletic performance as well.
If you perceive getting to work on time as causing mental tension, then it will become stressful. However, if you aren’t so worried or the act of going to work doesn’t cause mental tension then getting to work on time likely won’t cause some of the damaging effects of chronic stress. I use this example because it is one that is likely to come up regularly within people’s daily lives, which is why it becomes a chronic stress factor.
Since stress is inevitable it is best you learn to deal with it. If you expect stress, it is likely to affect you less than if a stressful situation comes up immediately and you have little time to think or react to it. One example is knowing you have a deadline to meet two months beforehand rather than being told the deadline one week before the work is due in.
Real Situations vs Imagined Situations
Because stress is due to mental strain, then the way you perceive a situation can entirely affect whether you are stressed or not. If you perceive an encounter with a spider as stressful then simply thinking about it or anticipating an encounter with a spider can increase mental strain leading to a stressful situation.
This is because really when you break it down, stress is a thought. We have complete control over stress since it happens within us – not everyone is affected by the same factors and it is all down to how you perceive certain situations. Whether you perceive them as stressful and a mental strain or not.
Your brain is a powerful muscle and the way you think about and perceive stress actually changes the way stress affects and is expressed within your physiology so brace yourself for it.
It will come. You can’t avoid it. Only manage it.
10 Strategies To Reduce Chronic Stress
#1 – Exercise
Ironically, exercise is a stressor itself and stimulates sympathetic activity (fight or flight response). This leads to a release of stress hormone and stimulates other physiological responses within your body. However, exercise actually improves the body’s ability to adjust to stress. Furthermore, regular training helps to improve your stress tolerance!
#2 – Hugs For Everyone
Touch is a simple sensation which has been shown in several studies to cause positive physiological and biochemical effects within the body. These positive effects such as decreased blood pressure, reduced heart rate and lowered stress levels are one of the reasons you shouldn’t hesitate to hug someone you love if you feel stressed – it may help!
In fact, touch in the form of a massage helps to stimulate the vagus nerve which is responsible for the parasympathetic (relaxing response) supply to the stomach. Activation of the vagus nerve has been shown to increase immediately after a massage session.
#3 – Supplement
Stress can be caused from a cellular level in the form of oxidative stress. This is where substances react to oxidise other molecules within your body. This is often known as free radical damage.
Supplementation of the right vitamins and minerals which you may be deficient in will help to reduce oxidative stress by providing antioxidants to neutralise free radicals.
Nutrients which could improve your physiological response to stress include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B5 and B6
- Omega 3 fatty acids
#4 – Actively Relax
As humans, our brains are designed to want to make us active. That doesn’t necessarily mean physically active, but it means we have a task on our mind that we want to complete whether that means preparing dinner, completing a training session or finishing your work assignment.
As mentioned earlier, your brain is a powerful muscle. I’d easily argue it’s the most powerful muscle in your body because the way you think can dictate your physiological responses more than we realise.
Try engaging the brain on something not task related. Try relaxing…
This can be in the form of taking a stroll, deep breathing or meditation, but try to focus on calming yourself and relaxing. This can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which will help bring about relaxation.
#5 – Deep Breathing
Breathing is a powerful tool you can use to reduce stress and yet we do it every minute. Deep breathing can reduce stress by promoting relaxation. Here’s how to do it:
- Get yourself into a comfortable position
- Slowly breathe in through your nose, focusing on filling your belly with air
- Hold the air in your body for a few seconds
- Slowly breathe out through your mouth
- Repeat for between 4 and 8 cycles and several times throughout the day if needed
One suggestion for the deep breathing timing is to breathe in for 4 seconds; hold the air for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. Try it out and see what you think!
#6 – Meditation
Meditation is a great way to relax your body by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system which causes the relaxation response. Get yourself into a comfortable position and try to clear your mind for several minutes. Make sure you’re in a quiet place where you are undisturbed.
Meditation doesn’t have to be in silence. If you want you can try:
- Guided meditation tracks on Youtube
- Meditating in nature (bonus points for being outside)
- Listening to nature sounds such as raindrops or birds tweeting
Try to focus on calming yourself down, relaxing and purging your mind of negative thoughts.
#7 – Sleep
A lack of sleep can increase the release of cortisol, the stress hormone within the body. You can’t actually catch up on sleep for more than around 24 hours after, so if you need that nap, take a nap during the day. Your body will jump straight to the mode of sleep it was lacking the most to help optimise your body’s function.
Napping in itself actually helps to reduce cortisol levels which will aid the reduction of stress.
#8 – Laugh and Smile More
Smiling and laughing can reduce the effects of stress and fatigue on the body by changing your mood. Laughter, happiness and smiles are one of the best medicines around!
#9 – Try Aromatherapy
Scents from various herbs and plants such as lavender have been shown to consistently reduce stress levels. Personally, I always find it relaxing to breathe in various scents so I can certainly see it working.
#10 – Write Down Your Worries
If part of what is getting you stressed is your ‘to do list’ then writing down what you need to do on paper and any worries can help make your problems seem more manageable – like something you can deal with one problem at a time.
Keeping a journal can help to reduce stress due to the self-reflective and meditative effects that occur when recording how your days go and looking back upon them.
#11 – Avoid Alcohol
Unfortunately for those of you who like to enjoy a drink as a way of destressing, alcohol is not a great way to do it. It may put you in a more relaxed state, but from a physiological perspective, you’re probably worse off.
Alcohol is a huge stressor from the body since your body is incapable of storing alcohol (it needs to process and dispose of it immediately). It causes further stress by stimulating the sympathetic (fight or flight response) nervous system, causing a release in stress hormones (cortisol), increased blood pressure and raised heart rate.
Furthermore, by having the potential to reduce sleep quality, alcohol can raise anxiety and stress higher. A single drink has been shown to reduce sleep’s restorative properties.
How do you deal with stress? Were any of these suggestions helpful? Let me know down below! Please feel free to share this article if you found it useful!