We all have stress and stressors in our life. Although stress has a negative connotation, it’s actually not inherently bad. Stress challenges you. It makes you tougher and more resilient to adversity. It helps you grow stronger and, hopefully, provides an opportunity to learn. This is true of both psychological (mental) stress and physiological (physical) stress.
However, stress needs to be handled properly; when external stress becomes internal, it affects the body. Prolonged, uninterrupted exposure to stress gradually erodes the immune system, inhibits the body’s detoxification processes, and makes it difficult to experience good health. Even generalized stress, like worry that nags at the back of your mind, has the same hormonal, neural, and physical effects on the body.
When Psychological Stress Becomes Physiological
Stress produces a physiological response—your heart races, your face and body feel hot, you sweat, and your breathing may become shallow and fast. Inside your body, your muscles tense and prepare to act. Your blood pressure increases, your pupils dilate, and you become hyperaware of your surroundings. This phenomenon is called the fight-or-flight response, and it’s an evolutionary advancement that developed to help you survive when your life is at risk. Although the stressors of modern humans look less like wolves and more like an overstuffed agenda or an upset client, your body still responds to these situations as if they come with claws. When stress is excessive or constant, it pushes the fight-or-flight response to be on all the time; that overactive state can negatively affect your physical health.
How Stress Management Affects Your Health
Your mental state, mood, productivity, and health are all affected by routine exposure to excess stress and anxiety. It can lead to an imbalanced immune system and set the stage for the development of many chronic diseases. Thus, it stands to reason that when you find effective ways to manage stress, not only will you improve your standard of living, you’ll reduce the negative effects of stress on your health. Let’s look at a few of the health benefits of effective stress management.
Preserves DNA Integrity
Telomeres are the stretches of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes from degradation—similar to the cap on the end of a shoelace. Effective stress management helps you maintain the length of your telomeres and protects the integrity of your DNA. Although telomere shortening is a normal part of aging, stress accelerates the process.People who are constantly stressed out, or who had stressful childhoods, have even more exaggerated shortening. You might be 35, but an excessively stressful life could cause you to have the telomere length of someone much older.
Encourages a Healthy Diet and Lifestyle
When you’re not stressed out, you’re better able to plan for a healthy lifestyle and carry out those plans. For example, if all your mental energy is spent worrying about a house repair, it’s easy to forget to pack a healthy lunch and put yourself in a position where the only convenient option is unhealthy food. It doesn’t stop there; people who are chronically stressed tend to be more reactive than proactive and engage in unhealthy habits like overeating, drinking, smoking, avoiding physical activity, and not sleeping enough. The effects of unhealthy habits compound quickly and encourage even more stress.
Promotes Weight Maintenance
If you’re trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight, stress management needs to be at the top of your mind. Cortisol levels rise with stress and increase insulin levels and cause blood sugar to drop. This is the catalyst that sets off your appetite and produces cravings for unhealthy food. Long-term stress often leads to weight gain since the more stressed you feel, the more likely you are to overeat.
Benefits Cardiovascular Health
Effective stress management has the potential to impact cardiovascular health in two ways. First, many activities that reduce your physical response to stress—such as exercise—are, in their own right, an important part of maintaining heart and blood vessel health. Additionally, stress can elevate blood pressure and heart rate; this degrades cardiovascular health in such a way that stroke or heart attack become real possibilities. Managing stress can help you avoid some of those risks.
Supports Digestive Health
Maintaining a calm nervous system is essential for proper digestion. When the fight-or-flight response activates, it halts all nonessential, energy-intensive processes, including the rest-and-digest response. Not only is digestion one of these processes, acid reflux, ulcers, diarrhea, and constipation are common effects of stress on the digestive system.
Promotes Normal Immune System Health
Stress puts the immune system on high alert. When the immune system is on edge, its normal operation is disrupted and it’s unable to fully focus where it’s needed most. Studies related to wound healing reveal that psychological stress impedes the body’s ability to repair itself.
How to Manage Stress
It may be possible to reduce the amount of stress in your life, but it’s really difficult to eliminate stress entirely; that’s why regularly managing stress is so important. Different stress management techniques work differently for different people. For you, it may mean making time to do the things you enjoy, exercising, getting enough sleep, or taking regular breaks. Let’s look at a few of the most effective ways you can manage or circumvent stress before it starts.
With good time management skills, there’s a lot you can accomplish in a day. But, be mindful of your capabilities. A jam-packed schedule may look ambitious but if completion isn’t realistic, you’re only setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. When you’re planning and prioritizing, give yourself realistic time frames and plan breaks to collect your thoughts and prepare for your next commitment. Add a buffer to your plans so unexpected setbacks don’t derail your schedule.
Take a Break
Working lunches have become the norm in offices everywhere. Although the effort to stay productive is well-intentioned, sometimes it’s better to step away. Your brain needs an occasional break and trying to power through mental exhaustion only hurts performance. Taking a break to refocus and recharge is key to dealing with life’s daily stresses.
Exercise is the most underutilized stress reliever. Many people complain about not having time to exercise, but what they usually mean is that they’re too exhausted to exercise. Ironically, working out helps you feel more energized because it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Not only will regular exercise provide an amazing outlet to “burn stress” like it’s extra calories, but it’ll also help you sleep better.
Meditation has been practiced in the East for millennia and offers real, measurable benefits. Comparing MRIs and PET scans of people who meditate regularly to people who don’t shows a remarkable difference in their brains. Meditators have more gray matter in the hippocampus—the area of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system. Many meditation techniques relieve stress, help you control your emotions and thoughts, tune out distractions, and improve your memory and ability to think. It’s also my favorite way to relieve stress. Try it!
Deep Breathing Exercises
Feeling stressed can lead to shallow breathing. Not only does shallow breathing restrict you of the very oxygen you need most, but it also feeds the stress response and makes it worse. Deep breathing exercises are an excellent way to hit the reset button on your breathing and relieve feelings of anxiety. When you’re feeling stressed, take a deep breath, inhaling through your nose. At the top of your inhale, leave your throat open and continue to inhale just a little deeper for a second or two. Then, slowly exhale to the count of eight. Repeat this nine times, elongating the duration of your inhales and exhales as you continue.
Cultivate a Healthy Gut
Some probiotics help regulate the response to fear and anxiety. In fact, people who have a healthy, diverse gut microbiota appear to be more resistant to some of the negative health consequences of stress. You can cultivate a strong, robust community of bacteria by incorporating fermented, probiotic-rich food, such as kombucha, into your diet. Alternately, a daily probiotic supplement can provide a steady supply of probiotics—think of it as a multivitamin for your gut. I recommend FloraTrex™. It features a diverse range of health-boosting probiotics to help keep your gut in balance.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is essential to cognitive function. Too little sleep worsens stress by affecting memory and the ability to focus. There’s really no question about it—a good night’s rest is the best way to reduce the feelings and physical toll of stress. To fall asleep more easily, wind down a few hours before bed. Put your devices away and turn off the television. Treat yourself to an herbal tea and meditate to ready your mind and body for a good night’s rest. Sometimes, despite best efforts, sleepless nights happen. When I’m feeling a little short on sleep, I find that NeuroFuzion® helps keep me alert and in good spirits.
Take a Mental Health Day
Taking a day to rejuvenate your mental and physical well-being can be instrumental in achieving mental and emotional balance. Sometimes a recharge is all you need to be a better, more productive person. Schedule and plan for longer vacations, too. If you can, consider leaving the country and experiencing other parts of the world; one study found that vacationers who traveled abroad came back happier.
How to Curate a Tranquil Environment
Performing stress management techniques in a tranquil environment of your own can amplify their benefits. There are many ways to curate a comfortable, soothing space. Here are my top recommendations:
- Let in as much natural light as possible. Harsh, inadequate, or irritating lighting can exacerbate stress levels.
- Surround yourself with plants, even a simple succulent or lucky bamboo on your desk will do. Adding a little greenery to your surroundings helps relieve stress.
- If noise is an issue, get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to shut it out. Play relaxing music or white noise to de-stress.
- Aromatherapy is an effective means of reducing mental stress. Add a few drops of essential oil of bergamot, lemon balm, lavender, or sage to your humidifier. If you don’t have a humidifier, rub a drop between your hands and inhale.
Sustainable Changes for Stress Management
Incorporate stress management techniques into your day, every day; view it with the same importance as eating. Don’t wait until things pile up and you feel overwhelmed. One of the best ways to be proactive is to identify a few areas for change and commit yourself to improving. If you don’t get enough sleep, be honest with yourself about what’s standing in your way and change it. If you don’t get any exercise, start by taking an evening walk in your neighborhood. Do a little every day to build the momentum that will serve you well over the long-term.
How have you alleviated stress in your life? Leave a comment below and share your tips and insight with us.
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
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