At the most basic level, stress is a disturbance homeostasis, disruption in your body’s ability to regulate its inner environment. Although some stress is good and productive, when the body loses the ability to recover and regain homeostasis, symptoms appear and disease occurs.
Most are aware of the obvious forms of stress that affects your life - impossibly full schedules, driving in traffic, financial problems, arguments with a spouse, losing a job and many of the other emotional and psychological challenges of modern living.
Other factors not commonly considered when people think of ‘stress’ place just as much of a burden on the body’s stress management system. These include blood sugar swings, gut dysfunction, food intolerances (especially gluten), chronic infections, environmental toxins, autoimmune problems, inflammation and overtraining. These conditions can be alarming for the body causing it to pump out more stress hormones.
Unfortunately, as pervasive as stress is, many people do very little to mitigate its harmful effects. Today’s world has made it easier to make dietary changes and pop some pills (whether pharmaceuticals or supplements) than to manage your stress. Stress management goes against learned patterns of belief and behavior that are difficult to change.
No matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you are unable to manage your stress you will still be at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity. Stress management is absolutely crucial to optimal health and longevity.
Stress can manifest in many ways, both physiological and psychological including:
- Decreased immunity
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
- Mood swings
- Sugar and caffeine cravings
- Irritability or light headedness between meals
- Eating to relieve fatigue
- Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
- Digestive distress
Stress also has the ability to harm the body in every way imaginable. Stress can
- Raise your blood sugar
- Weaken your immune system
- Promote leaky gut
- Makes you hungry and increase sugar cravings
- Reduce your ability to burn fat
- Contribute to hormonal imbalances
- Increase your belly fat and makes your liver fatty
- Cause depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
- Contribute to cardiovascular disease
Certainly you have witnessed at least a few of the negative effects of stress firsthand, every day of your life. So the question becomes what do you do about it?
There are two different approaches to reducing the impact of stress, and both are important:
- Reducing the amount of stress you experience
Reducing stress means just what it sounds like: reducing your total exposure to all forms of stress, whether psychological or physiological. It is impossible to completely remove stress from your life, but even in the most stressful of circumstances, it is still possible to reduce stress.
Avoiding unnecessary stress may seem obvious, but in reality it is not. It is easy to overlook habitual patterns of thought and behavior that cause unnecessary stress above and beyond the stress you cannot avoid. Avoiding stress can include:
- Saying no.
Know your limits, and refuse to take on projects or commitments you are unable handle.
- Avoid those who stress you out.
We all have those people in our lives – the folks seeking drama, conflict and negativity, the people who are constantly taking and never giving. Limit your time with these people or avoid them entirely.
- Turning off.
If watching or hearing about the world go up in flames stresses you out, limit your exposure to the news. You can still find out what is going on around you, and will still be able to act as a concerned citizen, but will have more time for yourself. This way you get to choose what you are exposed to.
- Giving up pointless arguments.
The online world has become a great place for useless debating. There is obviously a place for discussion and debate, and working towards change, but most arguments tend to have the opposite effect in that each side becomes more defended and entrenched in their worldview. Find other ways to get your point across, learn to listen with empathy, and stop wasting precious time and energy trying to convert people to your way of thinking.
Each day spend some time in the morning really considering what needs to be done that day. Drop unimportant tasks to the bottom of your list. Better yet, cross them off entirely. If they are unimportant, they will not be missed.
You might want to investigate and address any physiological problems that are creating stress physically and emotionally. These causes include anemia, blood sugar swings, gut inflammation, food intolerances (especially gluten), essential fatty acid deficiencies and environmental toxins. If you struggle with one or more of these conditions, it is advisable to seek the advice of a skilled practitioner.
- Mitigating the effects of the stress you cannot avoid.
Obviously there are times when stress us unavoidable - a high-stress job, caring for an ailing parent, or difficulty with our partner or spouse to name a few. In these situations it becomes about reducing the harmful effects of the stress rather than removing the stress itself. Some actions and behaviours to mitigate the stress response can include:
- Phoning a friend.
Whether you want someone to advise, distract, make you laugh, or just listen, connect with someone who knows you and cares. If the time to talk immediately is not available, make a date to talk in the future.
- Blowing off steam.
If stress is pressure, avoid becoming the pressure cooker. Create (even a tiny) stress release. Yell or play loud music in your car; run, walk or dance; chop some vegetables or shred some papers. Scribble on paper or vent.
- Changing your scenery.
Get a new mental and physical perspective, even if only temporarily. Leave the room. Sit in a different chair. If you have stress rituals (like visiting the vending machine at a certain time), shake things up, take a different route and avoid the familiar (and habit-filled) routine if you can.
- Relaxing and stretching.
Stress builds up in your body and then creates more stress and discomfort. If you changing your life (or the next hour) seem overwhelming or impossible, you can still be kind to yourself and stretch out your neck or your back. Try to create a little comfort.
Sometimes stress and overload lead to the belief that you cannot ‘afford’ to stop, that you need to keep working harder and harder. Give yourself permission to take a break, even if it is just a minute or two. If you can’t go for a walk, go to the bathroom. Google images of tropical beaches, get a glass of water or brew some tea.
Untangle your feelings, check in with yourself, and decompress. Try writing for ten minutes at the beginning or end of your day. You will become more likely to understand some of your triggers and create the opportunity to think about what you might do instead.
Give yourself permission to throw reason, logic, and good manners out the window. Go someplace private (cars are good for this) and let loose. Get mad, be frustrated, stop being reasonable. Have a tantrum or a good cleansing cry. Put words to your feelings instead of trying to bury them.
Stress is exhausting. Getting at least 7½ hours of sleep a night will go a long way to allowing your body and mind to recover, and rest. You will become be more productive and better able to focus. Successful people guard their sleep!
- Making a list.
Instead of stressing and worrying, try boosting your effectiveness. Identify your top three priorities or action items for the day and one lovely or kind thing you will do just for you. If you find yourself making the list later in the day, start with the one lovely thing.
It is physically impossible to grow more stressed and more relaxed simultaneously. When you start relaxing, even just a little, you reverse the cycle of growing more and more stressed or anxious. Focus on your breath for just sixty seconds or put your hand on your heart and breathe. Focus on your heartbeat. Small, short centering breaks like this can help you break vicious cycles and be more mindful and relaxed.
Be grateful. Simply shifting your focus from what is not okay or not enough, to what you have and are grateful for or appreciative of can completely change your perspective, and relieve stress. Work at not allowing the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let good enough be good enough, and be grateful for it.
In addition to everything discussed, one of the most important things you can do to manage stress is to bring more pleasure, joy and fun into your life. Live in the moment and cultivate presence. Your body and your mind will thank you, and your life will become richer and more fulfilled. This may not mean stress-free, but you will definitely create a better environment to effectively manage what comes your way.