Chronic stress increases the risk of obesity, sleep problems, diabetes, headaches, anxiety and depression, heart disease, stroke, asthma, and digestive issues. Stress also taxes the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections.
Stress is the body’s natural response to different types of threats. When faced with danger, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. Adrenaline raises blood pressure and heart rate, and cortisol raises blood sugar levels to give you a “shot” of energy. This helps you think fast and get out of harm’s way.
The trouble is that your body can’t tell the difference between a deadline at work and a cougar staring you down on the hiking path; both situations cause a surge of stress hormones to course through your veins. And what gets you to safety in the case of the cougar can lead to problems when you’re constantly under-the-gun in your daily life.
Learning the Art of Unwinding
Stress is a part of life, but how you deal with it can determine how it affects you.
Exercise and have fun
Physical activity causes a release of “feel-good” chemicals from your brain, called endorphins. These substances lead to a type of euphoria (think runner’s high) and act as potent pain relievers. Besides the immediate benefits associated with an exercise session, working out can also help ease anxiety and depression and help you sleep better. What better way to kick your stress than with an all-natural, pain-busting, mood-booster?
A good belly laugh increases endorphins and enhances overall well-being much in the same way that exercise does. Laughing increases blood flow to your organs, releases tension from your muscles, and relaxes blood vessels. Next movie night, skip the boring documentary and go for the comedy.
Sleep deprivation and stress can team up in a vicious cycle. A stressful day can lead to a poor night’s sleep, which makes the next day’s stress seem even greater. And like stress, running on too little sleep taxes your immune system and increases the risk of overweight and obesity, depression, stroke, and heart attack.
On the flip side, getting enough ZZZs can help keep stress in check.
Most adults should get between eight and ten hours of sleep per night. Practice good sleep hygiene—like going to bed at the same time each night and keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom—for dependably restful nights.
It’s no secret that food influences mood. When it comes to stress, certain things can either escalate or ease the situation.
Your body needs B vitamins to make mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin. Food sources of B vitamins include whole grains, kale, collards, Swiss chard, meat, poultry, lentils, beans, bananas, cabbage, oranges, milk, potatoes, and fish. Some substances like birth control pills, caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications may deplete B-vitamin levels and worsen stress.
Sugar can also significantly worsen stress. The initial euphoria that comes from indulging your sweet tooth, followed by the familiar sugar “crash,” can leave you feeling worse than not eating at all.
When blood sugar levels drop, stress hormones are released into the blood steam. This causes common stress symptoms like racing heart, irritability, anxiety, and headache, and leads to further cravings for sugary foods. Besides these effects, sugar itself seems to worsen stress as well as suppress the immune system.
Remember to breathe
“When someone feels stress or anxiety, the breath moves from the belly to the chest and becomes shallow,” explains Terese Gregg, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Rhode Island. “Essentially, people hold their breath. This sends a message to the brain that we are in dire straits and initiates a “flight or fight” response. We may get crabby and lash out at whoever may be around, or we may go internal and try and hide, either with drink, food, or physically staying away from whatever we think is causing the alarm.”
Ms. Gregg suggests that people pay attention to their breathing when they start to feel stress mounting. “I explain it like drinking a glass of air so that it fills your belly. Breathe in through the nose and hold it for just a few seconds and then slowly let it out through the mouth. You can also picture your stress as a color. Visualize inhaling gold light and exhale the color of your stress. The breathing tells the brain to relax; you are in control. Managing stress instead of stress managing you is the goal.”
Give these products a try
For stress that makes it hard to sleep, try a cup of chamomile tea before bed. Herbalists have trusted chamomile for centuries to relieve anxiety and aid in restoring restful sleep.
For stress that leaves you tuckered out, give rhodiola a try. This herb has been shown to be effective at enhancing energy, mental performance, and concentration in people suffering from stress-related fatigue. Take rhodiola in the morning so it won’t interfere with sleep.
For upcoming stress, try short-term use of tyrosine (a day or two). This amino acid decreases when the body is under stress. Studies have shown that taking a supplement containing tyrosine can help offset this decline and preserve mental performance when taken before stressful events.
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