As most of us know by now, stress is a part of modern life. While there’s no way to avoid it completely, if it gets so bad that it affects your health, that’s a problem. Taking steps that will help you cope with it better will reduce the impact it has on your health and well-being.
The Stress Response and the Various Stages of Stress
Austria native Hans Hugo Bruno Selye was one of the most influential endocrinologists, renowned for his research on the effects of stress on the human body. In 1935, he developed the first theory about stress referred to as the “the general adaptation syndrome.” It states that stress is “a nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it,” and that the response can be broken up into three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion (as seen in the graphic below).
While this stress response is generally seen as beneficial, in today’s fast paced world with prolonged stress, it’s easy to end up in the exhaustion phase, suffering negative health consequences because of it.
The Negative Effects of Chronic Stress on Health
There are many negative effects that chronic stress can have on health. It’s been linked to:
- High blood pressure and heart disease
- Depressed immune system function
- Fatigue, anxiety and depression
- Irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues.
Coping with Stress, the Basics: Sleep, Physical Activity, Mindfulness
The good news if you’re dealing with a lot of stress is that everyone has the ability to cope with it for a period of time. Your best option is to take steps to consciously manage it, reducing the negative effects.
Just some of the things you can do include the following.
Aim to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. When you don’t get enough sleep, levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol start to rise, just one of the reasons it’s important to make sleep a priority. If you struggle to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, make an effort to change that. You can create an environment more conducive to rest by shutting your laptop, tablet and/or phone off an hour before bedtime, as well as making sure all lights are shut off, including those tiny red or blue ones. If noise is a problem, wear ear plugs. Taking a warm bath, doing gentle stretches and/or deep breathing just before bedtime can help too.
Regular exercise. Exercise should also be a priority. If the thought of working out for long periods stresses you out or causes you to skip it altogether, consider doing it in shorter periods. Experts advise getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity in each day, but it can be done in smaller increments such as 10 minutes at a time.
Practice Mindfulness and Deep Breathing Techniques. Being mindful means focusing on the current moment, what’s happening now, rather than what might happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday, or last year. Concentrating on the now by practicing deep breathing has been scientifically proven to provide immediate stress relief. Try inhaling deeply for a slow count of five, holding your breath for another count of five and then slowly exhaling for five. Simply breathing and becoming more aware of your breath can go a long way in promoting a better mood.
Avoid sugar and stimulants like caffeine. Turning to sugary foods like candy bars or stimulants like coffee and energy drinks with caffeine can backfire. Caffeine not only impairs the body’s ability to handle sugar, it can raise stress hormone levels as WebMD notes.
A healthier diet. Consuming a more nutritious diet can help reduce the negative effects of stress on the body as it helps to build a solid foundation by lowering inflammation and oxidation as well as reducing potential weight gain. A diet based on lots of plant-based whole foods is a great way to increase antioxidant and micronutrient intake which helps to increase antioxidant levels in the blood, fighting to fight oxidative stress and reduce the risk of these diseases.
Key Supplements: Magnesium, Bs and Adaptogenic Herbs
Taking supplements can also be an important factor in easing stress, including the following:
Magnesium. Stress is actually one of the causes of a magnesium deficiency, and a lack of this important mineral can magnify the stress response. It’s used during times of stress, which means supplementing with it can help relieve anxiety, induce calm and prevent fatigue.
B vitamins. B vitamins help to maintain a healthy nervous system which is essential for fighting the effects of stress. They’re used when your body is in the “hyper” state, something that occurs when you’re under stress. Supplementing during those times of stress can help reduce fatigue.
Adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogenic herbs, like Korean Gingseng, Rhodiola and Withania are unique healing plants, natural substances that work with the body helping it to adapt, most notably to stress.
While our high-tech gadgets have become a necessity for modern life, being connected all the time, including to social media, has shown to increase exposure to chronic stress. Devices like our smartphones and laptops are constantly distracting us and disrupting sleep patterns. They also make it easier to allow work to creep into play time with the continuous need to check emails and the like. Being on social media all the time also leads to the “comparison trap.” While it used to be referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses,” these days it’s FOMO, or the fear of missing out on what peers and friends see, do and have, which can increase stress and damage both mental and physical health, which is why it’s important to unplug occasionally.
While it can be hard to break the habit, avoid checking your phone when you’re out with friends, making it a point to be fully present. Turn it on silent mode and turn off notifications to avoid getting disrupted throughout the day. Aim to provide yourself with disconnect time regularly, and perhaps set a goal of checking your phone every hour instead of every 15 or 30 minutes. After a few weeks of deliberate practice, you might increase that time to 90 or even 120 minutes. Schedule social media time and limit it so that you can get back to real life.