We all know how it feels to be stressed. Whether it’s looming deadlines, the stress of raising a family, or the uncertainty of the current pandemic, stress sneaks into all of our daily lives.
Navigating life during the pandemic has been stressful, to say the least. With things beginning to look like they’re returning to some form of normality (bar the vaccine passports and social distancing), life is about to get a lot busier for most of us.
Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond excited to get back to some form of normality. Having not seen my family in almost a year, been in a restaurant for months, or gone travelling in what seems like a lifetime, I am counting down the days until restrictions are eased. However, the introverted portion of me has grown somewhat accustomed to spending 99% of my time at home. I have my routine down to the “T”.
Naturally, I am quite a high-wired individual who is guilty of filling every second of her day and forgetting to take the time to relax and focus on self-care. This last year, for the first time in my life, I had the time to focus on doing the things I love, such as writing, creating a solid morning routine, taking up new hobbies, and even finding the time to exercise regularly. Coincidently, my health has been the best it’s ever been. My irritable bowel disease (IBS) symptoms have nearly vanished, my hormones are balanced, I’m sleeping like a baby, and I’m the fittest I’ve ever been.
The running theme? – I’m less stressed.
Stress can creep into our lives in many forms, including psychological, emotional, dietary, physical, life and even technological stress. Everyday stress triggers can include:
- Getting too much exercise (especially cardio)
- Having too much sugar & flour in your diet
- Lack of sleep
- Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol
- Too much electronic stimulation or time on devices
- Having toxic people in your life
Who here is guilty of doing one or more of the things listed above, over the last week ? – I know I am.
These things alone might not seem like they’d have much of an impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. Still, most of us encounter hundreds of these mini stressors every single day, and together they can join forces to throw your body balance out of whack and into a stress state.
If you are struggling with insomnia, menstrual irregularities, increased weight gain, decreased libido, digestive issues, acne, or frequently getting sick, the root cause of all your problems might be your stress levels.
Stress isn’t all bad
A small amount of stress is a good thing, but in the 21st century, we are surrounded by stress triggers that we haven’t evolved to cope with.
The stress state was evolved for good, not evil. It was created to help our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive life-threatening or dangerous situations, such as being chased by a predator. This is why the stress state is often referred to as the “fight or flight” mode. It says what it does on the tin.
Say a lion is chasing you. On-site of this danger, your stress hormones would kick into action a series of processes in the body designed to give you your best chance of survival. This fundamental survival mechanism enhances both your physical and mental performance to help you tackle the looming threat.
These effects are the phenomenal creations of evolution. But they’ve been designed to work for us only over short periods, as we were dealing with an immediate threat, whether it was from a dinosaur or an aggressive human being. Unfortunately, modern society involves being constantly surrounded by stress triggers that we haven’t evolved to cope with. As a result, our stress state is continually active, meaning we spend more time in a stress state than a thrive state (where our bodies are internally balanced).
Healthy Stress Response and Their Dangerous Long-Term Effects
|Healthy short-term stress response||Long-term harmful effects|
|Raised blood pressure in the short term helps transport more blood to the brain.||Chronic high blood pressure increases the risk of many diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.|
|Increased blood clotting will help save your life if you have a bleeding wound, as the bleeding will stop more quickly||Long-term tendency for the blood clot will increase the risk of having a stroke, heart attack or DVT (deep vein thrombosis)|
|Increased insulin resistance in the short term means that your body won’t store any sugar in your liver and muscle cells. It will result in more sugar staying in your bloodstream, which means that more will be available for the brain||Long-term insulin resistance contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and the production of harmful types of cholesterol, like VDL|
|The body’s resources are directed at making the stress hormone cortisol to help deal with the immediate threat, at the expense of the production of sex steroid hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone||Long-term diversion of resources to make cortisol will lead to hormonal imbalance and contribute to a wide variety of hormonal issues such as lack of libido and menopausal symptoms|
|The body’s resources are directed away from digestion, as this is a non-essential function for survival at that moment.||If attention is diverted away from digestion for too long, digestive complaints will result, such as constipation bloating, indigestion and IBS|
|Small amounts of cortisol improve our brain function, which allows it to function better in a short, stressful situation e.g. being attacked by an animal, or even. or even perform well in an exam||Prolonged release of cortisol starts to kill nerve cells in the hippocampus (the brain’s memory centre) and may increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimers|
|The emotional brain being on high alert to look out for threats is a very good thing if you are in danger||If this becomes long-term, it will make you more prone to anxiety, as you start to worry about everything and see danger when no danger is present|
|Short-term inflammation is the result of your immune system firing up to help you deal with the threat and prepares you to recover quickly in case you have a wound that becomes infected||Inflammation that becomes chronic and unresolved increases your risk of most modern chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and many cases of depression|
Therefore, minimising our stress levels, for good, requires a multifactorial approach to tackle the root cause of your stress. The goal is to teach your body that it is safe and not under threat and that it requires nourishing our mind, body and soul.
Even if you’re not feeling too stressed right now, the imminent return to “normality” will mean that we’ll all have less time on our hands, and I can guarantee that a heightened level of stress will be sure to follow. To prevent this from happening and to ensure we all continue to prioritise our mental and physical wellbeing, I have formulated a list of my top tips for battling stress levels.
Eat yourself happy
When we are stressed, our body enters into survival mode as it assumes it is in danger. In doing so, chronic stress can trigger calorie accumulation and fat storage, which tends to go straight to our belly (abdominal fat storage unit). Our bodies enter into a vicious cycle of stress and fat storage, looking a little like this:
- When you have chronic stress, your body increases its production of steroids and insulin, which…
- Increases your appetite, which…
- 3. Increases the chance you’ll engage in hedonistic eating in the form of high-calorie sweets and fats, which…
- It makes you store more fat, especially in the omentum, which…
- Pumps more fat and inflammatory chemicals into the liver, which…
- Creates a resistance to insulin, which…
- It makes your pancreas secrete more insulin to compensate, which…
- It makes you hungrier than a muzzled wolf, which…
- Continues the cycle of eating because you’re stressed and being stressed because you’re eating.
Therefore, excess weight around your waist is not only a sign of how balanced your lifestyle is but can be used as your gauge of the size of your stress.
The best thing to do is reset your system and break this vicious cycle. To do this, try focusing on your diet.
Eliminate foods and beverages that heighten your stress levels. These include:
- Excess Caffeine
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Processed Carbohydrates
Incorporate stress-busting foods:
- Complex Carbohydrates
- Dark Chocolate
- Fatty Fish
- Citrus Fruits & Strawberries
- Probiotic Containing Foods
- Foods high in fibre
- Herbal Teas
Make exercise work for you.
Exercise is often considered a stress-busting activity. However, over-exercising can wreak havoc on your internal stress levels. Too much sweat and panting can drive up inflammation, put your immune system on high alert and cause your body more stress. As such, it has been documented in multiple studies that disordered menstrual cycles are present in 48% to 79% of women who exercise three hours a week or more, even if they are menstruating. Over-exercising was one of the factors that caused me to develop hypothalamic amenorrhea. It was only when I adjusted the type and quantity of exercise I was doing did I regain my period and reap the health benefits that come with exercising.
Paradoxically, if you’re getting the right intensity and the correct dose, working out can be a phenomenal antidote to stress. It does this by:
Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobic to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. How does it do this?
- It pumps up your endorphins
- It reduces the adverse effects of stress
- It’s meditation in motion
- It improves your mood
Just ensure you are doing a form of exercise that you love and that you are fuelling your body with the energy it requires to power through your workouts.
Prioritise your sleep
Getting enough sleep is paramount if you want to reduce your stress levels. The HPA axis (see above) also plays a role in modulating the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. When we expose ourselves to a lack of sleep, it expresses itself in the body as a stressor. Lack of sleep causes your adrenaline levels, noradrenaline and cortisol levels and markers of inflammation to skyrocket. This can impact our mental performance and have a significant effect on our eating habits. Raised stress levels increase insulin resistance, hunger levels and cause our satiety levels to plummet. As a result, we are hungrier and less satisfied when eating food, leading to binge eating and weight gain.
I suffered from insomnia for years, spending most of the night tossing and turning. What transformed my sleep quality was ensuring I spent a few hours before bed winding now. Avoiding technology minimised my blue-light exposure and thus protected my melatonin levels. I also tried to not eat food two hours before I went to sleep, practised some breathing exercises, and read before bed. Also, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Reset your rhythm
Considering our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle (your circadian rhythm), many of us have become entirely out of sync with this natural biological clock during months of lockdown. With no early commutes or reasons to go to bed early, many of us wake up later and binging Netflix until the early hours.
Being out of rhythm with your circadian rhythm can have some severe consequences for your health. I’m going to dedicate a whole article to this later this month.
Avoid Environmental Toxins
As discussed last week, environmental toxins can heighten your bodies internal stress levels and have some serious long-term health consequences. If you’d like to learn how you can minimise your exposure to environmental toxins in your daily life, check out my previous article here.
Time for a digital detox
We all spend way too much time on electronic devices. Whether it’s mindlessly scrolling through social media for hours or getting lost in video games, many of us haven’t gone a day for years without picking up an electrical device. It is well known that electronic devices emit blue light, which, when exposed to during dark hours, can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm.
What’s more, social media can have some severe effects on our mental wellbeing. If not used correctly, social media can be a very toxic environment, exposing an individual to a fake sense of reality. Maybe you see a friend who’s achieving more than you, someone who’s got washboard abs or is in a sunnier location than you. It’s easy to forget that social media is a highly posed environment where everyone posts their best selves. Instead, we often compare ourselves to the images we see and become stressed that we are not doing enough.
Try taking a day a week where you completely switch off and take a mini digital holiday. Make a promise to yourself that you’ll refrain from going on social media, binging Netflix or playing video games and instead spend the day doing something more productive. It’s crazy the effect this can have on your mentality, as well as your productivity levels. I recently took the initiative to switch off on Sundays and instead spent time immersing myself in nature, getting organised for the week ahead and being creative.
Bathe yourself in nature
I don’t know about you, but I feel my calmest when surrounded by nature and animals. It might have something to do with the fact that I grew up on a farm, where there was no city pollution, and I could walk outside and see and hear nothing other than mother nature.
Have you ever heard of forest bathing?
Put simply; forest bathing is about spending time among trees. One study of 280 people found that time among trees leads to lower cortisol levels, reduced pulse rate and lower blood pressure. Another found that phytoncides, an essential oil emitted by trees, can reduce stress levels, increase sleep quality, improve mood and wellbeing, lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety and increase heart-rate variability. So, tree-hugging doesn’t sound that crazy after all?!
Practice Calming Habits
There are three main calming habits I love to perform daily which help to combat my stress levels:
Our brain is constantly active, taking in information from the world around us and causing our body to respond accordingly. Therefore, the environment we exposure our brain to determines how stressed we are.
Saying daily mindfulness affirmations is a fantastic way to feed your brain with positive information, program it for success. I’ve found that repeating a couple of affirmations every morning sets me up for a calm and stress-free day.
We all have a choice on how we interpret a stressful situation. You probably know someone who always looks at things from an opposing point of view. Maybe that person is you. Why does this always happen to me? Just my luck!
The problem with this kind of negative thinking pattern is that it can significantly increase your stress levels and be self-fulfilling. Bad things happen to us, but how we choose to perceive this situation is entirely up to us.
Being self-aware of your negative thoughts and stress-inducing pattern of thinking is vital. From there, you can begin to challenge these thoughts and reframe them into more positive thoughts. For example, “why is this bus so slow” to “I’ve been able to read an extra chapter of my book today”.
Ruminating about all the negative things in your life can be incredibly damaging. We often forget to stop and think of all the positive things in our lives and instead focus solely on the negativities.
Gratitude is a solid strategy to help minimise the stress in our lives. Studies have shown that incorporating gratitude exercises into your life can lower cortisol levels and, therefore, stress. Try writing in your journal what you’re grateful for or saying them out loud before you sit down for dinner.
Schedule your time
If you feel like time is constantly running away with you and that there’s not enough time in the day to do the important things, let alone the things you love, try scheduling out your days, weeks and months. Trust me, it works.
If you wake up without a plan for the day, chances are you will begin stressing about your mammoth to-do list, and your productivity levels will fall through the floor.
Ask Yourself These Three Questions:
Which activity would you like to spend more time doing, something you feel you can’t find time for in your daily life?
What are the three most important things you want to get done on any given day that would make you feel like you have won the day?
Which person (or persons) would you like to spend more time with than you currently do?
After you’ve written down the answer, schedule time to incorporate these three things into your daily routine.
Adapted from “The Stress Solution” by Dr Rangan Chatterjee
Meditation is one of the best stress-busting practices that you can incorporate into your daily life. Research has shown that meditation can drastically reduce peoples stress levels. It can give you a sense of calm, peace and balance that can benefit both your emotional well-being and your overall health. There’s a misconception that to meditate you have to be sat cross-legged in a quiet room. In reality, meditation can be practised anywhere – whether you’re out for a walk, riding a bus, or even in the middle of a difficult business meeting. The key is to focus your attention (e.g. on your breathing) and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing you stress.
De-Clutter your life
De-cluttering your life, both figuratively and literally, can transform your mental wellbeing. Many of us carry around a lot of baggage that can drag us down. By decluttering both your house, as well as your lives, it can leave more room for the things you love. Go through your closet and ask yourself, do I really need this? If the answers no, either sell the item or give it to charity. Repeat this for all areas of your house and soon it will feel like a weight has been lifted.
The bottom line
It is impossible to completely avoid stress but we can all take active steps to minimise our exposure from one day to the next.
Even if you incorporate one thing for your body and one for your mind from the list above into your daily routine, I can guarantee you’ll calmer and be less stressed in days.
I hope this helped some of you.