“Gee, I love being stressed!”
- No one, ever.
We all deal with stress, it’s a normal part of life. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to manage. Many people simply ‘suck it up and get on with it’, but this has never been effective in the long run and can supress the root issue. Not only that, failing to deal with your stress as it occurs can lead to a gradual build up of unresolved tensions, which can then unleash itself in the form of irritability, sleeplessness, panic attacks or even in a mental breakdown all of which can take a toll on your physical and mental health. That said, you can see why managing stress is so important.
So, what exactly is stress?
Stress is a feeling of tension which can be both emotional and physical. It is the body’s way of responding to a challenge or threat, and can make us feel on edge, irritated, or enraged. A little bit of stress is okay and can actually be beneficial to us. It can help us to push through challenging workouts, towards work/study/personal goals and motivate us to keep our priorities in check.
Back in caveman times, surviving attacks from predators was our primary source of stress, and would trigger our fight or flight response. Ever felt a shot of adrenaline when you remember that task you forget to do at work or when you reach for your phone only to realise your back pocket is empty? That’s our fight or flight response, and it pertains to acute stress. This sudden surge of energy would help cavemen to either fight back against a predator or flee the scene as fast as possible.
Though times have clearly changed since then, the fight or flight response, which is a part of our sympathetic nervous system, is still very much a part of our physiology. The only difference are the stressors that trigger it, such as the two mentioned above.
Typical modern stressors include daily hassles (e.g. traffic, crying children, a build up of dirty dishes), work overload, financial difficulties, family problems and so much more. When stress becomes chronic from regular or prolonged activation of the fight or flight response, another physical reaction kicks in to help us cope causing a spike in cortisol. Cortisol is great for short-medium term stress support as it reduces inflammation, keeps us alert and makes sure we have plenty of glucose in our muscles to burn for quick energy. But when cortisol is elevated long term, it can impact our overall well-being. Chronic high cortisol impacts our sleep, metabolism, suppresses our immune system and makes us generally feel pretty average. Ever heard of the term ‘wired and tired’? This is how you feel when you have chronic high cortisol.
What’s interesting about stress however, is that it is not just triggered by obvious factors such as those listed above. In fact, sometimes we may not even realise our body is under stress! Examples of lesser known stressors include infection, extreme temperatures, overexercising, social media overload and even boredom.
There are a number of signs that indicate when our bodies are under stress, and they are as follows:
- Upset stomach
- Muscle tension
- Change in appetite
- Teeth grinding
- Change in libido
- Poor sleep
- Lack of energy
- Emotional instability
If you are experiencing any or all of the above, it could be due to stress. And if so, you’re not alone. As many as 35% of Australians report having a significant level of stress in their lives. In saying that, here are 10 different ways to help you manage your stress:
- Eat well. Eating a wholesome, wholefood diet will ensure you receive the nutrients you need for your body to function well. Good nutrition comes from a range of vegetables and leafy greens providing important B vitamins, fruits for their antioxidants, fatty fish for omega-3 fatty acids and at least 2 litres of water per day.
- Sleep. It is amazing what sleep can do. This is the time for your body to relax and repair. Getting 6-8 hours of sleep per night has shown to alleviate the stress response.
- Screen time. Blue light on our devices increases serotonin and dopamine, which are excitatory neurotransmitters and decreases melatonin, our calming hormone to help us sleep. Reducing screen time may help your body to wind down at night and sleep better.
- Exercise (even though it is a stress itself). Exercise is very important to help manage your stress. Whether that be a run, gym workout or yoga, all can help by pumping endorphins, feel-good neurotransmitters, throughout your body. But remember not to push too hard and always allow time for recovery.
- Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine can increase cortisol levels, which are already elevated by stress. This can make you feel even more jittery and anxious.
- Consider supplements. If you have continual long-term stress you may want to consider a supplement.
- Meditation/Mindfulness. Breathing techniques, guided meditations, mindful meditation, listening to music or simply going to your favourite place to sit can help with reducing stress.
- Laugh. Like they always say laughter is the best medicine.
- Write it down. Having a journal and writing down your feelings or thoughts can help relive your stress.
- Spend time with loved ones. Having a support network has been shown to reduce stress.