The Key to Natural Stress Management
Everyone has experienced stress—it is unavoidable. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it a “global epidemic.” Defined as pressure, tension or excess strain, stress may occur if one feels unprepared for a situation, unhappy about a situation or unable to cope with a situation. A stressful situation may be momentary—for example, an important presentation at work—or it may last for a longer time—such as coping with a job loss, family conflicts or difficulty balancing responsibilities. Whatever its cause, stress can have a profound effect on mental and physical health.
In the United States, about 75 percent of all visits to family physicians are for stress-related complaints, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Yet stress is not a specific disease or disorder that can be treated with a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a byproduct of everyday living!
The body responds to a stressful situation by providing a brief burst of energy and hormones that promote a “fight or flight” response. Such hormones include adrenaline, which increases heart rate, blood flow to muscles and oxygen in lungs; and cortisol, which suppresses the immune system to divert energy toward responding to the source of stress.
In a short-term situation, stress has advantages, chiefly providing the motivation necessary to complete tasks. Some people thrive under the pressures of stress. However, in many cases, stress comes from long-term strain, not short-lived emergencies. Financial pressures, marital and family problems, workplace demands and even dealing with traffic can make you feel overwhelmed and “stressed out.” Stress is here to stay. The good news is, it can be successfully channeled and managed. The key is to learn to manage stress in a healthful manner so that it’s energizing instead of draining.
Stress manifests in a series of stages. The first stage is the “fight or flight” stage, in which the body prepares itself to take action, alerting all body systems. In the second stage, a rush of adrenaline courses through the bloodstream, enabling the body to quickly respond to the situation at hand. During the third stage, the body begins to break down or metabolize stress hormones. In the fourth stage, body systems slowly return to normal, causing a calming down effect.
Stress can affect your health whether you realize it or not. Stress can manifest physically, mentally and emotionally. Symptoms of stress include:
Stress affects people in different ways. Many people don’t realize that muscle pain, headaches or weight gain may be linked to pressure at work or family strain.
A study by Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a psychology professor and stress researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, found that stress plays a role in human disease. In particular, he found that chronic stress (daily stress over a prolonged time) increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
It is unclear exactly how stress contributes to disease, but Cohen has two theories: first, people under stress may adopt poor lifestyle habits, such as overeating or using cigarettes, drugs or alcohol to “cope.” Such choices can lead to obesity and other addictions, which contribute to disease. Second, as mentioned, stress triggers the body to release different hormones into the bloodstream to regulate the immune system and other biological functions. When stress continues for weeks or months without relief, such hormones can negatively affect immune system function, making the body more vulnerable to disease.
One important way to manage stress is to fortify the body nutritionally so that it can withstand the demands of stressful situations. While a certain amount of stress is inevitable, proper nutrition can fortify the body and mind to cope with it successfully. Often, individuals experiencing stress turn to food for immediate relief—and sugar-laden foods are a quick and easy choice. Such food distracts the mind, fills the stomach (at least in the moment) and it tastes good! Let’s face it: not too many people reach for carrot sticks when they feel “stressed out.” Eating can also provide a feeling of control during a stressful time, when people may feel they are spinning out of control. The only way to truly manage stress is to eat nutritional foods that can counteract the physiological changes that take place in the body during stress.
What and how we eat profoundly affects the function of the entire body. Dietary choices can also play an important role in determining how we feel.
Diets high in white sugar and flour (refined carbohydrates) have been linked to blood sugar disorders, which can have a profound effect on stress levels or the body’s ability to manage stress. As mentioned, in times of stress, the body releases adrenaline to help you react quickly. However, adrenaline also causes blood sugar levels to drop, which can leave you feeling fatigued and more stressed. Stress hormones can also weaken the immune system and promote temporary inflammation. Certain nutrients are critical to restore balance to the body.
Avocados: Monounsaturated fats and potassium in avocados help support regular blood pressure, which is critical to reducing stress.
Dried Apricots: Apricots are rich in magnesium, a mineral that may help relieve occasional stress and relax the muscles. Insufficient magnesium stores have been linked to depression and anxiety.
Fatty fish: Fatty fish, such as salmon (consumed as a fish or in a fish oil supplement) are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, often missing from U.S. diets. A study in Diabetes & Metabolism found that omega-3s keep stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline from peaking, which can lessen the harmful effects of stress in the body.
Green Vegetables: Broccoli, kale and other dark green vegetables are powerhouses of vitamins that help replenish the body in times of stress.
Nuts (especially almonds and walnuts): Almonds are a nutrient-dense food, full of B and E vitamins, which help boost the immune system. Walnuts are rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which may help protect the heart and support regular blood pressure.
Oranges: Yes, oranges are a great source of vitamin C—one orange contains about 116 percent of the daily value of this important vitamin! But vitamin C isn’t just an immune booster—it helps relieve temporary stress and supports regular blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Spinach: As mentioned, the body needs magnesium to manage stress. One cup of cooked spinach provides 40 percent of the body’s daily need for magnesium. Magnesium also protects the heart by helping regulate heartbeat.
Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes can help satisfy an urge to consume carbohydrates and sweets, a common reaction when you are “stressed out.” They contain beta-carotene and other vitamins. Sweet potatoes are also a good source of fiber, which helps the body process carbohydrates slowly and evenly, keeping blood sugar levels from spiking.
Herbs are aromatic plants used in small amounts in cooking, perfumes, medicines—or all three! Several herbs may help to calm the nerves, fortify the immune system and support the adrenal glands. Other herbs can strengthen and improve stamina, which helps the body recover from stress. Many medicinal herbs can be found in supplement form. Consult with a healthcare practitioner before taking any herbal or natural supplement, particularly if you are taking any prescription medications.
An adaptogen is an aptly-named substance that helps the body adapt to and deal with the effects of stress, returning the body to a balanced state. Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev was the first to use the term in 1947. To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb must be harmless and cause minimal disruption to the body. Adaptogens work by recharging the adrenal glands, the body’s first line of defense against occasional stress and emotional turmoil.
Adaptogenic herbs include: Ashwagandha, Astragalus, Cordyceps, Eleuthero, Ginseng (Asian and American), Jiaogulan, Rhodiola rosea, Schizandra, and Suma
Calming herbs include: Black Cohosh, Catnip, Chamomile, Hops, Kava, Lady’s Slipper, Motherwort, Passion Flower, Peppermint, and Valerian
Mood elevating herbs include: Skullcap and St. John’s Wort
Strengthening herbs include: Fo-ti, Goldenseal, Gotu Kola, Kelp, and Licorice Root
While it is impossible to completely eliminate stress, a few simple steps can help reduce the effects of stress and improve mental and emotional well being.
Laughter can be the best medicine. Laughing reduces body tension and helps you see the more humorous side of life. Laughter releases hormones, including endorphins, which encourage feelings of happiness. Laughter also reduces levels of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.
Getting 7–8 hours of sleep each night is critical to maintaining a positive outlook. Sleep allows the brain to “turn off” so brain cells can rejuvenate and repair themselves. The part of the brain that controls emotions, social interactions and decision-making is inactive during sleep, allowing it to rest and function more effectively when awake.
Individuals experiencing high levels of stress may not think they have the time or energy to exercise. However, releasing stress through exercise can have a variety of beneficial effects.
Many kinds of exercise can help alleviate stress, so pick a type of exercise that you will enjoy and will do on a regular basis. Aerobic exercise causes norepinephrine, a hormone that increases the brain’s oxygen supply, to be released in brain cells, which helps to elevate mood.
Exercising also helps you breathe more deeply, which expedites the removal of carbon dioxide and other waste products from the body. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine not only eases stress, but provides a whole host of physical benefits as well. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week.
The concept of yoga—to integrate mind, body and spirit—involves focusing one’s thoughts and breathing to discipline the body and mind and reach a state of tranquility. Specific techniques of yoga include deep breathing, posture, meditation and moving through a series of poses that help align the body, strengthen muscles, improve joint flexibility and increase blood circulation. By promoting relaxation, these techniques can help relieve occasional stress and anxiety.
New research supports yoga’s stress-reducing properties. A study by the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine found that yoga reduces the level of interleukin-6 (IL-6) in the blood, a protein that increases in response to stress. High blood levels of IL-6 have been linked to increased risk of developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and other health problems.
Yoga helps the body maintain lower levels of IL-6 in stressful situations, which in turn may help prevent other stress-related diseases and symptoms.
Meditation—entering a state of relaxed awareness—can help quiet the mind and allow the body to relax. Meditation can be incorporated into other types of activities such as yoga or walking, or performed as a method of prayer or deep breathing. Some people prefer guided meditation, in which a trained expert leads the participant through a series of mind and body exercises in order to reach a state of calm, peace and tranquility.
Meditation is an effective and inexpensive way to alleviate stress and anxiety because it can be done almost anywhere. It helps the mind focus on the present and let go of distracting thoughts that create tension in the body.
The saying “mind over matter” may be more than just a nice phrase. Another stress-busting idea is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness incorporates aspects of meditation and yoga, in which the participant focuses on a physical sensation (such as breathing or pain) and their present state of being by eliminating any conscious thoughts.
In 2008, researchers at the University of New Mexico examined the effects of mindfulness on reducing occasional anxiety and stress. For eight weeks, the mindfulness participants engaged in yoga, meditation and body scanning techniques (focusing the mind on all parts of the body from head to toe) in order to increase mindfulness. After eight weeks, participants were evaluated for eight “markers” including stress, depression, psychological well-being, neuroticism, binge eating, energy, pain and mindfulness. The mindfulness group showed significant improvement in all eight markers. The researchers concluded that practicing mindfulness may help reduce stress.
Tension, anxiety and pain can all contribute to feeling “stressed out.” Massage therapy can be a way to help reduce all three! Massage has been used for thousands of years in cultures all over the world to provide health benefits and promote physiological and psychological well being.
Massage therapists use many different massage techniques for different purposes, but most forms of massage therapy include some sort of pressure and manipulation of the patient’s joints, muscles and connective tissues. The therapist may use his hands, arms, elbows or feet in order to apply pressure and manipulate the patient’s body. Sometimes, the therapist may use oil or another lubricant to reduce friction on the skin. Other forms of massage involve using heated stones or towels to penetrate into the muscles and tissues.
When stress has you on “pins and needles,” needles may actually provide some relief. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of physiological therapy that uses thin needles inserted into specific target points of the body called acupoints. It has steadily gained popularity in the West for the past few decades as a form of alternative medicine, and part of a holistic system of healthcare (a system that focuses on the whole body in healing). The National Center for
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports that about three million people received acupuncture treatments in 2007, up from two million patients in 2002.
Research any acupuncture practitioner to make certain he or she has passed exams administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). The NCCAOM maintains a database of certified acupuncturists on their website, www.nccaom.org. Discuss your acupuncture treatments with a healthcare practitioner to ensure an integrated approach to managing stress.
You don’t have to suffer the negative effects of stress. How you react to potentially stressful situations and how you prepare your body to deal with stress when it comes can make all the difference. Fueling the body with healthful foods and learning techniques to help the body and mind calm down from the initial response to a stressful occurrence can help prevent stressful events from making you feel “stressed out.” Learning to manage stress can help you feel happier and more peaceful, which has long-lasting positive effects on the body, both inside and out.
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