Stress is part of everyday living. In fact, a stress-free life would be boring! Life is enjoyable when we have ample resources to experience and overcome the stresses we face.
Not all stress is bad. A 20-minute workout for a fit and trim 55-year old is good stress. The same workout for an out-of-shape 30-year old would likely be bad stress!
Whether your body considers stress good or bad is largely a function of how well you accommodate it. Ultimately, this capacity is based on the condition of your nervous system.
The nervous system has several divisions: The central division involving the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral division consisting of the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has a direct role in physical response to stress and is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
When the body is stressed, the SNS contributes to what is known as the “fight or flight” response. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy. The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol. These hormones, together with direct actions of autonomic nerves, cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency.
Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes wear and tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.
Fear, grief, anger and other emotions affect our entire body. Notice the posture of someone who is sad or depressed. Frustration, or a sense of powerlessness at work, is a common form of emotional stress.
Clearly, it’s not the stress, but our response to it that is critical. We want to focus on ways to reduce tension in your nervous system because that can help you respond more resourcefully. However, all the stress relief activities in the world won’t help if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
Meditation won’t do you any good if you aren’t getting adequate sleep. In fact, when you try to meditate, you might doze off because you aren’t taking care of your body’s need for sleep. Similarly, hitting the gym once in a while won’t relieve much stress if you’re only fueling your body with high-processed junk food. You need to take care of your basic needs first if you want your stress relief activities to be effective.
A whiplash injury from a car accident is an obvious source of physical stress. As are repetitive motions, a slip and fall, lack of sleep or overdoing it in the garden. Early on, learning to walk or ride a bike and even the birth process itself are sources of physical stress. Accumulated stress exhausts our reserves. Then, something as simple as mowing the lawn can put us over the edge.
Some of the more common physical signs of chronic stress include:
- rapid heart rate
- elevated blood pressure
- difficulty sleeping
- changes in behavior, including social withdrawal, feelings of sadness, frustration, loss of emotional control, inability to rest, and self-medication
Chemical stresses come from both our internal and external environment. The balance of our diet, smoking, excessive or unnecessary medications all can move our body away from balance and decrease the strength of our body tissues.
Our external chemical stressors can include diet, pollution and exposure to harsh chemicals.
These all serve to disrupt hormone regulation in the body and effect the way our body build tissues such as muscles, nerves and bone affecting the ability of the body to function.
Ways To Deal With Stress
When it comes to managing stress, making simple changes can go a long way in improving your overall health and reducing stress. Having tools and strategies you can turn to in stressful situations can prevent your stress levels from escalating.
Find a balance
It’s important to structure some of your time so that you can be comfortably busy without being overwhelmed. Working hard does not usually equate with working efficiently. In fact, working too much can reduce productivity.
In today’s high speed, high pressure and high-stress world, it’s not just balance between work and family that’s hard to find. If you’re a “stay-at-home” mom, you very likely constantly struggle to find balance between the needs of your family and your own needs—for exercise, time to read or be alone, to visit with friends, even to take a long hot shower, and so on. And if you are not married or not a parent, you are very probably still struggling to find a good balance in your life. Balance is an issue for all of us.
Finding balance is a lifetime project. It is ongoing. It is not a finite goal at the end of which you will have a peaceful, calm and meaningful life. Balance is a way of living. It is a process.
Being balanced does not mean being calm, relaxed, and content all of the time. Balance often occurs only for a fleeting moment, but it can reappear over and over again. Rather than trying to stay balanced, think of yourself as practicing balancing, over and over again.
Be kind to yourself
Understanding that you aren’t weak because you’re feeling stress is important. Stress is a very normal reaction to the stressors in your life.
As a concept derived from Buddhist psychology, self-compassion entails treating oneself with kindness and care, like we would treat a dear friend. Kristin Neff, one of the leading self-compassion researchers, has identified three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, feelings of common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness refers to acting in kind and understanding ways towards ourselves. For example, instead of being critical (I’m so disorganized! I’ll never be successful!), our inner voice is supportive and warm (It’s OK that I missed the deadline. I worked hard and I’ll make it next time).
A sense of common humanity is the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and no one is without their weaknesses. Accepting that we are not alone in our suffering comforts us with feelings of inclusivity rather than alienation.
Finally, mindfulness offers a “meta-perspective” on our hardships, helping us to not exaggerate our distress and become engulfed by it.
Lean on the people you trust
Before your stress levels escalate, reach out to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or coworker. Sharing your feelings or venting your concerns may help to reduce your stress.
Complaining might get a bad rap, but it’s not always a bad thing to vent your feelings out — especially if you’re stressed. Talking about how stressed you are can help you get it out of your system, so to speak. Venting helps take the feelings out from inside of yourself; it helps you to process them.
It’s kind of like the pressure cooker analogy: If you don’t open a lid periodically, the steam can build up and cause you to feel even more stressed. If you let it out, it can help you process whatever it is you’re worried about.
But once you get it out of your system, you do have to either move on or come up with some kind of solution to de-stress. Otherwise, you risk marinating in those feelings and getting even more stressed. It helps to either let it go and move on or come up with a plan as to how to deal with it and improve whatever the situation is.
Keep a journal
Set aside time to reflect on your day. Write down any thoughts or feelings you’re having.
Effective journaling is a practice that helps you meet your goals or improves your quality of life. This can look different for each and every person, and the outcomes can vary widely, but they are almost always very positive.
Journaling can be effective for many different reasons and help you reach a wide range of goals. It can help you clear your head, make important connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and even buffer or reduce the effects of mental illness!
Overall, journaling/expressive writing has been found to:
- Boost your mood/affect;
- Enhance your sense of well-being;
- Reduce symptoms of depression before an important event (like an exam);
- Reduce intrusion and avoidance symptoms post-trauma;
- Improve your working memory.
In particular, journaling can be especially helpful for those with PTSD or a history of trauma.
Eat well-balanced, regular meals
When it comes to managing stress, proper nutrition is your friend. Skipping meals can lower your blood sugar, which can depress your mood. In some cases, this can also trigger intense feelings of anger and frustration, Brown says. Eating the right foods are also important. Try to avoid processed foods and instead focus on a whole foods diet.
When you eat whole foods, you’re getting the food in its natural state. You’re getting it intact, with all of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are in the food. Basically, it’s the healthy whole food, rather than the bits that remain after refinement and processing. It’s the difference between an apple and apple juice , or a baked potato and mashed potatoes.
Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans are all made of one similar ingredient: fiber. Fiber is the most essential nutrient for healthy blood sugar, digestion, and heart health combined. Products with refined sources of fiber added like processed crackers, etc. are not the best source. Whole foods, on the other hand, such as the foods mentioned above, are full of natural insoluble and soluble fiber to support digestion and regularity, along with keep you full. Their fiber breaks down more slowly, lowering blood sugar.
Engaging in regular physical activity can improve your overall health and reduce your stress levels. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins. These feel-good hormones can also ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Scientific research has shown that people who exercise regularly are healthier physically and mentally, have more energy, think more clearly, and sleep better.
Engaging in the habit of regular exercise has also been found to improve your mood, decrease anxiety, decrease the effects of stress and raise self-confidence.
Get plenty of rest
Your ability to manage stress decreases when you’re tired. Try to get a recommended seven to nine hours each night. If you have insomnia, aim to get as much sleep as you can, then build in periods of rest during the day.
From having occasional difficulty sleeping to insomnia, there is a lot you can do to get a better night’s sleep, feel refreshed when you awake, and remain alert throughout the day. It’s called “sleep hygiene” and refers to those practices, habits, and environmental factors that are critically important for sound sleep. And most of it is under your control.
Here are some sleep hygiene tips to help you relax, fall asleep, stay asleep, and get better sleep so that you wake up refreshed and alert.
1. Avoid watching TV, eating, and discussing emotional issues in bed. The bed should be used for sleep and sex only. If not, we can associate the bed with other activities and it often becomes difficult to fall asleep.
2. Minimize noise, light, and temperature extremes during sleep with ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditioner. Even the slightest nighttime noises or luminescent lights can disrupt the quality of your sleep. Do not expose your self to bright light if you need to get up at night. Use a small night-light instead. Try to keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature — not too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54 degrees).
3. Avoid naps, but if you do nap, make it no more than about 25 minutes about eight hours after you awake. But if you have problems falling asleep, then no naps for you.
4. Caffeine is also a stimulant and is present in coffee (100-200 mg), soda (50-75 mg), tea (50-75 mg), and various over-the-counter medications. Caffeine should be discontinued at least four to six hours before bedtime. If you consume large amounts of caffeine and you cut your self off too quickly, beware; you may get headaches that could keep you awake.
Practice relaxation exercises
These exercises, which can include deep, slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, involve tensing and then relaxing various groups of muscles. Try to carve out three minutes, three times a day to practice these exercises, says Dr. Russell Morfitt, a psychologist.
With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. While apps and audio downloads can guide you through the process, all you really need is a few minutes and a place to sit quietly or stretch out.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of your body. This can help you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.
Progressive muscle relaxation can be combined with deep breathing for additional stress relief.
Schedule your worry
While it may feel awkward at first, consider scheduling the worry to specific parts of the day, Morfitt says. “When we lean into our fears by deliberately seeking out our stressors and not avoiding them or escaping them, they often lose their power,” he said.
One exercise that I like to use is scheduling two times a day (usually first thing in the morning and last thing at night) to journal out my fears. That allows me to process through them and get them out of my head, which then allows me to go freely throughout my day without those worries dragging me down. And doing it right before bed allows me to sleep without all those fears and worries keeping me up.
If the same things keep showing up session after session, this shows me the areas that I really need to focus on in order to get through the block.
See a chiropractor
If you lack the reserves necessary to adapt to stress in a healthy way, stress takes its toll. If your body reacts by “tripping a circuit breaker” causing vertebral subluxation, chiropractic care is likely to help.
Think of your spinal cord as a guitar string. The greater the tension, the higher the note. Your nervous system has “tone” as well. With each stressor, your body tightens up, like bracing yourself for a tight curve on a roller coaster. The weakest joints of your spine are forced out of their normal position. Like the shrill notes from an over-tightened string, your body loses its capacity to respond to the full range of human experience.
Much of the emotional stress we experience is largely self-induced. Imagine how much pain and suffering result from attaching inappropriate meaning to events in our lives. Or the constant burden we experience by not forgiving others. Stress is a natural part of life. Chiropractic care can’t eliminate stress, but it can help increase your capacity to accommodate it.
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