Chronic stress is the number one health problem among the people of America. Estimates are that 75 to 90 percent of all primary care doctor visits are stress-related. This is a real shame, since it’s completely preventable.
What is Chronic Stress and What to do About It?
There are two types of stress. Good type helps us get up every morning, go to work and live normal and healthy lives. Ongoing or chronic stress is a result of regular worry and concern. We tend to over-exaggerate every single minor obstacle and problem that occurs in our lives, telling ourselves it’s worse than it is in reality. Chronic stress manifests itself by many psychological and physical diseases, inability to sleep and function, tension in the muscles and many other symptoms. When our immune system becomes compromised, we’re easily struck by many diseases which emanate as a result of chronic stress and anxiety.
Yes, life brings many demands and challenges indeed, but it’s not all that black as we tell ourselves. For example, the night before an important exam we’re not sure whether we’ve learned well all the materials. We stress out and start telling ourselves all these horror stories about how things are bad, how we’re going to fail the exam, spoil the good grades we already have and won’t be able to enroll in the college we’ve always wanted.
Of course these things are almost never true, but the amygdala – the area in our brains responsible for deciding between the real and perceived danger – is wrong a lot of times. This small part of our brains is responsible for fight or flight response, but it often misinterprets the importance of the situation. When your amygdala starts believing you’re failing – so are you, and before you know it, your heart starts pounding, you’re breathing rapidly, you start sweating and tensing up. This is your body preparing you for the potential threat even though in reality there is no threat because it is all made up in your head.
The elevated stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline start to accumulate and make a mess in your bloodstream. This is the reason why chronic stress causes so much mental and physical problems and so many visits to the doctor.
If you’re reading this far, you probably wonder what to do about all this piled-up stress?
Change Your Diet
This is perhaps the hardest change and challenge people need to face with, but it’s CRUCIAL. There is no healthy body or a healthy mind without the proper nutrition. Good diet will do wonders for your physical, and your mental health as well.
A lot of your stress can be dramatically reduced by cleaning up your diet. Eating whole fresh foods restores the balance of hormones your body has lost over the months, or even years. When our insulin, adrenaline and cortisol levels are balanced out, the ability to respond to stress is much higher. When you cut out sugar, alcohol or processed foods, and introduce some real foods with high nutritional value like healthy fats, leafy greens or lean protein, you can balance your blood sugar levels. As a result, your body will respond better to stress and reduce the impact it’s having on your body.
You are probably thinking this is too hard and give up before even trying. I know it’s easier to turn to comfort foods in difficult situations, but give it a try. It is said that we need only 21 days to make or break a habit. Of course this myth has been busted a long time ago, but I believe it wasn’t that far away from the truth. We all function differently and someone needs two weeks, while other person may need three months. But you can’t know without trying.
Don’t start by ditching everything you like: wine, potato chips and dining at 11 PM. Start slowly! Eat 80% healthy and indulge once or twice a day in something that makes you happy and comfortable. By doing this, the body will start craving healthy foods more and crave comfort food less and less.
Plan Your Days
Make a schedule of all your tasks and activities for the day. When you have a plan in front of you, there is less chance you’ll wander away, skip the deadlines and stress out. People who do everything at the last minute tend to suffer from chronic stress more often than people who do things in time. When you plan your day ahead, you’ll get more things done and won’t worry so much about forgetting something.
Do Some Kind of Exercise
Find something you enjoy and do it regularly. It can be running, martial arts or plain walking. Benefits of regular physical activity are indisputable – exercising produces endorphins, chemicals that act as natural painkillers. Release of these „happy hormones“ improves the ability to sleep, which in turn means less stress.
Five minutes into any aerobic exercise and our bodies already start to produce anti-anxiety hormones and decrease levels of tension. A Swedish study discovered that swimming (floating, actually) triggers the body’s relaxation response and lowers the stress-hormone levels.
Face masks, herbal teas, cocktail with friends on weekends – pampering includes anything that makes you feel good and happy (as long it is not harming you). Find your own ritual; for me it’s a hot bath with essential oils, chamomile tea, face mask and several episodes of The Big Bang Theory or Friends in the evening. Devoting some time only to yourself melts a lot of stress.
The first way that meditation helps to overcome stress is that it relaxes our bodies and minds. Meditation engages our parasympathetic nervous system responsible for regulating unconscious bodily actions when the body is at rest. It brings the body to a state of calmness, allowing it to relax and repair.
During meditation, the heart rate drops and muscles start to relax. Over time, parasympathetic nervous system improves our digestion, conserves energy and helps maintain good health and it’s the complete opposite of the fight or flight response.
Another way meditation helps to overcome stress is that it increases the strength of the prefrontal cortex – our logical, problem-solving part of the brain. This part of the brain serves as parental supervision to the illogical and fearful amygdala. These two parts of the brain have inverse relationship to each other.
Meditation makes us more self-aware. There’s a famous saying that life is 10 percent what happens to us, and 90 percent how we react to it. We tend to overreact 90 percent of the time. Until you see for yourself the consequences of your actions, you won’t make any changes. Same goes for stress. Until you learn how to differentiate important from minor incidences, you won’t get rid of the stress. Meditation brings clarity and wisdom to our lives, but if you’re not that big on meditation, go to sauna and sweat it out.
Talk It Out
Just having someone to share the stress with takes half of it from our backs. Having supportive colleagues means less work-related stress, as they can assist in carrying out part of the task that is stressing you out.
Spending some quality time with family and friends has a healing effect on stress and anxiety.
Identify the Causes of Your Stress
I’m not sure why I left this for the end when it’s perhaps the most important step in overcoming your chronic stress. Identify what bothers you most, what makes you frown and your heart pound.
Begin ditching the stressors by identifying what you do and don’t want in your life. Many people let their mental and emotional baggage weigh them down and affect the quality of their lives.
Be grateful! Every night, remember at least one good thing that happened today. Try recognizing the good things that happen (because they do!) and acknowledge them out loud. Share them with your close ones. Something good happens every day, we’re just too focused on our failures that we forget to mention the accomplishments.