The summer is over for most of us in Western hemisphere part of the world. Those memories of relaxing at the beach or hiking up a mountain are just that for most of us now, memories. Schools have reopened and the majority of us are back to work. It’s the middle of September (2017) and the next build up of holidays is already on some people’s mind. Yes you guessed right, as of today it’s 100 days till Christmas 2017!!!
Statistically speaking, for most people the build up to Christmas and the Christmas holiday season is the most stressful time of the year. With the pressure from work to deliver results or meet targets before the end of the year, the pressure to get all of the presents and Christmas plans all arranged and ensure travel plans, holidays and other schedules are all booked can all be overwhelming. Financially this can also be very stressful as most people's credit card takes a hammering at this time of year too. Over the Christmas holiday period the number of internet searches for divorces also increases, with those filings coming into fruition around March the following year sadly. So what can be done to cope with the stress of this busy period of the year, the stress of family, partners, distant relatives as well as coping with work demands too?
Before getting into that, let's take a step back and actually see what stress is, what it does to the body and how you can get stress to work for you rather than against you.
Firstly, let’s debunk one myth: stress is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. Without this brilliant ability to feel stress, humankind wouldn’t have survived. Our cavemen ancestors, for example, used the onset of stress to alert them to a potential danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger .
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion and urine secretion .
When it comes to stress there are two parts of the autonomic nervous system that are very important. The Parasympathetic and Sympathetic systems. Let’s explore these in a little detail as they are important in figuring out why they play an important part in stress, survival and other essential functions necessary for the human body.
The Parasympathetic system is the body’s relaxed system. It is also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system as that is its primary aim. Its main functions are to control the body at its resting rate, the neurons have longer pathways and slow down, heart rate slows down and a sense of calm is over the body. Also the Bronchial tubes in the lung constrict, stomach movements, especially digestion and urine secretions increase. The Parasympathetic system is essential for the body to be able to digest food at its optimum and ensure that the body can unwind and relax. If it wasn’t present, we would be constantly wired and on the go 24/7 (some of us are) !
This brings us nicely onto the Sympathetic system. It’s general action is to mobilise the body's fight-or-flight response. It’s main function is to control the body's response during a perceived threat. In this system the neurons are shorter and fire rapidly. The body tenses up, speeds up and becomes more alert. Functions not critical to survival slow down. The body’s heart rate increases, the Bronchial tubes in the lungs dilate, pupils dilate, stomach movements decrease. Adrenaline is released and glycogen to glucose for muscle energy is increased. All of this happens so that your body is ready for a perceived threat, such as coming face-to-face with a sabre-toothed tiger or to get out of the way of a moving car as quickly as possible .
As mentioned before in this blog, feeling stressed can be a good thing sometimes and perfectly normal. You might notice that sometimes being stressed-out motivates you to focus on your work or perform at a higher level. Professional athletes such as Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton and Cristiano Ronaldo all feel stressed when performing! They have thousands of fans watching them, with millions of others around the world watching them via TV, so when it comes to crunch time and they have to score a point, get a goal or cross over the finishing line first, they all use that stress in a positive way to help boost their performance. They turn the stress to their advantage and know that it helps them boost their performance.
Stress can help you meet daily challenges and motivates you to reach your goals. In fact, stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory. In addition, there are various health benefits with a little bit of stress. Researchers believe that some stress can help to fortify the immune system. For instance, stress can improve how your heart works and protect your body from infection. In one study, individuals who experienced moderate levels of stress before surgery were able to recover faster than individuals who had low or high levels .
So what is the bad side of stress? We have seen what the side effects of being stressed, or medically speaking, being in a sympathetic state can do to the body. Stress is key for survival, but too much stress can be detrimental. Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. In particular, too much epinephrine can be harmful to your heart. It can change the arteries and how their cells are able to regenerate .
There is no doubt that under stress the immune system is suppressed, making you more vulnerable to infections. Allergies and autoimmune diseases (including arthritis and multiple sclerosis) may be exacerbated by stress. This effect can be partly offset by social support from friends and family. Being stressed also slows the rate at which you recover from any illnesses you already have. Stress is known to aggravate skin problems such as acne, psoriasis and eczema. It also has been linked to unexplained itchy skin rashes. These skin problems are themselves intensely stressful . For more info about skin health, read my skin blog.
Continued stimulation of muscles through prolonged stress can lead to muscular pain such as backaches. Together with our sedentary lifestyles and bad posture, this makes back, shoulder and neck ache extremely widespread. Stress also is thought to aggravate underlying painful conditions such as herniated discs, fibromyalgia and repetitive strain injury (RSI). Furthermore, most migraine sufferers say that stress contributes to their headaches, which can last for days. Stress does not normally cause infertility, but the two have been linked many times. People who are trying for a baby are more likely to conceive when on holiday or when facing little stress, and fertility treatment is more successful at these times too .
When you're stressed, you may eat much more or much less than you usually do. If you eat more or different foods, or increase your use of alcohol or tobacco, you can experience heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of heartburn pain. Your brain also becomes more alert to sensations in your stomach. Your stomach can react with "butterflies" or even nausea or pain. You may vomit if the stress is severe enough. And, if the stress becomes chronic, you may develop ulcers or severe stomach pain even without ulcers. Stress can affect digestion, and what nutrients your intestines absorb. It can also affect how fast food moves through your body. You may find that you have either diarrhea or constipation .
Essentially, long term stress is for most people a cycle. They are stressed, so their body is constantly secreting adrenaline, keeping them wired and worried. This then leads to bad food choices or as we have known the phenomenon to be called, ‘comfort eating’. It's easy to grab a donut, potato chips, pizza, fries, candy, sugary drinks, coffee and alcohol to make ourselves feel better. What is happening is that we are starving our body of essential nutrients from nutrient dense plant based foods, coupled with a compromised digestion system, we cannot digest food properly. This leads to a nutrient deficiency that keeps the body unwell and not in balance. This in turns makes the body more stressed as its not getting better and the cycle continues.
Before I give my opinions on stress management, lastly i’d like to cover something that is more common with stress than is given credit, and that is depression. Whilst I will cover depression in detail in a future blog post, I do believe it is important to cover briefly now.
A recent study published by Dr. Shervin Assari of the School of Public Health Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health, and the U-M Department of Psychiatry has claimed that stress long-term can lead to depression and that long-term effects of stress affects men more than women. This could partly be because men are less open to talking about their health issues.
"In our society, as men, we learn to see this as a weakness, as suggested by gender role identity theorists," Assari said. "Hegemonic masculinity is a barrier to seek care and talk about emotions. This at least in part explains why men less frequently seek help, either professional or inside of their social networks. Our research suggests this may come with a price for men."
In addition to how men and women cope with stress, other distinctions may be due to gender differences in resilience, risk perception and general exposure, he said. "Differential exposure to stress may help women better mobilize their psychological resources, which protect them when needed," he said. It's also possible that men may under report their stresses, and that those who do acknowledge them are the ones who are most affected by depression later, Assari said.
"Men should improve the way they cope and the way they mobilize their resources when they face stressful events," he said. "They should learn from women on how to talk about emotions and use resources. Men exposed to a lot of stress should take it seriously. They should know being a man is not all about power. It also comes with vulnerabilities." .
So what can be done to combat stress and keep the body balanced? Well there are a few quick wins that can be addressed to get things in order.
Avoid, or at least reduce, your consumption of nicotine and any drinks containing caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and so will increase your level of stress rather than reduce it. Alcohol is a depressant when taken in large quantities, but acts as a stimulant in smaller quantities. Therefore using alcohol as a way to alleviate stress is not ultimately helpful. Swap caffeinated and alcoholic drinks for water, herbal teas, or diluted natural fruit juices and aim to keep yourself hydrated as this will enable your body to cope better with stress. You should also aim to avoid or reduce your intake of refined sugars - they are contained in many manufactured foods (even in savoury foods such as salad dressings and bread) and can cause energy crashes which may lead you to feel tired and irritable. In general, try to eat a healthy, well-balanced and nutritious diet .
Indulge in physical activity. Stressful situations increase the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in your body. These are the “fight or flight” hormones that evolution has hardwired into our brains and which are designed to protect us from immediate bodily harm when we are under threat. However, stress in the modern age is rarely remedied by a fight or flight response, and so physical exercise can be used as a surrogate to metabolize the excessive stress hormones and restore your body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state. When you feel stressed and tense, go for a brisk walk in fresh air. Try to incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine on a regular basis, either before or after work, or at lunchtime. Regular physical activity will also improve the quality of your sleep .
A lack of sleep is a significant cause of stress. Unfortunately though, stress also interrupts our sleep as thoughts keep whirling through our heads, stopping us from relaxing enough to fall asleep. Rather than relying on medication, your aim should be to maximise your relaxation before going to sleep. Make sure that your bedroom is a tranquil oasis with no reminders of the things that cause you stress. Avoid caffeine during the evening, as well as excessive alcohol if you know that this leads to disturbed sleep. Stop doing any mentally demanding work several hours before going to bed so that you give your brain time to calm down. Try taking a warm epsom salt bath or reading a calming, undemanding book for a few minutes to relax your body, tire your eyes and help you forget about the things that worry you. You should also aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each day so that your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine .
Relaxation techniques, meditation and yoga are all great at combating stress. There is a wonderful app called ‘Headspace’ which is great for meditating. It's just 15 minutes of your day, where you shut off from the world, sit somewhere comfortable, plug your headphones in and listen to the app. Other things such as adult colouring, staring at a fish tank, stretching, walking at a comfortable pace and anything else you find relaxing and therapeutic can help with combating stress. For some this could be house cleaning, cooking or shopping. Whatever works for you.
Talking to someone about stress is very important. It doesn’t matter what type of stress it is. For work stress, speak to your HR department if you feel overwhelmed at work. If you don’t say anything, the work won’t get any less or easier. If you are stressed with your family or your partner, speak to them. Get whatever is making you stressed off your chest. You’ll find that most family members and partners are supportive. Plus if you’re a man you’ll get brownie points for opening up to your partner. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your family or even friends, there are lots of other services you can go to. Speak to your GP, or Google to see if there is a local support group nearby where you can speak to anyone. Or why not contact me, i’m a great listener :-)
Other things you can do are to learn to take control of your mind and actions. We often make a bigger deal of things than they are. Then we push back on them until the very last minute and the anxiety of dealing with them makes us stressed. I have a great technique that I personally use, feel free to use it:
As you can see, there are a lot of tasks that can get completed in 5 minutes or less from my example list. I get them done really quick, and then have more time and motivation to focus on the bigger things I have planned. Having completed some tasks quickly, releases serotonin. This is known as the happy hormone in the body. When you are happy, you want that feeling again and again. So completing another task releases more serotonin which keeps me happy. And if i’m happy, i’m less stressed and more relaxed. Lastly, rewarding yourself for your achievements can be a great way to combat stress too. If I complete all of my tasks for the week, I’ll go to my local Indian restaurant and have a curry. I may also have a slice of cake or go for a meal or watch a movie with friends. Rewarding yourself can do great things for your self confidence and relieving stress. If I don’t get all of the tasks on my list done that week, I don’t beat myself up over it or get worked up. I add them to next week's list and ensure I work even harder to get them completed. With this blog done, i’m off for a slice of cheesecake! Thanks for reading and good health to all.
If you feel you need help managing your stressful life or require general guidance on nutritional support and how to live a balanced lifestyle please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website by going to www.urbanplatehealth.com