Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. Even positive life changes such as a promotion, a mortgage, or the birth of a child produce stress.
How stress affects your health
The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between stressors.
As a result, the person becomes overworked, and stress-related tension builds. The body’s autonomic nervous system has a built-in stress response that causes physiological changes to allow the body to combat stressful situations.
This stress response, also known as the “fight or flight response”, is activated in case of an emergency. However, this response can become chronically activated during prolonged periods of stress. Prolonged activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body – both physical and emotional.
Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress – a negative stress reaction. Distress can disturb the body’s internal balance or equilibrium, leading to physical symptoms such as headaches, an upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and problems sleeping.
Emotional problems can also result from distress. These problems include depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
Stress is linked to 6 of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Stress also becomes harmful when people engage in the compulsive use of substances or behaviors to try to relieve their stress. These substances or behaviors include food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, and the Internet.
Rather than relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances and compulsive behaviors tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems. The distressed person becomes trapped in a vicious circle.
Here are some ways to handle stress:
Listen to music
If you are feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation, try taking a break and listen to relaxing music. Playing calm music has a positive effect on the brain and body, can lower blood pressure, and reduce cortisol, a hormone linked to stress.
Talk with a friend
When you are feeling stressed, take a break to call a friend and talk about your problems. Good relationships with friends and loved ones are important to any healthy lifestyle.
They are especially important when you are under a lot of stress. A reassuring voice, even for a minute, can put everything in perspective.
Get more 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.
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.
Try taking a warm 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.
Stress levels and a proper diet are closely related. When you are overwhelmed, you often forget to eat well and resort to using sugary, fatty snack foods as alternatives to eating right.
Try to avoid sugary snacks and plan ahead. Fruits and vegetables are always good, and fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the symptoms of stress.
Laugh it off
Laughter releases endorphins that improve mood and decrease levels of the stress-causing hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Laughing tricks your nervous system into making you happy.
Manage your time
Make a list of all the things that you need to do and list them in order of genuine priority. Note what tasks you need to do personally and what can be delegated to others to do. Record which tasks need to be done immediately, in the next week, in the next month, or when time allows.
A large dose of caffeine causes a short-term spike in blood pressure. It may also cause your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to go into overdrive.
Instead of coffee or energy drinks, try green tea. It has less than half the caffeine of coffee and contains healthy antioxidants, as well as theanine, an amino acid that has a calming effect on the nervous system.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
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 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.
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.