What is stress?
Stress can be defined as the demands of an individual’s internal and external environment being enough to disrupt physical and mental homeostasis. Our world is full of stressors, which chronically activate our stress response systems. These systems in our body were designed to help us deal with acute stressors (e.g. run from a tiger), they were not meant to be activated chronically, which is why our genes are at a mismatch with our modern environment
We can categorise stress into 2 categories, perceived stress or physiological stress.
Physiological stress can be in the form of things like a chronic lack of sleep, poor diet choices, frequent alcohol consumption, smoking, lack of exersize or over exercising, being overly sedentary on a day to day basis, chronic infections and chronic health issues.
In terms of perceived stress, everyone perceives their environment differently, while some people may think one situation is stressful, another may not. Which is why everyone has different perceived stressors in their life.
The way we react to our environment and whether or not we perceive a situation as stressful or not, highly depends on our genes, what has been modelled for us by our parents/upbringing, and other environmental exposures.
As well as perceived stressors, another internal factor that can increase the stress response in our body is our “mindset” and “outlook on life.” If we have a negative outlook on life and a poor mindset, this increases our stress response and effects our emotions and behaviour. Our mindset can often be effected by our genes, environmental exposures/mental experience as well as our diet and lifestyle, which can effect our brain chemistry. This shows that our emotions and cognition effect our physiology, but our physiology also effects our emotions and cognition.
Stress and the resulting increased stress hormones that are secreted, leads to increased inflammation in the body and shuts down all “non survival” mechanisms, which is why chronic stress leads to poor health. Nutrients and blood flow are taken away from organs like the brain, digestive system and reproductive system, which is why people get symptoms of hormonal issues, foggy thinking/monkey brain and gut dysfunction. Your body is under stress so it directs its energy needs to your vital organs and your muscles, as it thinks it will need to run from something or fight something. This is why chronic stress is associated with a whole host of chronic diseases that are very prevalent today in our modern society.
Stress also effects our diet, sleep patterns, exercise habits, energy levels, alcohol consumption and smoking, which demonstrates how stress can then increase other unhealthy behaviour that lead to poor health.
In the modern world, there are many threats to the various factors that contribute to our mental health and mindset. The impact of mental health on longevity and health is being seen more and more in the literature. For example, a common factor in the areas with the longest living populations, known as the Blue Zones (The Blue Zone Project), is a sense of purpose and spirituality. Whereby individuals in these areas have a clear sense of purpose in their life along with a deep sense of spirituality. This alludes to the importance of managing all of the aspects that contribute to our mental health.
Developing a healthy, strong and resilient mindset, learning how to deal with perceived stressors and keeping a good physical health is vital for mental health.
Changing your mindset can sometimes need psychological intervention/counselling, however learning techniques to decrease our stress response and mitigate the effects of stress on the body can be very useful.
Simply implementing daily stress reduction techniques can also have profound health benefits and can be used to significantly decrease our stress. These stress reduction techniques ultimately lower stress hormone production such as cortisol, which is raised in times of chronic stress.
BONUS NOTE: Read the book “The subtle art of not giving a fuck.” It is certainly a counterintuitive approach to living a better life, with a healthier mindset. This book was a game changer for me as it was practical, realistic, funny and challenged everything I thought about typical self -help books.
Simple, user-friendly stress reduction techniques.
Choose a simple task in your day that you do every day. It could be something like making your daily cup of coffee, getting dressed or making breakfast. Bring yourself into the moment and focus all your attention/5 senses on this task. For example, if you are making coffee, use all of your sense in the process of making it. How does it smell? What does it look like while you are making it? What does it taste like? How does the hot mug feel in your hand? What does the kettle/coffee machine sound like? These are just some examples of things to focus on. Find something that works for you and focus on all aspects of the task with all of your senses.
It is amazing how many things we do in our day on autopilot while projecting our minds into the future. Most of our stress, anxiety and ultimately our internal suffering comes from worrying about things that have not even occurred yet, things that may never happen, things we need to do or things we fear may happen. We are the only species on this planet that has a sense of self beyond the present moment. Performing seemingly benign tasks with your complete attention and focus can help take you “out of your head” and bring you into the physical moment. The present moment is all that we have to focus on, and the more we can focus on the now, the less we will stress about the future and about things that may not even occur or are not in our control.
Take 2-5 minutes out of your day to stop, listen, smell and feel.
Take time out of your day to find a space on your own, close your eyes and use your other senses to take note of your surroundings and all the stimuli hitting your senses. What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you taste? What can you feel?
It is preferable to do this outside and expose yourself to daylight. You can maybe do it in your garden if you have one, a park close to your house, or a park close to your work during your lunch break. It doesn’t matter when you do it, just try an do it at least once in your day, especially if you are having a rough day. This activity will also help bring you into the present moment.
Interestingly, a recent study monitored people walking through the city and monitored their nervous systems in various situations. The research found that just sitting in a park on a bench, decreased the participants sympathetic nervous system. This is the branch of the nervous system that is activated in times of stress and is responsible for your fight or flight response.
At the end of each night, before bed place your legs up the wall for 5-10 minutes, in this time do some deep breathing and progressive relaxation. At first you might find this difficult, however over time the overthinking and busy mind will settle.
Mindfulness through movement and meditation.
Yoga, Tai Qi, Qi gong or meditation are all extremely effective ways to decrease stress and bring you into the present moment. You may need to attend classes in order to learn these techniques.
Create a journal.
At the end of the day start to write in a journal, write your thoughts, things you wished you had of achieved, things you need to do tomorrow and also your feelings. Once you’re done, close the book and put it in another room. It’s now time to relax, you’re officially done for the day and have done all that you can. You’re not super human and your health is more important that the things on the list, tomorrow is another opportunity to tick some more things off your list.
Take time out in nature.
Being in nature can stimulate all of your sense in various ways and it has far-reaching health benefits, including stress reduction. This could involve going camping, going on a hike or it can even be as simple as taking your shoes off and walking on the grass in a park during your work lunch break. Even exposing your skin and eyes to sunlight (when possible) for at least 30 minutes a day can have profound effects on your health. UV ray exposure in amounts that don’t cause sunburn, have been shown to increase endorphin production, which helps modulate your immune system, decrease pain, decrease blood pressure and increase happiness.
Self care – making time for yourself, to do things you enjoy and that break up the routine of day to day living is essential for staying happy, minimising stress and keeping healthy both physically and mentally:
Find a hobby or take up something new.
Finding a hobby or pursuit that you enjoy, that you find challenging and requires your complete focus, can also help bring you into the present moment and take your mind off the past and future (helps minimise anxious self talk). It also helps you feel like you are accomplishing new things, improving yourself and adding more tools to your shed as a person, especially hobbies that require you to learn new skills out of your comfort zone. Hobbies that involve seeing your friends are even better due to the health benefits of social connection. Pursuing hobbies is an essential part of self care and are vital to living a healthy life.
Lastly, here are some other things you may want to prioritise in your life as part of your self care regime in order to decrease stress and help you feel happier and healthier. Massage, hiking/walking in nature (bio-philia decreases cortisol and inflammation), laughter, good sex, surfing, martial arts, acupuncture, sunlight, listening to your favourite music, dancing, playing with your pet, hanging with a friend/s, physical contact with a partner or just having FUN! All of these things release endorphins in our bodies, which bind to opiate receptors, making us feel happy, regulating our appetite, decreasing pain and increasing immunity. Our genes and past environmental exposures/mental experience determine the extent of how much these behaviours or new hobbies “feel good” to us or if they feel good at all. For one person, playing with their dog is bliss, where is another person may feel the same way when listening to their favourite music. We all perceive things differently in our environment based on our genes and past experiences, which is why everyone chooses to do different things that make them feel good.
In our modern world, taking time out to play, pursue hobbies, practice self care and have fun is sometimes frowned upon due to the increased demands of work and life in general. However, it is vital to our health and it is innate when we are kids, but taken out of us when we enter adult life. When we play and have fun, we do it without a purpose, it is voluntary, it is improvised, it feels good, we loose sense of time and self and it can be addictive in the best of ways.
Working yourself into the ground and being busy is not a badge of honour. Especially if the busyness is in the pursuit of more money, because this is a metric that is used to define success. You are not winning in life is you are so busy at work that you don’t have time for family, friends, partners, hobbies, self-care or looking after you own health. You will die one day and on your death bed, I promise you will not look back and say “wow, so glad I worked those extra hours and neglected everything else in my life….”
Don’t get me wrong. Be deeply committed to all endeavours that you decide to pursue in life, and work hard to that end. But there’s a difference between working hard for a meaningful purpose and being a slave to a cultural (or personal) ideal that many of us would never accept if we were given the choice.
Most of us juggle multiple roles in our lives that are easy to get caught up in —career, parent, partner, provider, friend, and more—and sometimes it can be a struggle just to keep our heads above water.
Without time to pause and reflect, we can find ourselves simply bouncing from one commitment or obligation to the next, like a pinball in a machine.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, sometimes removing yourself from everything in the form of retreat can be hugely beneficial.
Stepping outside of the rhythm of our daily lives—even if only for a day—is a powerful way to gain clarity and reconnect with ourselves and our deepest needs and goals. This can be in the form of:
- Meditation retreats.
- Personal retreats could be you going into a beautiful location where you spend time doing things that you love and that relax you (e.g. walking, yoga, exersize, reading, surfing etc.)
This is a way for you to re-group yourself and your goals, as well as reduce stress. Retreat is another important part of self care that must be scheduled in our daily lives every so often.
Schedule a digital detox.
Social media, the internet and technology has revolutionised our world. There are some amazing positives to the technological advancements of our world, as well as some detrimental effects. Especially towards our mental health. We can help negate these effects by being more mindful around our use of social media and technology. Even scheduling a digital detox can be extremely helpful, allowing you to remove yourself from the virtual world and bring yourself into the present. Read this post to learn about how technology is effecting our health.
Before you supplement, make sure you try some of the techniques listed in this post. Supplementation can be an adjunct to stress reduction techniques. Some good supplements to help support stress include…
- Magnesium: Magnesium is depleted in times of stress. It is important for energy production, muscle relaxation, and inhibitory neurotransmitter production (chemical messenger in the brain/nervous system the promote calm). Magnesium can also help decrease inflammation and reduces the cognitive decline caused by long term stress. Dosages range from 400-800mg per day. When buying magnesium, go to a health food store and ask the sales assistant for magnesium that contains magnesium biglycinate. This is the best-absorbed form of magnesium.
- Withania 500mg of extract: This herb has been shown to decrease stress hormone levels, decrease stress related immune suppression, improve sleep and helps individual’s resistance to mental and physical stress. It has also been shown to help reduce the feeling of fatigue in response to stress as well as other stress related symptoms like cognitive decline. Lastly, it has been shown to decrease anxiety in stressed people.
- Rhodiola 50mg of extract: Rhodiola is a herb that has been shown to decrease fatigue, exhaustion, and stress related symptoms like poor cognition. It has also been shown to increase mental and physical performance under stress and decrease stress binge eating (in rats).
- Lavender 80-160mg of extract: Another herb that has been shown to decrease stress and induce relaxation. Even through aromatherapy.
- Phosphatidylserine: 400mg/d of phosphatidylserine has been shown to regulate cortisol rhythm by acting on the hippocampus in the brain.
As you can see, there are so many ways to implement stress reduction into our busy lives. Stress reduction should be an absolute priority and I would argue that it should be your first step in trying to achieve optimum health. This is because when we are stressed, our bodies cannot digest and absorb food properly, we feel too fatigued to exercise and we have trouble sleeping. As well, stress usually makes people tend towards more unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and increased processed food consumption. Therefore, stress affects the other pillars of our health.
In saying that, making sure we have consistent and ingrained diet, exersize and sleep habits, that are not completely thrown out when we are stressed, makes our body more robust in order to deal with the stressors at hand. It offsets the negative effects stress may have on our health (e.g. decreased immune function), which is extremely helpful as stress in our modern world, stress is sometimes unavoidable at times.
Note: The mental health scheme allows you 10 sessions with a counselor or psychologist covered by Medicare if you get a referral from a doctor.