Are You Suffering from Unhealthy Stress?
Chronic stress is very pervasive in modern life. Often people suffering from stress do not realize that their symptoms are stress-related. Stress has the potential to disrupt all normal functions of the body and mind.
What Causes Stress?
The average American leads a very stressful life, and confrontations of some sort can seem like a daily affair. We never get a break. When the body is constantly on alert, it cannot devote resources toward day-to-day repair and maintenance. Sleep is disrupted, digestion is compromised, and tissues begin breaking down, explaining the link between stress and more serious conditions such as hypertension, autoimmune diseases, and atherosclerosis.
Stress can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- Relationship troubles
- Financial issues
- Hectic or toxic work environment
- Medical conditions
- Fear of public speaking
- Busy schedules
- Death of a loved one
Your Body Has Two Modes
For simplification, think of the body as having an “alert mode” and a “healing mode.” Classically, the alert mode would be induced by a confrontation or threat such as having a dog run out in front of your car. This triggers a surge of adrenaline, and as a result your pulse quickens, eyes become wide, breathing rate increases, and muscles tense. All resources of the body are directed toward dealing with that threat.
In alert mode, other general maintenance functions — such as digesting food, normal immune function, and daily maintenance and repair — are placed on hold. Assuming the brakes work and the dog is fast, the threat passes, the mind relaxes, and the body goes back into healing mode and resumes its normal functions.
In the modern world, however, the perception of threat is around every corner. We never get a break from it. The body stays in alert mode continually, resulting in a weakening of the other functions of the body, such as digestion and immune function.
Tips for Managing Stress
Being overly stressed is a symptom of not having control of life’s situations, of other people’s behavior, of work schedules, and of time itself. Managing stress is a matter of regaining control.
Having true control is ideal, but sometimes you have to settle for the perception of control. It’s a matter of letting go of the things that you have no control over and letting your intuition guide you through life. Letting go is the hardest part, but it is the key to making life comfortable. Here are some ways to get started:
- Take a deep breath. Breathing deeply is very relaxing. Monitor your breathing throughout the day and make a habit of taking long deep slow breaths. Just doing this will short-circuit the stress response. For those who are open to practicing yoga, it is one of the best ways of making deep breathing a habit.
- Go for a walk. One of the fastest and easiest ways to neutralize the stress response is walking. Moving is the natural endpoint of the fight-or-flight response, and walking is one of the most natural ways to move. It normalizes stress hormones and boosts mood. If walking isn’t convenient when you feel tension building, simply moving in place, stretching, or doing a series of yoga poses can have the same effect. A daily regimen of walking or other exercise is the best way to protect yourself from the long-term detrimental effects of chronic stress.
- Cultivate calmness. Calmness doesn’t just happen; it must be cultivated like a garden. Look for moments during the day when you can clear your mind and enjoy just being alive.
- Be selective about worry. Most of the time when you worry, it is a conscious choice done out of habit. Think of all the times that you worried about something when you really didn’t need to. Remind yourself that the worry did not affect the outcome, and make a conscious choice to let it go.
- Avoid the “what if?” trap. Make a pact with yourself to follow your intuition and go with the flow. Worrying about what might be around the corner only fuels anxiety and depression.
- Take naps during the day. Taking a nap normalizes stress hormones and takes your body out of alert mode. It resets everything back to zero, and also improves sleep at night — which also helps keep stress in check. Even if you can’t go to sleep, taking just 10-20 minutes to turn your brain off can be beneficial.
- Make your world small. Cut out unnecessary stimulation from social media, TV, and other media sources, especially things that are upsetting or anxiety producing. What is happening around the world or even down the street is not necessary for you to know, unless it directly affects your well-being.
- Stay positive. A positive attitude will bring good things into your life. A negative attitude will do the opposite.
- Be proactive and don’t procrastinate. Avoiding stressors can sometimes allow them to get bigger. Make a habit of dealing with things head-on and moving forward.
- Accept that other people have a different destiny than yours. You can reach out a hand to others around you, but do not allow them to pull you under.
- Reach out for support. Do not isolate yourself. Find a friend or family member that you are comfortable talking with to explain what is causing you to feel stressed out. Talk about specific things you can do to reduce your stress (but be careful not to add more stress to their lives).
- Find enjoyable hobbies or experiences. Treat yourself. Take some time to engage in activities or experiences that you enjoy.
- Have a long-range plan. If you are not happy with your present situation, make a plan to change it. Sometimes just having a plan in place provides stress relief.
- Take herbal therapy. Natural therapy can offer some protection against the negative effects of stress.
Natural Options for Stress Relief
Herbs can offer protection against the negative effects of stress. Certain herbs have the ability to restore balance and promote calmness. Herbs restore normal brain chemistry, instead of artificially altering brain chemistry to reduce symptoms (like some pharmaceuticals do). Herbs are generally considered safe for daily use.
Here are some of the most effective herbs for helping to promote calm in the face of everyday stress:
Used for thousands of years in India, ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen that helps balance the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis or HPA axis. This important pathway controls the regulation of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
An amino acid found naturally in green tea and certain mushrooms, l-theanine affects neurotransmitters in a way that promotes calm and mental focus. It also helps counter the negative effects of a stress-induced adrenaline surge and supports normal blood pressure.
This herb from India was traditionally used for stress and improving sleep without unwanted side effects like daytime drowsiness. Bacopa has also been found to support brain function: Studies have shown that bacopa enhances mental clarity and focus in people ranging from college students to elderly individuals with mental decline.
Another soothing herb with few known side effects, passionflower has sedative and muscle-relaxing properties.
Traditionally used for reducing palpitations sometimes associated with stress, menstrual mood swings, and menopause, motherwort also has gentle sedative effects.