Are you feeling stressed?

Find yourself reaching for the wine bottle slightly more frequently then normal? Over reacting to a slightly bitchy look in the supermarket (she was really just thinking cherry tomato’s or quarks) or the child on the back seat who is intent on throwing their favourite teddy out the car window - look mum teddy flew…. Being a bit short with colleagues. It’s not that you are a horrible person, its just that you have about 101 conversations and to do lists in your head and not quite enough hours in the day.

I know, I’m there. This month I way over committed and even with a supportive partner and poodle and no children throwing a teddy bear out the window, I still couldn’t do it all.

I started getting this itchy rash on my stomach (nice visual I know), my migraines were increasing in frequency, I spent hours looking at my computer because I couldn’t remember what to do….

Stress is “the body's reaction to harmful situations – whether they’re real or perceived.”

A range of situations can be stress provoking because neither actual harm nor the possibility of actual harm are, in themselves, prerequisites for stress. All that is required to elicit a stress reaction in the body is the perception of potential harm, which explains why stress is such a universal human issue. Think about a potentially difficult conversation at work, or a sudden shout or car back firing, a patient who suddenly goes pale and sweaty or gets confused, a child having a tantrum in the middle of Coles. Ekkkk, my rash is back.

Some people, by their very occupation, are more prone to stress than others. Caregivers and medical professionals, for instance, make their living by attempting, day after day, the huge task of managing others' health. Shiftwork, cost pressures, staffing skill mis-match and patient noncompliance all contribute to the high levels of stress associated with working in the health industry. As one 2008 study puts it, “medical service involves taking care of other peoples' lives, and mistakes or errors could be costly and sometimes irreversible.”

Caring for others, can make it extra difficult to care for yourself. 

So what exactly is stress? What does it look like?

Physiologically, the stress response runs something like this, the perception of a threat kicks the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, which stimulates the adrenal glands to flood the body with catecholamines, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, and these prime the body for immediate action.

The acute symptoms are agonizingly familiar: pounding heart, dry mouth, quickened breath, tensed muscles – fight-or-flight mode. But short term stress is not necessarily destructive; in genuine life-or-death scenarios, the energy it makes quickly available is invaluable, and often life-saving. Under normal circumstances, after the initiating threat is resolved, the body can return to pre-arousal levels within an hour.

Stress becomes damaging, however, when it occurs regularly and your body doesn’t get recovery time. Chronic stress has been linked to many health conditions usually caused by disturbing immune system balance which induces ongoing, low-level inflammation, which may exacerbate or cause various conditions. From migraines to irregular menstrual cycles to heightened risk of depression and heart disease, longterm stress can have detrimental affects upon literally the entire body.

So what can you do

As it turns out, a lot of the common sense advice you've been given over the years – is right. 

Mindfulness meditation.

My favourite, but I am backed up by research. According to the American Psychological Association,“even meditating briefly can reap immediate benefits.” And a 2014 study from John's Hopkins Universityfound that mindful meditation is especially useful at managing pyschological aspects of stress like anxiety, depression, and even pain. Mindfulness meditation, at its most basic, is simply observing the sensations of the body and/or thoughts that drift through the mind without judgment. Focusing on breathing is one popular variant; other forms stress mental imagery. Some people even make a mindfulness exercise out of brushing their teeth! But all forms of mindful meditation, practiced consistently, seem to combat chronic stress.

 Exercise

Another well-supported but dreadfully unglamorous treatment for stress is – yes, sigh– exercise. As Dr. Erica Jackson explains, “being physically active improves the way the body handles stress because... exercise affects neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin that affect mood and behaviors. In addition to the possible physiological mechanisms, there also is the possibility that exercise serves as a time-out or break from one’s stressors.” Dr. Jackson suggests 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. 

 Self Talk

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy– more often known simply as CBT – is a therapy modality in which a therapist can coach you to “refute cognitive distortions” and “replace... irrational, counter-factual beliefs with more accurate and beneficial ones.” By teaching patients to become aware of their detrimental, irrational thoughts, CBT empowers them to challenge and ultimately change these thoughts. One of the great benefits of CBT is that it helps free people from self-sabotaging habits that can greatly exacerbate stress.

 

Have a lunch date, even if it is over Skype

One of the overall best methods for lowering stress is to reach out to others – especially face to face. A study of over 11,000 adults over 50 found that those who had more face to face interactions with others had much lower rates of depression than those who had fewer such interactions. And as the New York Timesreports: “People who are chronically lacking in social contacts are more likely to experience elevated levels of stress and inflammation. These, in turn, can undermine the well-being of nearly every bodily system, including the brain.” So the next time you feel stressed out, deny that impulse to bury yourself in your blankets, and set a coffee date with a friend. Easier said than done, granted – but your “nearly every bodily system” will thank you.

Laugh more

Perhaps the most fun, and one of the most intuitive, treatments for stress is laughter. The Mayo Clinic explains that, “When you start to laugh, it doesn't just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body.” What kind of changes? It increases oxygen intake, causes the brain to release endorphins, stimulates circulation, and helps clenched muscles relax. Over the long term, it boosts the immune system and helps relieve pain. And though laughter is the least intensively studied of the therapies covered here, as one 2009 study wisely noted, “there are no substantial concerns with respect to dose, side effects, or allergies.” 

 

There are no one-size-fits-all treatments, but one way to start retaking control of your stress levels is to monitor them. Knowledge, after all, is power, especially when it comes to your health. Download our free stress monitoring tool and try monitoring your stress levels over a couple of months.

This processes can help you identify stressors, and even chart the effectiveness of treatments. It isn't, on its own, a cure – but it's an invaluable tool to have in your stress-busting arsenal.

 

Jen Wressell