April is National Stress Awareness month. Stress is something that effects all of us in some form. Some of us may only be effected on occasions such as the lead up to a big deadline while some people struggle with chronic stress which effects their every day lives.
What does stress do to our bodies?
Living with too much stress can have a big effect on our overall health. Our stress hormones are called adrenaline and cortisol. You may be familiar with adrenaline; you get that adrenaline rush when you do something exciting or scary. Our hypothalamus – which is the tiny control centre in our brain – will release adrenaline and cortisol in response to a stressful stimulus e.g. being late for work. These stress hormones trigger your ‘fight or flight’ response in your Central Nervous System (CNS). This causes the heart rate to go up and more blood to rush to areas of the body that need it most in an emergency such as, heart, muscles and other organs.
Once the stressor is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to return to normal. However, for people living with chronic stress, this response will continue.
Stress hormones effect our body systems in the following ways:
- Respiratory system – During times of stress, our breathing becomes faster in order to quickly distribute oxygen rich blood around the body. For people suffering with asthma or other lung conditions, this can make it harder for them to breath
- Cardiovascular system – Stress will cause your heart to pump faster. This can cause your blood pressure to rise. Prolonged stress causes your heart to have to work harder for too long increasing your risk of high blood pressure related illnesses such as heart attack or stroke
- Digestive system – Stress can cause our digestive system to slow down triggering problems such as indigestion, acid reflux and stomach ache
- Reproductive system – For men, long-term stress can cause testosterone levels to drop causing problems with sperm productions and possibly cause erectile dysfunction. For women, stress can effect the menstrual cycle, leading to amenorrhoea (absent periods)
- Immune system – Too much stress over time can weaken our immune system causing us to be more susceptible to colds and other viruses
My top tips for dealing with stress
It is inevitable that we will all have to deal with stress at some point in our lives. However, there are ways of dealing with it when the time comes to lessen the effects. Here are my top tips:
Being active has been shown to have positive effects on our mental wellbeing. This doesn’t have to be anything extreme; it just has to be something that you enjoy and calms your mind. My activities of choice are dance and gymnastics but no one is the same. It can be a 20min walk, yoga, going for a run, etc. It is important to make sure you don’t go overboard with exercise as this can cause more stress.
Watch your diet
The foods we eat can have an impact on how our body responds to stress. When feeling stressed, you may want to think about avoiding the following foods:
- Sugar – Avoiding this will mean less mood swings and stress which is associated it out of control blood sugar levels
- Artificial sweeteners – Some artificial sweeteners can be just as bad as sugar. One in particular is Aspartame which is found in many soft drinks and foods and is shown to cause headaches and mood swings. Some sweeteners can also have an effect on our blood sugars which as previously said, will only add more stress
- Processed carbohydrates – These include products such as white bread and pasta. As well as causing haywire blood sugar levels, most of these products contain excess sodium (salt) which can cause blood pressure rises and make you feel bloated and unwell due to water retention
- Alcohol – Alcohol is said to increase the production of hormones which can leave you feeling anxious and stressed. It also has a dehydrating effect on the body causing you to experience symptoms such as headaches
- Excess caffeine – Found in coffee, teas, energy drinks and chocolate. Too much caffeine can stimulate the nervous system causing blood pressure and heart rate to rise which will ultimately leave you feeling anxious. If you feel stressed regularly, you may want to consider cutting down
This gives you a chance to have some time to yourself and take control of your breathing. You can easily find guided meditation videos on YouTube. You could also consider hypnotherapy which will help to address the reasons you feel stress and fine-tune your response to that stress.
Adult colouring books hit the headlines as the new big trend a couple of years back but they can also be a great way to de-stress. You can get many books which have very detailed and intricate drawings which gives you something to put all your concentration into. That way, you won’t be concentrating on what was giving you stress in the first place.
Get a massage
A therapeutic massage can be deeply relaxing. Unlike deep tissue massage which is usually used to getting rid of those aches and pains, therapeutic massage is gentler and is used to release stress.
You could also try an aromatherapy massage. This is similar to a therapeutic massage but the therapist will create a mixture of essential oils specifically tailored to your particular needs and massage that into your body. Oils that might be used to relieve stress include lavender, geranium and neroli light.
Have a bath
Run yourself a warm bath and add in a cup of Epsom salts. Epsom salts contain magnesium which is needed in our body to relax our muscles. Also, the warm temperature can be deeply relaxing.
Talk to someone
If you are struggling with constant stress, one of the worse things you can do is keep things hidden. That can often make things worse. If you feel you can, try and talk to a friend or family member about your stresses and worries. A majority of the time they will completely understand and will be there to support you and make life easier.
If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you know, speak to a counsellor or hypnotherapist. They will listen to your worries and help guide you to a happier and healthier life.
So those are my top tips to deal with stress. I hope they can help you lead a calmer and happier life.