Stress can be defined as the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. Anxiety is a feeling of worry or unease. Both stress and anxiety are common and a little of each in our daily lives is mostly unavoidable and not overly detrimental. Issues arise when stress or anxiety become excessive or chronic, and begin to impact our ability to perform day to day tasks or affect our health. Excessive stress and anxiety can have both physical and psychological effects, as detailed below.
Physical effect of excessive stress
- Weakened immune system
- Sleep disruption – both quality and duration
- Headaches, nausea and digestive disruption
- Loss of skin and hair vitality
Psychological effects of excessive stress
- Lack of interest in performing usual work/social activities
- Panic attacks
- A feeling of being unable to cope
When you encounter a stressor, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate and increases blood pressure; whilst cortisol increases the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. These hormonal changes are what triggers the above effects on the body. Whist as an occasional “alarm” system for our bodies, this system is extremely useful and gets our body ready for the “fight or flight” response, when hormonal changes become chronic and our body is in a constant state of alarm, the effects on our overall health can be hugely damaging. This system is known as the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect and slows down our bodies energy functions. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” response and relaxes our body. Balance between these two systems in crucial in optimising wellness.
If you are noticing you feel a little overwhelmed at times and identify with some of the above signs and symptoms, keeping a diary can be a useful tracking tool to identify key stressors. Sometimes causes are obvious- you may be approaching a work deadline so stress has built week upon week for the past month. But sometimes triggers are less obvious, and in these cases keeping a regular diary may help. A good diary such as **do we sell one?** will help you to identify daily feelings and notice fluctuations in feelings of worry before they escalate into more problematic, chronic issues.
Coping with excessive stress and/or anxiety
Successful coping mechanisms for excess stress vary largely between individuals and more often than not, what is a winning formula for one will not necessarily work for another. Often successful strategies are about trial and error and seeing which methods help you to feel better. Again, keeping a diary or daily log of feelings and activities can really assist in this process.
Recent research has suggested yoga may be useful to correct imbalances between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity within the body. The body has sensors around the neck, chest and heart that detect changes in blood pressure. The nature of yoga means the body is bent into various positions with the head both above and below the heart. This manipulation of positions may trigger the nervous system sensors, signalling the brain to change sympathetic or parasympathetic tone. For example, a yoga position requiring your head to go down the floor such as Downward Facing Dog or Dolphin pose, would signal an increase in blood pressure, causing the body to raise its parasympathetic activity; thus relaxing the body. Yoga is also a mindful practice and by focusing on the breathing and movement holds, can slow down our bodies stress responses.
Certain foods are ideal for combating stress and anxiety. Chamomile tea has been shown to increase the production of seratonin and dopamine; our bodies feel good hormones. Additionally, other research has demonstrated the of drinking hot drinks to aid relaxation and lower self-perceived feelings of stress. This makes chamomile tea an ideal drink if you are feeling under excessive stress. Dark chocolate or raw cacao can also be of benefit in lowering stress levels. Research has shown that eating dark chocolate daily can lower cortisol levels, keep to a minimum of 60% cocoa solids. Eating a wholesome, natural diet will be of benefit at a time when your body is already struggling to cope. Throwing in loads of processed, chemical laden foods will give your body another stress to deal with, so keep your diet as natural and unprocessed as possible during times of stress. Foods to avoid are caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars; these three can contribute to further hormonal stress reactions, leaving your body in a worse state than before you started.
Even mild to moderate exercise is enough to release endorphins and dopamine into our systems, giving us a feel good boost. Regular exercise can be a key factor in managing stress. Research has shown exercising outside can actually be more beneficial in terms of lowering stress markers within the body, however the real key is finding a mode of exercise you enjoy and sticking to it. So strong are the evidential links of exercise improving stress, the NHS is now moving away from prescribing medications to combat stress and anxiety and moving towards exercise- based prescriptions, instructing people to partake in daily exercise programmes for a number of weeks. With enough exercise options available to all of us, there really is something for everyone to enjoy, be it team sports, gym based work or exercise classes. Keep your exercise regular to keep on top of stress levels.
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