The World Health Organization has labelled stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century, whether it
is due to a demanding job, family pressures or health concerns. The current COVID pandemic has only amplified the pressures we are now dealing with. Managing stress levels has become more important than ever but this isn’t always an easy task to take on.
Despite living seemingly healthier lives: having access to better quality food, exercising more frequently and the sheer abundance of information available on a healthy lifestyle, people are still suffering from poor general health and wellbeing, and many are still experiencing chronic conditions. To understand why this might be, we have to first understand what stress is and the impact it can have on the human body.
Simply put stress can be defined as a state of mental or emotional strain due to demanding life circumstances. It is a natural reaction that is triggered when we encounter a perceived threat. Our body’s autonomic nervous system is made up of two mechanisms - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When we are faced with a threat, it is the sympathetic nervous system that signals to the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, and this creates the fight-or-flight response. This response primes our body to combat the obstacle with optimal efficiency and so our senses are heightened, our heart rate increases and glucose is moved into our bloodstream. The body suppresses non-essential bodily systems such as the digestive and immune systems during that time, as resources are redirected.
Healthy stress should trigger an acute fight-or-flight response that then dissipates once the threat has been removed, with the help of the parasympathetic nervous system. Unfortunately, modern-day stressors don’t usually appear in the same way they did for our ancestors. The evolution of our lifestyles has outpaced how quickly our human “hardware and software” has been able to transition. This mismatch is one of the reasons why we experience so much chronic stress and anxiety. Over-working, financial pressures, concerns for loved ones, inadequate sleep, and excessive screen time can all trigger chronically high levels of cortisol within our body, leaving many of us in a perpetual fight-or-flight response. Continuous exposure to stress will take its toll on the mind and the body and may result in many different symptoms which can include headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, weight gain, low levels of energy, and susceptibility to colds and flu due to the impact on the immune system.
The mind-body connection is strong, and to look after our physical bodies, we have to look after our mental health. For most of us though, removing stressors is not an option, so the only way to deal with stress is to “update our software” by learning the tools and techniques to listen and respond to what the body is telling us.
So How Do We Upgrade Our Software?
The first big step to being able to manage stress is to get mindful. Become aware of your environment or situation and learn to recognise your stressors and how your body physically reacts. This will enable you to implement any stress management tools you have in times when you need them the most. It is very similar to the way you might increase your vitamin C when you recognize the symptoms of a cold. The next step is to find out which stress management techniques work for you - sometimes finding the right combination can take time so be patient.
Stress Management Techniques
There are a lot of different practices. Below are four suggestions to help you begin combatting stress:
1. Shift Your Worry: Mind-Bending
Activate your parasympathetic system. We need to try and go back to living in an immediate reward environment rather than a delayed one, our physiology is much more suited to this. The key to doing this is to recognise what is worrying you and take control of it by changing it into a problem that you can act on now!
- Instead of worrying about whether you will get that promotion, focus on getting a specific task done today that will heighten your profile.
- Instead of worrying about whether you will fall sick at some point, focus on doing something good for your body today such as getting a walk in.
- Instead of worrying about losing weight for a holiday, focus on eating a healthy meal today.
2. Breathing Exercises: Take a Breather
Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. It proactively engages your parasympathetic nervous system to switch on your relaxation response and restore the body to a normal state. The wonderful thing about deep breathing is that you can do it anywhere. Here are some ways to try this:
- Box Breathing - Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and then hold for 4 seconds.
- 3-4-5 Breath - Breath in for 3 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and then exhale for 5 seconds. You can do this for a few rounds or time yourself for 3-5 minutes.
- Alternate Nose Breathing - Inhale through both nostrils, then close one nostril using your thumb and exhale and inhale smoothly and completely through the other. Make the exhalation and the inhalation of equal length and avoid any sense of forcing the breath. Now change sides, completing one full breath with the opposite nostril. Repeat for up to five minutes.
3. Digital Detox: Take a Timeout
A digital detox is a period of time where one refrains from using tech devices such as phones, tablets and laptops. The blue light alone from screens triggers the body, but adding in the constant need to check emails, messages, and social media accounts for a large share of the stress we incur and takes away from time that the parasympathetic system can kick in. Taking control of the need for constant connectivity can have a really positive impact on your state of mind.
How does a detox work? Be realistic, start small and try any one of the following suggestions:
- Switch off notifications
- Set a sleep/wake cycle to avoid disturbance when you are asleep
- Set limits on your apps
- Switch off your phone 90 minutes before bedtime
- Have a device-free hour during the day
4. Regular Exercise: No Burn Out Required
Rather than cramming all your exercise into a one-hour session, try to get short bursts of moderate to intermediate movement throughout the day. If you want to do a more intense workout on top of this, get it done earlier in the day when our bodies are primed to be more physical. Generally speaking, low to moderate exercise will lower cortisol, while intense exercise will cause it to rise, so doing a HIIT workout in the evening might make it difficult to unwind from the day and get a good night's sleep. Low levels of stress followed by movement should help the fight-or-flight reaction to naturally dissipate.
Ideas on how to do this:
- Make physical activity part of your daily commute
- Run errands by walking
- Use a standing desk at work
- Take the stairs
- Do mini-workouts
There are many practices you can put in place to alleviate stress but the key to making them stick is to start small and aim for consistency. Once they are ingrained as part of your toolbox, you can build on them.
Our clinic provides a wide range of functional medicine services that can help when dealing with stress. If you are interested in putting together a personalised stress management plan, contact the Aesthetics and Wellness Clinic to book a session with Aektha Wadhwani, OT&P’s Integrative Health Coach.