Daily life is stressful, whether you’re a working professional or a stay-at-home parent, a student or even a child. Between study, house chores, dealing with other people and providing care, stress gets to all of us without a doubt. At times, it does us good. A short-term release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline boosts our energy and cognitive function, making us more alert and efficient at what we do. Too much of these hormones, on the other hand, exhausts our bodies. What’s more, the so-called ‘perceived stress’, a feeling that our lives are too stressful, also affects our mental health adding further to the physiological stress that we may be experiencing. Stress is unavoidable, but we all understand that we need to somehow manage it. In this post we will discuss the how and why.
The Biology of Stress
What is stress? Stress is the body’s response to a factor or a situation that is perceived as threatening. The stress response involves several systems in the brain and body, but its primary “accomplices” are the amygdala, hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, and the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and storing memories and emotions associated with them. It is also responsible for the feeling of fear and can “sense” danger. When we perceive something as threatening or stressful, it is the amygdala that sounds the alarm. Next, the hypothalamus in the brain, which is responsible for hormone release, sends a signal to the pituitary gland (also a hormone secreting part of the brain), which in its turn sends another signal to the adrenal glands, that we need a boost of adrenaline and cortisol to save us from the threat. This pathway is called a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and the response it triggers is called ‘fight-or-flight’. This is a physiological self-protection mechanism, that helps us make a decision to either fight, run away (flight), freeze or collapse.
When adrenaline is released, it increases the blood pressure, sweating, heart and breathing rates. Cortisol triggers a surge in blood glucose to ensure that we have enough energy to sustain our actions. It also sends that glucose to the muscles required for the chosen action (for example, legs if we decide to run away). As such, it temporarily boosts our physical abilities by increasing the energy supply. These hormones also alter our brain functions, such as memory and critical thinking, to help us get out of the stressful situation. Once their job is done, these neurochemicals are re-absorbed, thus ending the stress response.
Stress is responsible for keeping us alive. But if this response is activated as a false alarm, or too often and for too long as in the case with chronic stress, it may as well eventually become the death of us.
The Negative Impact of Stress
Anyone could agree that living with chronic stress, whether physiological or perceived, is not a pleasurable experience. It triggers a lot of symptoms, such as headaches, restlessness, poor sleep, anxiety, trouble concentrating and so much more. Chronic stress can lower our immune response, making us prone to frequent infections, and eventually lead to cardio-metabolic diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, as well as depression, gastrointestinal and other issues. Both the perceived stress and elevated stress levels need to be managed to bring to ensure our health is not at risk. How can we do this? Stay tuned!
Factors Contributing to Stress
You may find it surprising, but often it’s the same things that come as a result of stress that serve as factors that affect our resilience and lead us to increased stress levels and perception of stress in the first place. It is like a vicious cycle that we fall into and seem unable to get out of.
These common factors include:
- Poor and inconsistent sleep
- Poor and insufficient diet
- Alcohol consumption
- Lack of relaxation/downtime
But life is more complicated than that, and these factors are not the only causes of stress. We may be experiencing some life changes, an illness, changes in family circumstances or relationship, moving places, moving jobs, not having enough money, having difficulties at work, not having a job or simply feeling lonely. Any of these factors can lead to the above, diminishing our ability to cope with stress even further.
If you are not so sure what is the underlying cause of your stress is or what causes your stress response on a daily basis, you can begin by thinking about your current circumstances and answering a few questions:
- Have there been any changes in your life recently?
- Have you moved places or are in the process of moving?
- Have you started a new job or lost your job, or thinking of changing?
- Have you started or ended a relationship?
- Have you had a baby or are planning a family?
- Have you lost a family member?
These circumstances play a major role in creating chronic stress. Even if you don’t make much out of it, they still may affect you in unexpected ways.
Also think of the triggers you may be experiencing daily.
- “I feel stressed/anxious when…”
- “At work/home/school, I wish people would…”
Try finishing these phrases and see what comes out. Take a notepad and jot it down. It will feel better to just released it from your mind.
Stress Management Tools That You Could Use Right Now
When we talk about stress management and stress relief, there are two types of tools that we should be implementing to combat stress: short term and long term.
Short term tools are amazing because they could help us calm down and re-focus on here and now. They can help us feel better within an instant and we can use them as we need. Long term tools are also brilliant because they set or modify the conditions for the body to help cope with stress in the long run. For best results, we should always be using both short and long term tools or strategies to manage stress effectively. But let’s start with the short term actions that we can use for immediate relief.
Short Term Stress Management
The Power of Breathing: 4 Ways
To start with addressing the elephant in the room, the most important tool in combating the stress is Breath. Simple as that. We always have it with us, but we rarely consciously use it.
The autonomic nervous system in the human body controls the involuntary processes, such breathing, heart beat, etc. The breath specifically is controlled by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic system slows our breathing and heart rate down, while the sympathetic system brings them up. When we are worried or stressed, the sympathetic nervous system quickens our breath and heart rate. But despite breathing being completely autonomous, it is about the only automatic process in our body that we can consciously control. As such, switching to slow, deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which tells the brain that there is no threat, we are not in danger. It brings the heart rate down and stops the stress response.
So it is up to us to take control. We can employ various breathing techniques that can lower the stress hormone levels and return the nervous system back to its functioning state. Let’s take a look at these breathing techniques. Remember to always start in a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Do a few rounds if it feels good.
- Physiological sighing: despite its complicated name, it’s not a complicated task at all. In fact, it’s the most effective technique of all breathing techniques. It really opens up the tiny alveoli, the air sacs in your lungs, and stimulates the proper oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, which is crucial for the management of stress, simply because excess carbon dioxide in our lungs triggers the stress response. To do the technique:
- Take a deep breath through your nose.
- Without breathing out, take another breath through your nose. Don’t worry if it feels forced or much shorter than the first – it is not, after all, a common for us pattern of breathing.
- Breathe out completely through your mouth, extending your exhale for as long as possible.
- Box breathing: this is a highly recommended technique for anyone suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. Deep breathing, like in box breathing, is instantly calming and helps regulate the autonomic nervous system.
- Inhale deeply for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4.
- Exhale slowly and completely for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4 before inhaling again. Do a few rounds.
- Meditation: meditation can take on many different forms, from guided to unstructured. But it doesn’t have to be long, done in a lotus pose with candles, burning incense and chanting. I mean, you could, if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t be a tool that you could use anywhere. For this purpose, we will keep meditation simple and short.
- Take a comfortable seat and rest your hands on your laps. You can close your eyes or keep them open, gazing softly past your nose, not focusing on any details.
- Take a breath in. Don’t force it, let it be natural. And while breathing in, simply think to yourself “I’m breathing in”.
- Breathe it out completely and think “I’m breathing out”.
- Repeat for as many breaths as you like, ideally no less than 10. Instead of thinking “I’m breathing in or out”, you can simply note “In” and “Out”, or you can count your breaths instead.
- Left nostril breathing: this is another very simple but effective breathing technique widely practised by yogis and Ayurvedic holistic health practitioners. Left nostril breathing involves (as you guessed) breathing only through the left nostril, and it acts on the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the feeling of calm and relaxation. The technique is extremely simple.
- Sit comfortably in your chair, or lie down. Relax your shoulders. Close your eyes if you wish or simply soften your gaze.
- Place your thumb or index finger on your right nostril to block the flow of air to it.
- Breathe slowly in and out through the left nostril and feel the calm spread through your mind and body. Do this for at least 10 breaths, then take a break and repeat if needed.
Other Short-Term Stress Management Techniques
- The Five Senses grounding technique: this technique is a great tool to bring your awareness to your surroundings and break the unhealthy thought pattern which may occur when you’re stressed out. To do this technique, simply close your eyes and take a slow, deep breath (or a few). Then open your eyes and notice:
- Five Things You Can See
- Four Things You Can Touch
- Three Things You Can Hear
- Two Things You Can Smell
- One Thing You Can Taste
- Aromatherapy: while it is not a breathing technique, it is a very simple and effective way to alleviate stress. Just like with meditation, you could go all the way out to aromatherapy sessions in a local spa or wellness centre, but what I am offering is a few simple ways to use essential oils to help you through the stressful times.
- Diffuser: when you are at home or if allowed in your workplace, add water and a few drops of essential oils to a diffuser and let the cool mist calm you down.
- Roll-on: you can buy a roll-on essential oil and use it on your pulse points, such as your wrists or temples. These little bottles often come in beautiful blends of oils that are both powerful and pleasant.
- Personal diffuser: these are little wooden cylinders (like this and this ones, not affiliated) that absorb the drops of oil and emit the aroma, which you can inhale whenever you feel like you need a little pick-me-up. Alternatively, you can use a handkerchief and a few drops of oil, but personal diffuser is easier to use when you are out and about.
If you don’t know where to start for your personal dose of aromatherapy, try lavender, frankincense, bergamot, neroli, sweet orange, geranium or ylang ylang. Or check out some oil blends offered by reputable brands like Tisserand or doTerra. Just make sure you’re choosing organic, 100% pure essential oil. Anything less than that may be a fake and will not have the health benefits of the real essential oils. Also, please consult with your healthcare provider if you suffer from any medical conditions, take medication, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as not all oils may be safe for you.
- Tapping: have you heard of it? It’s called Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, and it involves tapping with your two fingers on various acupressure points such as temples, jaw and collar bones to relieve stress and anxiety. I really wouldn’t be the right person to teach you the EFT as this is not my area of expertise, but here is a simple and wonderful resource that can help you to get started. Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the Tapping Solution and I am not asking you to invest in any plans that they may offer.
- Herbal Teas: cutting down on caffeine for stress management is a must, as it can actually add to your agitation if taken at the wrong times (there’s a whole science to correct caffeine consumption), but replacing your cup of coffee with a mug of herbal tea can have an immediate calming effect on your mind and your nervous system. Good herbal teas include chamomile, lemon balm (Melissa), mint, hemp (I’ve recently tried one – yum!). For night time, it could be a blend containing valerian root. See what range of teas is available to you locally, try them out to see what you can stick to. And don’t forget to consult with your healthcare provider if you suffer from any medical conditions, take medication, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Long Term Stress Management
When talking about stress management, it is most important to talk about causes. Whether it’s work or circumstances, eliminating the trigger, or at least being able to recognise the trigger, is vital. Not all causes and triggers can be fully eliminated. For example, we may change jobs if the current one is particularly stressful, but we cannot eliminate all stress from the new job. And we shouldn’t, because a little bit of stress keeps us productive and alert. It is also more complicated when it comes to stress caused by relationship or health-related issues. In these cases we may not always be able to eliminate it, but reframing our minds and thoughts, and changing attitude can go a long way.
There are, however, behavioural and lifestyle changes that we can make to become more balanced and resilient and combat the negative effects of stress easier. Let’s look at our options.
1 – Physical Activity
Anything from walking to lifting weights can be an excellent way to switch off your overthinking mind. Moderate exercise is proven to lower the stress levels, and for that benefit (among the others) we should be getting a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise each week. That’s 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. It doesn’t have to be a strenuous workout. In fact, strenuous exercise can add to stress, especially if you do not enjoy it. But going for a brisk walk is a great idea when it come to stress management. Another great exercise for stress relief is yoga. It unites the body and mind through mindful movement and breathing (remember, breath is the most powerful tool!) and can bring you both immediate results and the long-term effects.
2 – Proper Nutrition
This is not what come to mind when we talk about stress, but poor diet may add to our stress levels simply because it does not provide the body with the nutrients it needs to keep our energy levels and brain function at its optimum level. Moreover, highly processed foods further rob our bodies of nutrients to break them down and digest, while providing only the empty calories at best. That is why it’s important that we eat 7+ servings of fruit and vegetables a day, quality protein (beans and lentils, tofu, eggs and lean meats) and carbohydrates (brown rice, whole wheat breads and pasta) and unsaturated fats (avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, oily fish). Diets that involve low calorie intake or omission of the entire food groups, such as low carb or low fat, can create unnecessary stress within the body. The same goes for forcing yourself to eat a diet you do not enjoy. It is so, so important that you find healthy, balanced meals that you enjoy eating!
3 – Avoid Alcohol
This should be self-explanatory, really, but I will have a go. Having a glass of wine to relax after a stressful day may seem like a good idea. And it often provides a short-term relief. But alcohol is toxic to the body. It slows down our brain and changes the neurochemical composition in the brain, affecting our mood and thoughts. It also disrupts the sleep pattern and increases our perception of stress as well as making us less able to cope with it. For a long-term stress management plan, alcohol should be avoided. A glass of wine may be enjoyed safely from time to time, but it’s best enjoyed when you are not stressed.
4 – Reduce Caffeine Intake
While a good energy stimulant, caffeine (especially in coffee) can magnify the effects of stress on our body in a very specific way: caffeine elevates the cortisol and adrenaline levels, which are already elevated when we are stressed. It further inhibits adenosine, the hormone that allows us to calm down, meaning that the effects of stress will also be prolonged. While I wholly believe in the health benefits that coffee offers (when we drink about 3 cups a day), the advice I always give and religiously follow myself is:
- No coffee for about 60-90 min after waking (as this is when the cortisol levels are naturally at the highest point, to help us kick-start the day)
- No coffee after 2 pm (or even 12 pm, if you’re a very early riser and have an early bedtime, or if you’re more sensitive to caffeine – we all metabolise caffeine at different rates)
- Cut down to 1 cup/day or eliminate completely at the times of high stress/anxiety.
5 – Quality Night Sleep
Poor sleep can interfere with the normal function of the brain and nervous system and drastically diminish our resilience. Getting enough sleep should actually be the first step in your long-term stress management plan. Aim to have at least 7 to 8 hours of night sleep, best if you can keep it close to the natural circadian rhythms (going to bed before midnight) unless your work schedule does not allow you to do so. Create a bedtime routine that will help you to wind down in the hours leading up to sleep and stick to it. For example, I like to do a gentle yoga routine to release tension accumulated during the day, then climb into bed with a mug of chamomile tea and a book, read for 30-60 minutes and then switch off. Avoid bright lights and electronic devices 1 to 3 hours before sleep.
6 – Mindfulness
Mindfulness can represent a whole group of actions in your stress management plan. But in general, mindfulness is something that we can control in the world that is largely out of control. On a day-to-day basis, breath is what turns any activity into a mindful activity. Why? Simply because it roots our body to where we are, to the present moment, the thought, the feeling. Mindfulness can mean simply paying attention to your breath when you are doing something. Or it can be in a form of meditation, breath work. There are more forms of mindfulness too, for example:
- Mandala colouring/mindful colouring
- Guided meditation
- Walking meditation
- Gratitude list
- Mindful eating
- Mindful art and craft (e.g. origami)
Any activity can be turned into mindfulness if we just breathe.
7 – Cold Therapy
A less conventional tool, but useful nevertheless. Cold exposure, such as taking a cold shower or a cold plunge in a lake. It lowers your blood pressure and stimulates release of dopamine, a so-called happiness hormone. It also literally takes your mind away from the troubles and, together with breath, brings your focus to here and now. When deliberately exposing yourself to cold, you control the stressful situation, which increases the resilience. Be sure to start slow, with 20-40 seconds exposure, very gradually extending to a minute or more.
8 – Body Massage
Stress tends to create a lot of tension in the body, which may be further adding to the perceived stress. Getting a massage and releasing that tension promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being, which are very important for relieving perceived stress. Another pathway, in which massage can make a difference, is physical touch. Physical touch releases oxytocin, another happiness and bonding hormone. In fact, sharing a hug for 10 to 20 seconds is the best way to stimulate oxytocin release. So make sure you get at least one of these.
9 – Water Therapy
Water is naturally calming to a human body. It can be attributed, in part, to a ‘dive reflex‘ that humans (even newborn babies!) have when plunging into the water. When the dive reflex is activated, our breathing stops for a short moment and the heart rate slows down, the blood gets redistributed from the limbs to the heart, brain and other organs, and the parasympathetic nervous system activates. We already learned that activation of the parasympathetic nervous system has a calming effect on the body and makes us feel safe.
Water seems to affect us on many levels, from bringing on a sense of calm and putting us in a meditative state to boosting our creativity. I know for a fact that a lot of my writing was inspired by the sea. Behavioural psychologists are still learning what it is about the water that makes it so relaxing, whether its the floating sensation, the sounds of waves or running water, a certain temperature or even the blue colour, but the fact is undeniable: water makes us feel calm and can lower our stress, both in the moment and long term when we engage in water-based activities on a regular basis. And no, we don’t even need to swim or dive (although go for it if you are able), even having regular baths in the evening is enough to make a difference. A shower can make a difference, if you do not rush about it and take time and slow down. My personal tip: try a Spa playlist when taking a shower or a bath and maybe add some candles (but follow the safety guidelines).
There are many, many things that you could do to help alleviate both physiological and perceived stress. Going to saunas and steam rooms, getting other holistic treatments, doing talk therapy or even something as simple as making time to read books, getting a bubble bath or talk to your loved ones can play a role in lowering the stress levels and boosting your well-being. Any act of self-care is not going to go unnoticed short-term and is definitely going to change your life for the better long-term if you keep it consistent.
If you feel like you are getting too tense or stressed out in the moment, pick one (or a few) of the short-term strategies to help you shift your focus on the present moment and the things that you can control. But do incorporate the long-term solutions for the best results.
Hope you found this helpful. And if you have any tried and tested strategies of your own that you would like to share, please do so in the comments below.
References and further reading:
Dive Reflex research: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0031938486900181
Biology of stress: https://humanstress.ca/stress/what-is-stress/biology-of-stress/
Massage and stress: https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/massage-for-depression-anxiety-and-stress#:~:text=Emotional%20benefits%20of%20massage&text=Massage%20can%20lower%20stress%20levels,an%20effective%20part%20of%20treatment.
Benefits of cold exposure: https://hubermanlab.com/the-science-and-use-of-cold-exposure-for-health-and-performance/