Every dr., health coach and grandmother under the sun will tell you stress is bad for your health. #DUH
Recognising that stress is bad for you is the easy part; everyone knows it's bad for you. But no one tells why exactly why it's bad for you or what it actually does to your body. Keep reading to learn how to de-stress. Even when things are completely out of your control.
Let's start with unpacking what stress is. Not all stress is bad. Good stress, for example, comes at specific (usually positive events) such as the finalisation of buying a new house or graduating from university. Stress can also be life-saving. During periods of short stress, our adrenaline kicks in with the fight or flight response that could save your life or someone else's. It's chronic stress that we need to avoid. Chronic stress is dangerous.
Chronic or long term stress means that the "fight or flight" response is permanently turned on and can lead to serious health problems including anxiety, depression, weight gain and even heart disease.
Basically, Stress can be broken down into 3 stages:
Stage 1: The alarm stage
This is your body's fight or flight response
Your body releases adrenaline
If the trigger (the event that's causing you to stress) is removed, your body functions return to normal. If not, your body moves onto...
Stage 2: Adaptation
Your body produces less adrenaline and at a slower rate
As less adrenaline is produced, more of the hormone cortisol is released as a reaction to being stressed but with less adrenaline in the body
High cortisol levels have been linked to rapid weight gain (particularly in the abdomen), depression and mood swings and muscle weakness
If your body stays in stage 2 for too long, you end up in...
Stage 3: Exhaustion
Your body starts to run out of its energy reserves
Your blood sugar levels drop which in turn leads to even less of a stress tolerance
You are now more prone to mental and physical illness and become more susceptible to diseases like cardiovascular (heart) disease.
In essence, long term stress is really really ridiculously bad for you. It messes up your body and its chemistry but on a mental note, can also thwart any attempts to adopt healthy lifestyle changes like working out or dieting (#hellobinges). Not only does stress kill your motivation but can even damage your memory ability, particularly as you age. We know it's bad but what do we do about it?
Recognise the sources
As Dr. Phil said, you can't change what you don't acknowledge. Write down everything that causes you to stress out, as having it in front of you can really help to recognise what your individual stressors are. From there, you can form an action plan to do something about it.
Are they inside of your control or outside of your control? The things that are completely within your control will give you some hope because nothing stresses us out more than complete lack of control. With cause and effect in play, once you have your stressor, write down some suggestions that can help fix that. Example:
"Going to the grocery store on a Thursday night really stresses me out because it's so busy"
Actions can be things like:
Avoiding the supermarket on Thursday
If you have to go on that day, try a different time of day
If Thursday night is the only time you can go grocery shopping, make sure you're prepared. Have a list ready to go, know what isles you need to go to and get in and out.
For things that are completely out of your control like death, disease, pandemics and financial stress, you need to acknowledge that it is completely out of your control. It sounds simple, but you'd be surprised at how many people try to grasp at the problem as if stressing about it will somehow magically fix it. You can't. It's out of your control and you need to accept it. In the meantime, you can still write an action plan. When you feel the stress coming on, do some of the following:
Reflect on the situation
Find healthy ways to grieve
Do something creative that brings you joy
Write down your fears and concerns. Read them back to yourself aloud so that you are aware of these feelings rather than feeling stressed or depressed and not being able to describe them
Find practical solutions to smaller problems. For example, if you've lost your job and financial stress has you worried, start writing down a plan of how you're going to tackle the problem. You can't do anything about the job you lost, but you can do something about finding a new one
The Gratitude jar
I'm a massive fan of the gratitude jar because when we're stressed out, it's easy to get wrapped up in the individual moment which stops us from being able to look at the bigger picture. If you have an ongoing problem, when you wake up in the morning, grab a post-it note or piece of paper, write something that you're grateful for, fold it up and put it in the jar. Don't look at it again until the jar is full and it's ready to be opened. Reading back all the things that you're grateful for later on put things into perspective. It might be difficult at first (don't then stress because you can't do a stress-reducing activity!) but the more you do it, the more you'll get better at it. It can be as simple as "I'm grateful that there's milk in the fridge this morning because it's raining and I don't want to go outside". It doesn't have to be something grandiose.
It's got to be said; exercise is just as much of a benefit to your mental health as it is to your physical health. A sedentary lifestyle actually produces negative branches in your brain. Even if you don't feel like it, the post-exercise high and long term physical activity improves brain health just like it improves heart health. Cardio is particularly good for this. However, I'm a major champion of doing exercise you love because that's the kind of activity that's sustainable. If you hate running but love hiking, do that instead.
Meditation is honestly one of the best things ever for your brain. Within 6 weeks the actual structures in your brain start to re-wire themselves to help deal with stress. There's also a billion other benefits of meditation and it deserves its own post. But for now, just know that while meditation won't fix all of your problems, with repetition, your brain and your body responds positively to this timeless technique both physically and mentally and you'll start being able to handle difficult situations better. Here's a video that helped me get started. Sam also has an app called "Waking Up with Same Harris" for those who want to dive deeper.
Believe it or not, people still practice religion today! Regardless of what religion you practice, there is a comforting feeling in acknowledging the situation is out of your control and leaning on a higher power to see you through a difficult time. If you are religious and have drifted away from your faith, instead of blaming a higher power for what is happening to you, use it as a time to reflect and reconnect with your spirituality. Now would be a good seek out elders of your faith, visit your holy places (in a safe way while we're still in lockdown), or get a prayer journal. Even if the situation doesn't immediately relieve itself, the ability to lean on something or someone else can bring calm and comfort.
Deep breathing - close your eyes and breathe in deep. Not from your lungs but through your diaphragm. Focusing on your breathing will cause you to stay in that moment of your breathing and not think about anything else. It always your brain to stop thinking for 5 seconds and just concentrate on the next breathe. If you have a smartwatch, it should have a function that nudges you to take time out and focus on your breathing. It'll help your heart rate go down and the immediate stress subside.
Progressive muscle relaxation - Focusing on tensing one muscle group at a time before relaxing it. Start with tensing the muscles in your face before relaxing them and moving onto the next group.
Musical therapy - Music is a great way to switch off. Pick music that makes you happy and makes you dream of the positive. I mean, flick on Adele if you want, but the point is to focus on the good, not the stress that might also be making you ball your eyes out. Even better, learn an instrument. Music is so healing for the soul and the creativity and logic needed for learning an instrument is also amazing for brain development.
Massage - Kind of obvious, but relieving the tension from your body can also be good at relieving mental tension. At the time of writing this in COVID-19 quarantine, that's not possible, but moving forward, you can always book an appointment post lockdown or buy a massage gun.
A good warm bath - A good bath is like deep breathing. It keeps you in the moment and helps lower immediate stress levels. Add lavender bath oil or candles to your 'you' time, as lavender has been associated with a reduction in anxiety and can help trigger a sleep response.
And remember. It's ok to not be ok. But it's going to be ok.