Eating healthy foods and exercising are necessary for good health. But relieving chronic stress is also important for a healthy mind and body. And there is no denying that life is full of worries, troubles, and tension. Let’s look at how to relax and rejuvenate in a stressful world.
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Sometimes you may not be able to do anything about the things that cause stress. Some stressors are external and beyond your control. But you can do something about how you react to them. As you read this article, think about the stress in your life. You can learn to react positively and do things to lessen the effects on your health.
“You can’t always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.” – Wayne Dyer
What is Stress?
There are a few definitions of stress. But because we are talking about the effects of stress on our health, let’s look at the medical definition.
Stress is the total response to environmental, social or psychological demands or pressures. This total response includes physical, emotional and mental factors.
“I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.” – Winston Churchill
Can Stress be Good?
A stressful situation triggers the fight-or-flight response in your brain and body. This means that your brain lights up, your senses heighten, and you can clearly focus on the threat. Your heart rate and breathing go up. Blood starts pumping faster and your blood pressure rises. Your body tenses, ready for action. You are now ready to fight the threat or flee from it.
This is a good thing if you are being attacked by a bear. It is even a good thing when you are faced with a deadline at work and must get that report finished. So, your body’s response to stress can be helpful.
Mild or acute stress may not be overly harmful. It may actually be beneficial in some situations. What is damaging to your health is frequent, constant or severe stress.
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension.” – George Burns
Is Adrenal Fatigue Real?
‘Adrenal fatigue’ was a phrase coined in 1998 to describe the symptoms of chronic stress. The long-term exposure to stressful situations was thought to drain the adrenal glands, eventually resulting in failure. But there is no sound scientific evidence that this happens.
When the adrenal glands truly fail, it leads to a condition known as Addison’s Disease, which is immediately life-threatening. Chronic stress, while bad enough, is not immediately life-threatening.
So, adrenal fatigue is not real. But the effects of chronic stress on your body are. And burnout and feelings of being worn out are real. It just isn’t coming from depleted adrenal glands. It’s coming from your brain.
Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Body
“Don’t let your mind bully your body into believing it must carry the burden of its worries” – Astrid Alauda
When your mind doesn’t properly shut down, your body will experience symptoms of chronic stress. And the switch to turn off this response mechanism resides in your brain. Chronic stress happens when your HPA Axis can’t stop spewing out stress hormones.
What is the HPA Axis?
The Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis is a complex system of nerve, organ and hormone responses to stress.
When you are presented with something stressful, your brain’s hypothalamus releases a hormone, called corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) that tells your pituitary to release adrenal corticotropin releasing hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels through your blood stream to your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands respond by producing both cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol acts to make sugar more available in your blood to provide energy for fight or flight. Adrenaline works to increase your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, sweating and primes your muscles for work.
The HPA Axis Has a Feedback Loop to Suppress Your Response to Stress
The HPA axis is turned off when the levels of these hormones are sufficient to deal with the stressful situation. It is also shutdown when the stressor is gone. But sometimes neither of these happen and your body may be under a constant stress response.
This can lead to changes in both body and mind. Some can be neurological changes in your brain leaving you with concentration or memory problems. Heart disease can result from the extra work your heart is doing. And your immune system is suppressed by cortisol, leaving you open to infections and diseases, even increasing your risk for cancer.
“We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day. But if we do each thing calmly and carefully, we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.” – Viggo Mortensen
Be Aware of Chronic Stress Symptoms
So, how can you tell if you are under chronic stress? Listen to your body, it will tell you.
Physical effects of chronic stress are all related to your body being in that constant state of ‘fight or fight’. So, your muscles are always tight and possibly sore. Your blood is shunted from non-vital organs, such as your reproductive and digestive system, to fuel your muscles.
Mental effects of chronic stress are due to your stress hormones acting on your brain causing all sorts of thinking and behavior issues.
Keep reading for some healthy chronic stress treatments and solutions.
How Do You Relax?
One of the treatments for chronic stress is relaxation, which can be achieved in different ways.
From a science standpoint, relaxing means shutting down the HPA Axis response. And there are many ways we can do this. Hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, all act to shut this system down.
You cannot see or feel what your HPA Axis is doing. But you can feel the result of it shutting down. When you relax, you will feel your heart rate go down, your breathing slow, your muscles relax and your mind become clear.
From a practical and emotional standpoint, relaxing is anything that calms you, makes you happy, and gives you feelings of pleasure and safety.
21 Ways to Reduce the Effects of Chronic Stress
Let’s explore 21 ways for you to relax and reduce the effects of chronic stress on the body.
1. Eat Healthy Foods
Eating a healthy balanced diet is important for overall health. We simply cannot deal with stress well if we are in poor health or lack essential nutrients in our diets. So, keep your immune system strong by eating wholesome foods.
But there are some foods that can help us deal with chronic stress better. Some of these foods are sweet potatoes, eggs, fish and seafood, oats, garlic, sesame seeds, turkey, cruciferous vegetables, chickpeas and berries. They do this by helping to buffer some of the hormones of stress.
2. Drink Soothing Herbal Teas
There are many herbal teas that can help you relax, such as camomile, lavender, lemon balm and peppermint.
Studies have found that tea drinkers report feeling calmer and have lower levels of stress hormone. This is especially true with green tea, even though it contains caffeine. It seems that the amino acid, theanine, can help protect us from the effects of chronic stress and steady our nerves. Green tea and its powdered form, matcha, contain high levels of L-theanine.
3. Go for a Walk
Walking is exercise and releases endorphins that calm our hormones and nerves. A big breath of fresh air also soothes us. And if you are able to walk among trees, you will benefit from the phytochemicals that they emit that can help calm the mind.
4. Drink Lots Of Water
Staying hydrated will help reduce any harmful effects that stress has on the body. Drinking enough water will help the kidneys flush out metabolic waste, including your body’s chemicals that result from chronic stress.
You should be drinking at least 2 liters of water every day, more if you are exercising. The water in the soothing teas we talked about earlier counts towards your total daily water intake.
5. Try Some Acupressure
When I was completely freaked out over my cancer diagnosis, my acupuncturist applied a few needles and a wave of calm and peace washed over me. It was profound and I was impressed.
“Acupressure is a highly satisfactory complementary therapy that can demonstrate a clinically significant decrease in self-rated pain and anxiety scores.” – Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
To achieve calming effects at home, you can do acupressure. This is just as it sounds… applying pressure to an acupoint. And while it is not as good as an acupuncturist’s needle, it can help you out when you need it most.
6. Practice Deep Breathing
You can immediately calm your mind and reduce the harmful effects of stress by doing deep breathing exercises.
Take a minute right now. Place your hands on your stomach and close your eyes. Take a breath in through your nose and feel your stomach rise like a balloon. Imagine that it is a balloon filling with air and floating, weightless.
Now breathe out through your mouth with your lips pierced. Feel the air whistle past your lips as your stomach deflates. Use your abdominal muscles to push all the air out. Notice how the rest of your muscles relax as only your stomach muscles tighten.
Let those muscles and your diaphragm spring back as you take in another breath through your nose. Fill that balloon again. Repeat a few times focusing solely on your breathing.
7. Try Massage Therapy
A massage is a fantastic way to relax. I feel so calm and relaxed after getting one from a registered massage therapist. Not only does it help with headaches and body stiffness, it helps to relax the mind too.
If you can’t go out for a professional massage, try some massage techniques at home. Two of my favorite massagers are my percussion massager for my shoulders and back, similar to one my chiropractor uses, and my shiatzu foot massager. These feel so wonderful after a day of working on my feet.
8. Practice Kindness
We don’t need studies to show us that being kind to others can help reduce your stress. When we help others, the negative effects of stress are mitigated. We look at the world in a brighter light. And we put ourselves into a good mood.
A random act of kindness releases oxytocin to help shut down the HPA Axis.
We should also be kind to ourselves. Self-kindness, acceptance and compassion towards yourself is an essential component to good mental health. And that reflects positively on your physical health.
9. Find An Enjoyable Craft
Art therapy has been used for decades in the mental health field. And for good reason… it is calming and helps us express our thoughts and feelings. Art also reduces cortisol levels.
Doing a hobby or a craft also allows you to focus on the moment. It is a form of meditation. You become engrossed in the task at hand and the world melts away.
When you are enjoying your craft, time seems to disappear, and you are distracted from your problems. There is also a satisfaction that boosts self confidence when we complete a project and admire our handiwork.
10. Read A Fun Fiction Novel
Reading a good book can relieve stress and take you to far away places full of adventure, while you remain safe in the comfort of your favorite chair.
It does matter what you read. It isn’t just reading that reduces stress, it is reading fiction that has the most influence on your brain. Reading fiction stimulates areas of your brain that evoke emotions, empathy, and socialness. Your brain lights up and the words in the book become a simulation of reality. Thus, reading fiction becomes a vacation for your mind.
11. Smell Calming Scents
I talked about drinking tea earlier and the calming effects that some herbal teas can have. But, you don’t need to drink the tea to calm a weary body. Just smelling the scent of some herbs can relax us and improve our moods.
Studies have shown that oils from some plants have stress-relieving properties just by smelling them. Peppermint, lavender and strawberry are just three that have these calming properties. They influence the neurotransmitters in our brains, such as dopamine and serotonin, to reduce our blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. These aromatherapy scents also seem to make us happier.
There are numerous studies demonstrating that meditation reduces stress. Allow yourself just 10 minutes to sit comfortably and listen to your breathing and melt away those feelings of stress.
This video by yoga instructor, Lori Schmidt, can help you get started with your meditation practice.
While meditation uses the mechanical deep breathing techniques, it goes deeper into mindfulness. Meditation focuses on what the body is feeling in the moment. Sometimes this focus is aided by visual imagery, mantras, white noise, chimes or singing bowls.
13. Do A Puzzle
Immersing yourself into a puzzle can help you turn off any unnecessary thoughts. They are known to improve mood, increase confidence, improve memory, lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. A surge of dopamine is released when you put a puzzle piece in its correct place. These are all the things you need to reduce the effects of chronic stress on your mind and body.
Putting a puzzle together also alters your brain wave patterns. People produce more alpha brain waves, which are those associated with dreaming, and less beta waves, which you usually have more of when you are awake.
14. Go For A Swim
Sometimes, when I feel stressed, I like to go for a swim. There is something about being in water that calms heightened nerves. It is a form of sensory deprivation. Just floating on my back in a pool with my eyes closed blocks out the outside world for a few precious minutes.
And swimming laps is great exercise that will release endorphins to help settle any hormonal stress responses.
15. Write It Down
Journaling or keeping a diary is a fabulous way to de-stress. Writing down your troubling thoughts and worries can help get them out of your head. When we have too many thoughts floating around in our heads, it puts added strain on an anxious mind.
This is the theory behind a Worry-Eater. You write your worry or fear on a piece of paper and place it in the mouth of the monster. Zip up that pouch and your worry can be forgotten.
Of course, you don’t really need a toy to do this for you, although those worry-eaters are adorable. The pages of a notebook can do the same thing. You can also envision yourself pinning a “mental” note to an imaginary tree in a vast forest and then picture yourself walking away from it.
16. Listen To Music
Listening to music can help alleviate the effects of stress on our bodies. Calming music might include slow, instrumental or classical music. But music can also be calming when it elicits a pleasant memory. Thus, music to reduce stress is a personal thing.
Music has the ability to elicit joy, slow our heart rate and increase our happy hormones.
17. Laugh And Be Silly
Laughter modifies your brain response to many stress related hormones. A lighthearted outlook, even if brief, can lighten our mood and lessen our stress.
“Laughter is the best medicine.”
So, find time to be silly. For a brief moment, don’t take life so seriously. Seriousness can wait for a better time and place. Laugh with a friend. Watch a comedy show. Read a funny book. Laughter can be just what the doctor ordered on a gloomy day.
18. Grow A Plant
Caring for a plant gives you a sense of purpose, as the plant can’t thrive unless you water and tend to it. Watching it grow and flourish can be satisfying. Gardening is a hobby that requires you to engross yourself in the task at hand. And you can forget your problems for a little while.
Plants give off oxygen and phytochemicals that also help you feel calm. Studies have shown that gardening reduces your body’s cortisol levels. Horticultural therapy has been used by people suffering from PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses.
19. Find Your Happy Place
Finding my happy place was a technique I would use during particularly stressful events, such as medical tests.
My happy place is in a calm and serene forest valley. There are no sounds here. The forest is quiet except for the crunch of my feet on the trail. Not even wind blows, as it is blocked by mountain on either side. The air is so still, fresh, and peaceful. I feel safe and happy here.
So, where is your happy place? Close your eyes and picture it right now. What does it look and sound like? Are you feeling it? What emotions does it evoke?
20. Sing A Song
Those who enjoy singing will tell you that it cheers them up. Singing can reduce anxiety, improve your mood, and give you feelings of pleasure. It releases endorphins and other happy hormones in your brain. Those who sing regularly are more resilient to stress, have a better sense of well-being and improved quality of life.
What is your favorite song to sing? How does it make you feel?
21. Practice Yoga
Yoga is a fabulous way to reduce stress and anxiety. There are many studies to support this positive body benefit. It has been found to help many chronic diseases, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, asthma, osteoarthritis, and cancer.
Yoga encompasses body postures (asanas), breathing (pranayama), relaxation (nidra), and mediation (dhyana). As your body stretches and relaxes, you also calm your mind. A good yoga session can sooth away weariness and leave you rejuvenated.
I hope you can find your calm.