Stress is something that the majority of the population is affected by in one way or another. It comes in all forms - acute, chronic, physical, emotional, environmental, as well as high and low levels. Despite the huge variance in what actually causes stress, they all have one thing in common...they can all be detrimental to health. Stress is known as the silent killer, and learning to properly recognize and combat stress can do wonders for overall health and vitality.
What Causes Stress?
This is often multi-factorial. For some people, stress may arise from one aspect of life, or a combination of many. The trick is acknowledging what exactly the root cause of stress is, and coming up with a strategy to deal with it. There a several common factors that contribute to stress (this list is not inclusive):
1. Physical stress- Physical stress can stem from obvious things like injury, trauma, or illness, but also less obvious factors such as lack of sleep, or being subjected to too much noise or crowding.
2. Emotional stress- This form of stress is probably the most common, and possibly one of the most taxing on health due to the length of time people often experience emotional stress. This type of stress often occurs by feeling inadequate in some way, shape, or form. Negative self-talk is a major stressor and can impact all aspects of life. Emotional stress can even have roots in childhood experiences, affecting us much longer than many other types of stress.
3. Social Stress - Social stress generally has to do with our 'connectedness' (or lack thereof). For example, retirement, which is supposed to be a good thing, often results in feelings of loneliness or loss of purpose. Another source of social stress, and probably the most obvious, is our job. Job changes, financial stress, overworking, feeling undervalued, or the inability to pursue a passion is a significant source of social stress that many people face.
4. Poor Diet - This type of stress is definitely a contributing factor to both physical and emotional stress. With the typical Western diet consisting of highly processed foods, refined sugars, and unbalanced everything, you may be surprised at just how much your diet may be affecting your body.
5. Environmental Stress - This again is a contributing factor to physical stress. With the amount of personal care products, cleaning products, and packaging that we deal with on a daily basis, one's environment can actually cause a legitimate amount of stress on the body, to the point of interrupting normal functions.
What Does Stress Do to the Body?
Stress reaches far and wide in the body, affecting everything from mood, to behavior, to hormones, and overall wellness. The scary thing is that sometimes stress may be affecting your health without you even realizing it!
Basically, stress is your body's way of preparing for danger - its purpose is to make us stronger and faster in the face of peril, and more resilient while facing any threats. This response is fantastic when facing real danger, however it is extremely taxing on the body in longer term situations.
Chronic stress keeps stress hormones elevated, suppresses the immune system, and puts the body at a higher risk for disease and cancer. Over extended periods of time, stress hormones can interfere with digestive processes and can lower insulin sensitivity, leading to pre-diabetes and weight gain.
Basically, if the body is in its 'fight-or-flight' mode, it will put this life-saving mode as a priority, at the expense of other relatively 'non-essential' functions. The perfect example of this is fertility - where the body uses progesterone to manufacture cortisol during periods of stress. The caveat to this is that progesterone is required for ovulation and hormone balance. This prioritization makes sense if a women is found in a life-threatening situation, however, to a women wanting to conceive while experiencing chronic low-level stress, this can be disastrous.
The abundance of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that occur affects many other hormones including melatonin (a.k.a. the sleep hormone), serotonin (a.k.a. the mood hormone), and many fertility hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, etc.) which can cause problems such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, infertility, premature aging...the list goes on. Sometimes the key to solving these problems can be quite simple - stress reduction.
5 Ways to Reduce Stress Naturally
1. Eat healthy. This may sound simple, but switching the diet to focus on whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats can greatly reduce the amount of stress the body is experiencing. If you find that your daily diet consists of pre-packaged items that can last on a shelf for a month or more - this tip is for you! A poor diet consisting of processed foods, grains, sugars, and chemicals is very damaging to the body and can cause immune reactions, intestinal damage, and can lead to serious disease. To reduce stress through diet, focus on getting your nutrients from fresh produce and foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Focus on getting a rainbow of vegetables to provide the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to heal itself and function optimally. Also ensure that there is a balance of healthy fats that the body can use for proper vitamin absorption/transport, hormone manufacturing, and for tip-top brain function.
2. Exercise. Exercise is one of the best natural stress-relievers we have, so use it to your advantage! I'm not saying you have to join a gym and spend hours a day exercising - something as simple as going for a walk to clear the mind can do wonders. Research has shown that the negative effects stress has on the body are exaggerated in inactive people. If you are not currently active, try to find an active outlet and use the endorphins to your advantage!
3. Sleep.Sleep is one of the most important steps in stress reduction, as this is your body's time to repair and recuperate. Lack of sleep can result in mood imbalances, and can even be a root cause of stress. In fact, much of the Western population has the issue of chronic under-sleeping. If sleep is an ongoing issue it may be beneficial to practice mindfulness techniques and get into a relaxing routine before bed (more on this in next week's post).
4. Schedule "Me Time". Maybe 'me time' sounds far-fetched for those of you with what seems like a never-ending list of to-do's. However, I guarantee scheduling 'me time' will make completing that list much less stressful and way more efficient. Scheduling as little as 20 minutes to relax, read, take a bath, journal, practice yoga or meditation, take a walk, or just do something solely to unwind will help de-clutter the mind and de-stress, allowing you to refocus for the tasks ahead.
5. Practice Daily Gratitude! There is a growing body of evidence on the positive benefits of gratitude on health. Something as simple as thinking of 3 things you are thankful for each day before bed can put your mind at ease, allowing your physiological responses to follow. If you are feeling upset or stressed, acknowledging that feeling is important; what is more important is responding to that feeling with a positive statement that will allow you to address the stressor, and move forward in a positive manner. Talking to a person you trust can also provide the support you may need to put you on the right track. Surrounding yourself with positive people can make a world of a difference when it comes to stress, and this will help shape your environment to be filled with optimism.
Stress does not have to be your nemesis. Learning what causes stress in your life, and implementing simple lifestyle changes (like those mentioned above) can greatly reduce stress. Even if you don't think you're stressed, give the steps a try anyways. Sometimes recognizing stress is the hardest part, but in doing so all aspects of life can be optimized.