Manage stress & protect your health
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension and most commonly is the mental state of feeling unable to cope comfortably with events facing us.
- Its 10 a.m., the phone is ringing off the hook when your boss suddenly drops the bombshell that you will need to present the full plans for a proposed project to the board of directors in two hours’ time.
- Your weekly department meeting has run on an hour late, and your stomach is in knots because your child is waiting to be collected from aftercare, you know the teachers will be annoyed and you still have traffic to contend with.
- You have people coming for dinner and are busy cooking when the power goes out and you realise loadshedding has started again and within two hours your half made meal will be good only for serving to the dustbin. You want to (and probably do!) scream with frustration before trying to figure out a Plan B.
All these scenarios create stress, but its acute stress, the type that is short term and probably won’t last longer than the day. This kind of stress may actually benefit your health.
According to researchers some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance. But if your life feels like that every day then you’re experiencing chronic or long term stress.
Big stressors include job issues, money problems, relationship conflicts and major life changes such as moving house or job, divorce or break ups, illness and death of a loved one.
It is interesting to note though that small stressors such as long commutes to work, rushed mornings and conflicts with colleagues can accumulate, becoming just as bad for your health as chronic stress.
1. What is stress?
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension and most commonly is the mental state of feeling unable to cope comfortably with events facing us. It can arise from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, nervous, angry or scared. Nine times out of ten the stress we experience is not caused by the event itself but about our thoughts, perceptions and emotions about it.
2. What is happening in your body?
When we encounter a stressful situation our body activates the adrenal glands (two glands above the kidneys) to secrete the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream, triggering a stress response in the body:
- Your heart beats faster
- Your muscles become tense from an influx of blood
- Breathing becomes shallower and faster
- Digestion slows
- Your awareness is heightened
This response happens automatically when we perceive a threat of some nature, be it physical (you are being attacked by a lion) or psychological (your boss has asked to speak to you and having heard talk of possible retrenchments around the office you immediately assume you’re being let go that day.) It usually takes the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, a minute or two to process the situation and evaluate whether the threat is real (probably not since you were just commended last week for the new business you landed) but if so, how to handle it (if you run through the door and lock it behind you the lion will be contained). When the cortex sends the all clear, this response is deactivated and your nervous system relaxes.
It is when the stressful situations are ongoing, seemingly insurmountable or out of our control and we find ourselves in that hyped up state regularly that stress starts to endanger our health.
3. Stressed or not? Your body is telling you.
Many of us are so used to living with stress every day that we often overlook the signs are body is giving us to say the stress is too much:
- Waking up in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep easily
- Heart palpitations and feelings of edginess
- Tightness of stomach, or abdominal cramping around events that are perceived as stressful (tight deadlines, family pressures, etc)
- Craving caffeine throughout the day to feel awake and boost energy
- Irritability, snappiness, aggressiveness
- Depressed mood, crying easily and unexpectedly
- Feelings of being overwhelmed and sense of unrelenting pressure
- Inability to ‘switch off’
- Loss of self esteem and confidence
- Disorganised thoughts and lack of attention to detail
- Loss of libido
- Neck aches, muscle tension and pain
- Digestive symptoms such as cramps, diarrhoea, bloating, nausea, IBS, ulcers
- Suppressed appetite or over-eating and cravings
- Poor immune function, regular colds, infections and little niggles
4. ‘I can’t ‘calm down’, I’m stressed!’
Can you really manage stress when you can’t control the situation?
In a word, yes. Remember earlier we said that stress is caused not by the event itself but our thoughts about and reaction to the event? That is where the answer lies, but before we deal with that let’s first look at some simple practical ways to help your body cope with stress:
- Eat meals at regular intervals to avoid adrenalin being triggered as a result of blood sugar dips.
- Chew your food thoroughly and take the time to eat peacefully, it promotes good digestion.
- Exercise daily. A daily walk will improve oxygen transfer to tissues and muscles, relieve muscle tension and release the ‘feel good’ chemical endorphins. If you do it with a partner, friend or your dog, even better!
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. They trigger adrenalin release and use up stress fighting nutrients.
- Avoid refined sugar – it causes blood sugar to spike then dip, and also depletes magnesium.
- Sleep. As much as you need. If you know you need 7 – 8 hours sleep a night (most of us need that amount) then make sure you’re getting it. If you can’t get to sleep use a natural sleeping remedy, learn to meditate, pray and practice ‘handing your problems over’ or find deep breathing exercises you can do before bedtime.
- Do something different. Going on an outing, getting up earlier on a weekend to stroll the beachfront at sunrise, meeting friends, volunteering your time for a cause, performing a random act of kindness however small….anything that breaks the monotony, changes your routine or creates a good emotion, even for a few moments or hours, will help you relieve stress.
- Eat oats for breakfast. A complex carbohydrate and rich in Vitamin B, oatmeal causes your brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical.
- Control your mind, or it will control you. Become your own expert. On a piece of paper draw 4 columns. In the left column list all the things or situations that are causing you a lot of stress.
Head up the remaining three columns with:
Can I control it?
Can I influence it?
How can I accept it?
Next to each item tick where it fits under those headings. If you cannot control a situation, how can you perhaps influence it? If you can’t influence it, how can you accept it?
The point is to see your stressors in black and white and decide objectively in what way you can handle them. That way you will take back your power, feel more in control over what you allow to bother you, how to manage it and what you simply choose to brush off.
5. Natural remedies for stress
Nature provides many herbs to relax and revitalize the nervous system. Passion Flower, St.John’s Wort, Rhodiola, Chamomile and Valerian work gently with your body to restore balance.
Taking these herbs in an extract form can be very effective as they can be absorbed easily by your system, are non-addictive, and non-drowsy.
- What is Passion flower?
Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) is a renowned nerve tonic recommended for adults and children to treat: nervousness, insomnia, restlessness, agitation and irritability.
It aids with emotional symptoms of stress, creating a calming effect that can help support a peaceful sleep. This is extremely important because the restorative action of sleep, both physical and mental, makes the body better able to deal with the demands of the next day. Not sleeping well makes everything far harder to deal with.
- What is St. John’s Wort?
Hypericum perforatum gained its common name of St John’s Wort from the fact that it is in full bloom on the midsummer birthday of St John (24th June). St. John’s Wort, the sunshine herb, not only boosts the mood but also alleviates seemingly disparate symptoms that often accompany stress, such as fatigue, nervous anxiety and tension, headache and insomnia.
St John’s Wort is suitable for cheering those who are sad and calming those who are anxious, but it should not be used for anything more than minor depression or states of anxiety. It cannot be used with other medication. Check with your doctor or health practitioner prior to taking it if you are on other medications.
- What is Rhodiola?
Rhodiola rosea (Golden Root, Roseroot, Aaron’s Rod) is a medicinal herb that grows in the cold regions of the world. In Russia and Scandinavia, Rhodiola has been used for centuries to cope with cold climate and stressful life. Also called the Golden Root, it is believed in Siberia that those who drink rhodiola tea live to be 100.
Rhodiola is included amongst a class of plant derivatives called adaptogens which have the ability to increase the body’s resistance to stress, trauma, anxiety and fatigue. Rhodiola has the ability to increase resistance to a variety of stresses – chemical, biological and physical.
Valerian has been used by many for all kinds of nervous conditions. According to some, its name comes from the Latin “valere” which means ‘to feel good, to be healthy’.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) reduces muscle spasm and has an impressively sedating effect on mind and body. If you are unable to sleep, Valerian can calm both your central nervous system and relax your muscles, allowing you to sleep more restfully.
This herb is perfect for short term stress requiring a fast acting remedy with no side effects.
Check with your doctor or health practitioner prior to taking it if you are on other medications.
Chamomile helps calm nerves and soothes anxiety. Those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) will benefit from chamomile tea as it has an antispasmodic effect and alleviates stomach cramps and discomfort.