It’s a bit of stating the obvious, but we are living through some stressful times. Our world has become so stressful that there are now whole fields of study devoted specifically to stress—and its impacts.
But not all stress is bad. Physical stress on muscles and the heart can be good for building strength. The psychological stress of taking a test can help to build confidence. But when stress becomes constant or isn’t handled effectively, it can affect our health and quality of life.
It’s All About Inflammation
The science can get a bit dense when considering biochemical stress pathways and their negative effects on humans, but the keyword to consider here is inflammation. More and more research is suggesting that stress can activate an inflammatory response in the body, and vice versa, trapping you in a vicious stress cycle. Over time this may lead to stress-related diseases such as hypertension, some neuro-generative diseases, and even depression. (2)
Stress is a part of everyday life. We can’t avoid it. Stress can be external (weather conditions, work schedule, traffic jam) and it can be internal (chronic disease, hunger, fatigue, toxic body burden, and more). Sometimes, resolving the stress is as simple as eating a meal, or taking a walk. Other times, it takes a lot of effort and steady support from family and friends to make a shift.
The following is a list of suggestions for dealing with stress. These are not rules. What works for one person, might not work for another. And what worked last week (or year), might not work now. Still, it makes sense to be proactive in dealing with stress, have a plan so that when stressed, some potential antidotes are at hand.
1. Rest/Sleep for Stress Management
The benefits of a good night’s sleep is well known. Stress can have a huge impact on the quantity and quality of sleep. Several studies have been conducted looking at the connection between stress and sleep. The concept of sleep hygiene (habits engaged in at bedtime) offers a few ideas on how to minimize the effects of stress on sleep:
- Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends.
- Make sure the bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature.
- Remove electronic devices such as TVs, computers, and smartphones from the bedroom.
- Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime.
- Relaxation and breathing techniques. (3)
A good half-hour power nap mid-day can make a huge difference too.
2. Diet for Stress Relief**
To revisit the concept of inflammation for a moment – foods that are high in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, artificial trans fats, and refined carbohydrates can cause inflammation and affect proper digestion. (4)
A healthy diet goes a long way toward reducing the impact of stress on the immune system, stabilizing mood, and reducing blood pressure. Some foods that have proven beneficial for stress reduction include:
- Vitamin C: Consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges and other citrus fruits, can support healthy stress levels and balance the immune system. Intake of this vitamin can help lower the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and blood pressure during high-anxiety situations.
- Complex Carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can induce the brain to increase serotonin production and stabilize blood pressure as a way to lower stress.
- Magnesium: Obtaining an adequate amount of magnesium can be helpful for avoiding headaches and fatigue. Oral magnesium can also successfully relieve premenstrual mood changes. Additionally, increased magnesium intake has been found to improve sleep quality in older adults. Healthy sources of magnesium include spinach or other leafy greens, salmon, and soybeans.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (such as flaxseeds, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower surges of stress hormones and support heart health, balance mood, and support healthy female cycles. (5)
3. Exercise for Stress Management**
The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise can support healthy levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. (6)
4. Yoga, Breathwork, and Meditation
While yoga is exercise, it is also a study of the mind/body connection developed thousands of years ago. Aside from improved muscular strength and flexibility, the physiological benefits of yoga help to stabilize the autonomic nervous system which helps the practitioner become more resilient to stressful conditions. (7)
5. Hobbies can Relieve Stress
From playing guitar to gardening, painting daisies to collecting stamps, hobbies are a fantastic way to lower stress. (8)
6. Walk it Off
Twenty minutes walking through a park or in nature can balance stress hormone levels. (9)
7. Bodywork for Stress Management
Massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, Tui Na, and cupping are just a few of the different modalities of bodywork available – each can provide stress relief in a unique way. The key is to find a practitioner that is licensed and well trained. Do some research before booking an appointment with any bodyworker. Ask friends for recommendations, talk to other clients, and certainly let a medical provider know if you are incorporating any complementary therapies into a health regimen.
8. Read a book for Bibliotherapy
This is the use of books to help people cope with emotions, mental health, or stress balance. The research is a bit thin in this area, but data indicates that reading can support people thirteen and older experiencing psycho-emotional stressors, though it may not be as effective for younger children.10)
9. Take an Electronics Break for Stress Management
It’s no real surprise that too much time online reading news and engaging in social media can become a stressor. For some, budgeting the amount of time online, or on Facebook and Instagram can be a fantastic way to balance stress levels – and, the time saved messaging and scrolling can be put to better use, like taking a walk or enjoying a book. (11)
10. Spend time with Family and Friends
Socializing also directly impacts our stress levels by increasing dopamine levels (the hormone that decreases anxiety levels and makes us feel more confident in our ability to cope with stressors) in the body. In addition, interacting with others directs our energy outwards, keeping us connected, and engaged with our community.
As stressful as life can be, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. There are many tools at our disposal to help minimize the effects of stress and help us live healthy, productive lives.
So take a nap, bake some bread, read a book… it’s all helpful!
** Be sure to talk with a medical provider before beginning any new exercise regimen or incorporating dietary changes to a current routine.
(3) Leah A. Irish, Christopher E. Kline, Heather E. Gunn, Daniel J. Buysse, Martica H. Hall. The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: a review of empirical evidence. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2015 Aug; 22: 23-36.
(5) Maria Alessandra Gamonne, Graziano Riccioni, Gaspare Parrinello, Nicolnantonio D’Orazio. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: benefits and endpoints in sport. Nutrients. 2019 Jan; 11(1) : 46.
(7) Chong, Cecilia, Tsunaka, megumi, Tsang, Hector, Chan, Edward, Cheung, Wai Ming. Effects of yoga on stress management in healthy adults: a systematic review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. Vol. 17, Iss. 1, (Jan/Feb 2011): 3208.
(9) Hunter, MaryCarol R., Gillespie, Brenda W., Chen, Sophie Yu-Pu. Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, 2019.
(10) McCulliss, Debbie, Chamberlain, David. Bibliotherapy for youth and adolescents – school based application and research.. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, Research and Education. Volume 26, 2013 Issue 1.
(11) Chandra, S. G., Buffone, Anneke, Jaidka, Kokil, Eichstaedt, J.C., Ungar, L. H. Understanding and measuring psychological stress using social media. Presented at The University of Pennsylvania Thirteenth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media (2019).