Stress is an inescapable part of modern life. Though you might not be able to rid yourself of it, you can learn how to manage or even relieve stress.
Squeezed between the competing pressures of mounting workloads, financial worries, and family responsibilities, Americans are feeling the strain. About a third say their stress level has risen, and it’s taking a real toll on their mental and physical health; many don’t know how to relieve stress.
When confronted by daily stressors – whether a pile of unpaid bills or mounting work deadlines – your body responds by releasing a flood of chemicals. Your heart pounds, your breath quickens, and your muscles tense as they ready to face the challenge. The stress response evolved to help our ancestors escape from imminent threats – like a charging rhino or a spear-armed enemy. It wasn’t designed to react to modern stressors like traffic jams or election woes.
When the stress is unrelenting, your body’s response keeps firing… and firing… and firing. The continuous release of chemicals increases inflammation, damages blood vessels, and leads to a buildup of fat tissue, which combined increase your risk for a number of diseases. “If you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons, you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’re chronically shutting down the digestive system, there's a bunch of gastrointestinal disorders you’re more at risk for as well,” said Stanford University neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, PhD.
How to relieve stress
It’s normal to feel stressed from time to time, but if your stress is constant, you need to combat it for the sake of your health. Try these tips to defend your body against the detrimental physical and emotional effects of stress.
One of the most effective stress-reducing techniques is also one of the easiest to do. In fact, you already do it 17,000 or more times a day: Breathe. “Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of calmness,” according to The American Institute of Stress.
Breathing doesn’t require any fancy techniques. Simply close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and then slowly release the breath. You can repeat a word like “Ohm” to turn your deep breathing session into a meditation. Practice deep breathing or meditation for 10 to 20 minutes each day, and feel your stress recede with each breath.
You know that “high” you get at the end of an intense run or spin class? That mood boost is thanks to brain chemicals called endorphins, which are like your body’s own natural painkillers. Simultaneously, exercise helps your body better managestress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
Regular physical activity might even act as a buffer against future stressors. “If you exercise, you’ll not only reduce your anxiety, but you’ll be better able to maintain that reduced anxiety when confronted with emotional events,” said J. Carson Smith, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland.
For the greatest impact on your mental – and physical – health, incorporate 150 minutes a week of heart-pounding aerobics with two to three sessions of strength training. Don’t forget about mind-body programs like yoga and tai chi, which combine fitness with deep breathing and meditation.
The relationship between sleep and stress runs both ways. You can’t sleep soundly when worries weigh heavily on your mind. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to an increase in stress hormone production, and the cycle continues.
For more restful nights, let go of the day’s stressors before you get into bed. Read a book, take a warm bath, or practice gentle yoga to unwind. When you get into bed, picture a calming scene – like a boat rocking on the ocean – to put your mind into the right frame for sleep.
When one part of your life – whether it’s your job or caring for your children – overshadows all the others, you’re bound to get stressed out. Try to divide your life more equally between work, family, and fun. Carve out time each day to focus on yourself.
Having an emotional support network can change stress from something you endure, to something you manage. In the American Psychological Association’s 2015 “Stress in America” Poll, people who had no emotional support rated their stress level as 6.2 on a 10-point scale, compared to 4.8 among those who said they did have emotional support. You can find support in any number of places – from friends, family, your religious organization, a professional therapist, or a support group.
April 17, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA