What exactly is ‘stress?’. The term ‘stress’ has become synonymous with feeling psychologically overwhelmed, anxious, and worried, but when we are stressed, specific physiological processes are also taking place in the body.
When faced with stressful events and situations, the body responds by activating its sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of the alertness hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and increases our heart and breathing rate – giving us a burst of energy and focus so that we can deal with whatever challenge we are up against. Once resolved, the body returns to its normal functioning state courtesy of the parasympathetic nervous system. The two systems are intended to work hand in hand: the sympathetic nervous system signals the alert, then when the stressful event has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and tells the body it can relax.
The body’s stress response is an evolved mechanism often referred to as our ‘fight-or-flight’, as it would have equipped our early ancestors with the resources they needed to respond to a dangerous situation. Nowadays, our sources of stress are usually less life-threatening – for example running late to work – but we often overreact to these stressors, and our sympathetic nervous system kicks in even when we don’t really need it to.
While our stress response can absolutely be useful in the short term, for say, running a marathon, or making it through a tough job interview, it’s when it is repeatedly or continuously activated that it can become a problem. Excess cortisol triggers inflammation in the body, which can damage organs and tissues. Having high levels of cortisol and adrenalin constantly circulating around the body also puts extra pressure on the heart – increasing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes. Too much cortisol can additionally deplete the immune system, which is why you might feel run down when you’ve got a lot on your plate. Long-term stress, known as chronic stress, can even lead to tension in the muscles, indigestion, headaches, trouble sleeping, as well as emotional problems, and can be particularly problematic at the various stages of a woman’s life, for example, impacting your ability to conceive, and worsening some symptoms of menopause.
AM I AT RISK OF LONG-TERM STRESS?
In a 24/7 society that’s always switched on, we are often faced with multiple sources of stress at every turn: financial problems, workplace worries, difficulties in our relationships, illness, divorce, and even our smart devices and social media are all contributing to rising stress levels. In fact, many health professionals believe we are in a ‘stress epidemic’ that’s putting our health and wellbeing at risk. Although this all sounds pretty terrifying, try not to panic! Identifying the various sources of stress in your life and taking steps to reduce them, as well as learning how to switch off the body’s stress response when you don’t need it can help you to win in the fight against stress.
HOW TO COMBAT STRESS?
Why not try these 7 stress-busting techniques to help you reduce your stress levels?
Break up with your phone: Smartphones are often a one-way ticket to Stressville: social media feeds, work emails, sales calls, news apps, and non-stop group chats can all trigger a little spike of cortisol every time we look at our screens. Why not try reducing your phone usage throughout the day? Turn off notifications, set time-limits on your social media apps, and make sure your phone is nowhere in sight when you take your lunch break! Keeping it out of your bedroom can also help you to avoid any late-night scrolling, which will only trigger your stress response right before you try to sleep.
Exercise: Movement is a great way to beat stress. Anything that gets your heart rate up – like running, swimming and cycling – will trigger a release of endorphins, your feel-good hormones, leaving you feeling relaxed, positive and energised. Yoga in particular is a great form of exercise to tackle stress, as the controlled breathing you engage in as you move through the postures helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, naturally soothing the body’s stress response.
Avoid negative coping strategies: Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and sugar can be the first port of call for many of us in times of stress, but too much of these will only maintain the body’s stress response. All four of these substances can actively elevate levels of cortisol in the body – making it harder for it to come down from high alert. If you’re already feeling stressed then try and cut out (or at least cut down on) these vices, and keep well-hydrated throughout the day (dehydration can trigger your stress response!).
Wind down before bed: A good night’s sleep is crucial to keeping cortisol levels in check, so making time to relax and switch off at the end of your day will help your body to get into rest and relaxation mode. Have a clear cut-off point for when your work day ends and your to-do list gets put aside. Power down your laptop and do something you find relaxing, whether it’s cooking, reading, yoga, or taking a nice warm bath.
Eat healthily: As the saying goes: “you are what you eat”, and certain foods will exacerbate stress in the body, while others will reduce it. Fatty, sugary, refined and processed foods can often cause blood sugar to spike. Since the body’s stress response also elevates blood sugar, these foods will only maintain the body’s state of stress. On the other hand, upping your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables that are packed full of antioxidants will help you to reduce the amount of stress hormones in your body, and eating a diet rich in fibre can help you to avoid any blood sugar surges.
Let it go: No one is a superhero but sometimes we are all guilty of taking on too much, leaving us spread too thinly and a sitting target for stress. Take some time to reassess your obligations and prioritise what you absolutely need to do yourself, what others can help with, and what – quite frankly – can just be let go! You can’t do it all, and focussing on what you can realistically achieve, and asking for help from others when necessary, will make it less likely that you’ll get overwhelmed, or set yourself up for failure. As you take the pressure off yourself, you should find your stress eases up too.
Breathing exercises: Breathing exercises are great for calming the sympathetic nervous system. When you breathe deeply and slowly, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure, and signalling the body to stop releasing cortisol and adrenalin. There’s plenty of simple exercises and guided sessions available online or via specific apps, so why not check them out so you have one at the ready next time you’re feeling stressed?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aimée has a background in Forensic Psychology, working as a family therapist before becoming an editor for Penguin Random House. Specialising in non-fiction, she has edited bestselling books from world-class experts in their field. Most recently she has commissioned self-help titles covering natural remedies, parenting, and mindfulness.