Stress is a natural, normal, and unavoidable part of being human. It is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat and it’s meant to help us get out of harms way.
Stress generally refers to two different things: situations that trigger physical and emotional reactions (stressors) and the reactions themselves (stress response).
Our autonomic nervous system controls all of the automatic functions in our body and is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
- The sympathetic system is our “fight or flight” response
- The parasympathetic system is our “rest and digest” response
Its our fight or flight mode that gets activated when we are reacting to a perceived stressor- this can manifest in different ways for different people: increased heart-rate and blood pressure, worry, anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia, poor immune function.
Stress is not ALL bad. It serves a purpose, and short term activation heightens our ability and awareness to respond to important triggers that need our attention.
The problem arises when the stress signals and response is continually triggered and is allowed to go unchecked. This results in chronic exposure to stress hormones like cortisol which can have a huge toll on our system.
Frequent activation of the stress response is associated with a variety of disease states and health conditions including:
- digestive concerns such as indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, gastric reflux
- headaches and migraines
- hormone and metabolic disruption (thyroid, diabetes)
- skin disorders
- anxiety and depression
- menstrual difficulties and infertility
Finding Balance: Tools for Stress Management
We don’t have control over many of the events that cause us stress but we do have control over how we react and respond to these events.
Deep Breathing or belly breathing is a great way to curb the stress response and help prevent it in the first place. When we use shallow breath, the lowest part of our lungs don’t get a full share of oxygenated air, which can make us feel short of breath and anxious. Deep breathing changes this, allowing for a full oxygen exchange thus stabilizing our blood pressure and heart-rate.
Mindfulness is our ability to be consciously aware of how we feel, think, and act in our environment. It is all about perspective and perception. Learning how to engage with stress differently by focussing your awareness on how your body and mind currently respond and challenging it regularly, can change your thought patterns and prevent you from falling into one of the many mind traps that we fall into.
Sleep ensures we are in the best state of mind of handle the day to day challenges that arise. Here are a few “sleep hygiene” tips to help you get your 8 hours a night:
- Bedtime routine- include a ritual like tea drinking
- Light protein rich snack before bed
- Low stimulation before bed- no screens 30 minutes before
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, smoking 4 hours before bed
- Don’t use your bed for other activities such as reading, watching television,or studying.
- Keep a consistent schedule as much as possible for bedtime and waking.
Nutrition plays a big role in our ability to handle and manage stress. Stress often leads to cravings like sugary and salty easy to grab snacks, and while satisfying in the short term, in the long term they only make things worse... sugar gives you an initial high but will follow with a crash and salty foods will dehydrate your body and brain cells leaving you tired and foggy.
Keeping your blood sugar balanced can help prevent this type of stress eating pattern and also prevent those spikes and drops that can wreak havoc on our mood, energy levels, and ability to handle stress.
- Including protein in all meals
- Don’t go more than 3-4 hours without eating- skipping meals is a bit problem!
- Limit refined sugars (white rice, white pasta, sugar, fruit juices)
- Reducing sugar (along with the other techniques) is also going to help strengthen your immune system.
Caffeine as a stimulant is a trigger for the stress response causing the release of cortisol- even for several hours after coffee consumption. The key here I think is moderation (ie. one a day) and being mindful of your own body response.
Physical exercise seems to be the answer to everything- no pill will ever do what physical exercise can do for our health! Exercise brings on the release of endorphins “happy hormones”, which helps combat stress. Do something you enjoy, do it with a friend, and get your heart rate up. Moderation is also key.
Acupuncture can induce the parasympathetic state, reducing cortisol, and allowing you to slip into a wonderfully relaxed state. Community acupuncture, with its affordability, offers a great way for you to take advantage of this modality on a regular basis!
Calming herbs can be included throughout the day or in your before bed ritual: Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and Lavender are all gentle options that are easily taken as a tea.
Adaptogenic herbs help our body respond and bounce back from stress. They promote a sense of wellbeing, increase energy, and generally help you cope with the daily demands of life. Here are some of my favourites:
- Astragalus- immune enhancing and energizing.
- Rhodiola Rosea- has anti-anxiety effects and may help improve memory under stress.
- Siberian Ginseng- a stimulating herb for those who are fatigued with brain fog due to stress.
- Withania somnifera (Ashwaganda)- immune modulating, anti-inflammatory, and strengthening to the overall system.
- Schisandra chinensis- mildly anti-depressive with liver protective functions.
* The information above is meant to be educational and not meant to replace the advice of your primary care health provider. I advise you to consult with your health provider before self-prescribing any herbal remedies.