We all experience stress on a daily basis. Stress can come in many forms: big test tomorrow that you didn’t study for; a big meeting at work that you’re late for and stuck in traffic; the kids need food and clothes with no money in the bank and no job; the list goes on.
Now, as if we didn’t already have enough stress in our lives, enter the Coronavirus, and the uncertainty associated that. No one said life was easy, but cripes, what next?
Stress often usually creates some fairly obvious physical effects: heart palpitations, headaches, upset stomach, trouble sleeping, anxiety, overeating, angry outbursts, lack of motivation, substance abuse, etc. Because people are different, and respond to stress differently, these symptoms, and their extent and duration, can vary greatly from person to person.
I think most of us have experienced one or more of those symptoms (sometimes more than one) at some point in our lives – especially recently.
While these symptoms may be fleeting, and may not present too much of a concern, there can be some very serious health impacts from stress, especially if that stress is experienced over a long period of time (chronic):
- High blood pressure,
- Depletion of the immune system,
- Heart disease,
- Heart attacks,
- Mental health issues such as depression,
- Sexual dysfunction,
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD),
- Hair loss,
- And others
Not all stress is bad, especially if infrequent, and can even have some benefit. Long-term stress, however, can have long-term effects.
How can we manage stress?
There are many things we can do in our daily life to help manage stress. Here are a few suggestions:
Get More and Better Quality Sleep
We know the inability to sleep is often a symptom of stress and anxiety, but lack of sleep can also contribute to increasing levels of stress.
Make sure you get at least 8 hours of quality sleep every day. Go to bed early if you have trouble getting to sleep – you’re not really getting 8 hours if you to bed at 10pm, wake up at 6 am, but stared at the ceiling for two hours before you fell asleep.
To help your chances of falling asleep quicker make sure that you disconnect from certain activities as you near bedtime. Disengage from social media, computer use, television, watching the news with nothing but death and destruction, etc. These activities help to keep your mind engaged and spinning at bedtime, making it that much harder for you to fall asleep.
Conversely, too much sleep can also be a problem. Sleeping late and lying in bed can continue the cycle of stress, anxiety and depression. After all, all you do when you lie in bed is focus on all that is wrong in your life or the world.
Get your 8 hours, and then make sure to get up and start your day.
Exercise can be an excellent way of reducing stress. Exercise, as well as meditation, massage, and deep breathing, increases endorphins – a hormone in the brain which helps to trigger a positive feeling and acts as an analgesic which diminishes the perception of pain. Exercise also has cardiovascular benefits and can aid in improving sleep.
Exercise can also improve self-esteem, a tremendous psychological benefit.
Avoid caffeinated beverages – coffee, teas, soda, energy drinks – if at all possible, but especially within 3 hours of bed time.
Caffeine is a stimulant and can raise your heart rate and blood pressure. Not only can this keep you from alleviating stress, it can create stress as well. Also, being a stimulant, caffeine close to bed time will make it harder for you to fall asleep and have a negative impact on the overall quality of sleep.
When you are in a stressful situation take a couple of minutes and focus on your breathing. Concentrate on slow, methodical, deep breaths on inhalation, and controlled breaths on exhalation. Repeat this process for a minute or two and you’ll be surprised to find your body relaxing.
This is a key component of meditation techniques, which are an excellent way to allow you to focus on the bigger picture, put some perspective on the issues, and relieve stress. Many people also find great comfort in prayer for the same reasons.
Take a few minutes to physically step away from a stressful situation where you can. Overwhelmed with paying bills? Get up, take a short walk, and come back to it. The bills won’t magically disappear, but you will have been able to relieve some of that pent up stress (plus you get some exercise!).
Stepping away should also include disengaging from social media and news media. If you’ve noticed, these frequently contribute to creating, focusing on, and exaggerating all that is wrong with the world – which is why those trolls love it. Nothing but bad, negative news 24/7 and usually distorted and intended to create anger and anxiety (that’s how they repeat viewers). Who needs that and who does it help?
Everyone has their own personal musical tastes, but some types of music are best avoided during times of stress.
High energy, pounding, loud music may be your normal go-to, but can really increase stress levels. Lower volume, slower paced, more calming music can have a physiological as well as psychological effect and help to reduce stress and anxiety.
Hobbies, especially hobbies that require focus and attention such as art, writing, instrument playing, car restoration, fly tying (my personal favorite), etc. will place your focus and energy on the task at hand – and away from outside stressors.
Sports, especially team sports such as softball and basketball, but also more solitary sports such as golf and fishing, are a great way to get exercise, get outdoors, and refocus your mind on a different task, reducing anxiety and stress.
Keep a Positive Attitude
I know that is easier said than done, but it’s true.
A negative attitude is easy to maintain and seems to feed on itself. But, with effort, finding positives can go a long way toward reversing that trend and result in stress and anxiety reduction and an increase in overall well-being.
Pets can be a terrific way to help reduce your stress by redirecting your focus. Hug you dog, pet your cat, watch your fish, give your hedgehog a bath.
Clean or Reorganize Your Desk or Home
You’ve probably heard of Feng Shui (pronounced fung shway), the Chinese concept of how our surroundings impact our personal energy and well-being. This concept includes reorganizing your surroundings in order to attain harmony with the environment.
To many of us that sounds like an impossible task and a lot of work. But, seeing your desk or home full of clutter and papers often creates the perception of an impossibly daunting workload. Simply taking some time to cull through the mountain of stuff, toss out what has been handled or is not important can really help to illustrate what really needs attention – and it might turn out it is much more manageable than imagined.
Nutritional Support for Stress
There are several nutritional supplements which are beneficial in managing stress and anxiety, supporting sleep, and helping to reduce the symptoms of depression often associated with stress and anxiety:
Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb, Withania somnifera, which has been used for over 3,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine for stress relief, improving focus and concentration and increasing energy levels. Ashwagandha is known as an adaptogenic herb because it helps the body adapt to stress.
One of the ways Ashwagandha works to deal with stress is through the management of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the body when under stress. Manufactured in the adrenal glands, cortisol plays an important role in fueling the body’s “fight or flight” response when under threat, and also participates in a number of other key functions such as inflammation, blood pressure, increasing blood sugar, and use of carbohydrates and fats. While cortisol is an important hormone, and useful in stressful situations, too much can be harmful resulting in a number health issues. Ashwagandha has been shown to help reduce excess cortisol levels.
Several human studies have shown that Ashwagandha can reduce symptoms of stress in those with related disorders. Those studies have shown that supplementation with Ashwagandha reduced anxiety and insomnia six times better than those taking a placebo.
In addition to helping the body deal with stress, Ashwagandha has been shown to: lower blood sugar levels in healthy people and those with diabetes; increase insulin secretion and improve insulin sensitivity in muscle cells; increase testosterone levels and fertility in men; may improve memory and brain function; and several other health benefits.
Rhodiola is another adaptogenic herb and has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb, especially in Northern Europe and Russia.
Clinical studies have shown that Rhodiola may support the body in resisting stress and recovering from stressful situations. It may also support both mental and physical performance when in stressful situations.
By balancing neurotransmitters in the brain, Rhodiola has been shown to help with symptoms of depression. Clinical studies show that Rhodiola may have potent antidepressant effects due to the inhibition of MAO-A (an enzyme that is a regulator for normal brain function).
Rhodiola has also been used for treating insomnia, erectile dysfunction, and fatigue. It can also improve brain function by improving the capacity for mental work and easing mental fatigue.
Magnesium is an abundant mineral found in the body and is involved in many physiological reactions, and is a cofactor for more than 300 enzyme biochemical functions within the body such as: regulating heartbeat, energy production, muscle and nerve function, bone health, protein synthesis, blood glucose control and heart rhythm and blood pressure. Magnesium also supports processes within the body which can help reduce stress.
The stress response in the body triggers the production of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The increase in these hormones triggers a number of magnesium-dependent metabolic processes such as energy production, muscle function, cardiovascular demands, and neural transmission. So, as stress increases, the demand for magnesium increases – and without sufficient magnesium, issues can arise.
Through its interaction with muscle and nerve function, sufficient magnesium levels help relax tense muscles which often contribute to the feeling of physical and mental stress.
The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is the primary system which is responsible for controlling our stress response. An increase in HPA axis activity can result in increased anxiety. Magnesium supplementation has been shown to reduce the activity of the HPA axis, resulting in the reduced production of stress hormones, and the reduction in perceived stress.
Clinical studies have also shown a connection between very low levels of magnesium in the blood and depression, especially in young adults.
Another study performed at the University of Vermont showed that supplementation with magnesium lead to improvements in depression and well as anxiety in a group of subjects diagnosed with mild to moderate depression.
Magnesium plays a role in the regulation of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter which reduces neuronal excitability in the central nervous system – in other words, it has a calming effect and can greatly aid in supporting sleep.
Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, is another adaptogenic herb native to India and southeast Asia. It has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine for its antioxidant activity, but more notably as a stress manager due the ability to reduce cortisol levels and enhancing the functions of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Holy Basil has also been shown to counter the physical symptoms of stress through normalization of blood glucose, blood pressure and lipid levels, and psychological stress through memory and cognitive function support and through its anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties.
Holy basil also has been shown to have benefit as a nootropic – a compound which is shown to support brain function – such as: thinking under stress, enhancing memory and learning, and protecting brain cells.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a key neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits the function of neurons in the brain. By inhibiting neuronal function, GABA helps to reduce stress and anxiety and improves relaxation. GABA is known to support sleep and help prevent depression.
B vitamins are essential to health. These vitamins – B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid) and B12 (cyano or methylcobalamin) – are readily found in a healthy diet as well as in dietary supplements.
B vitamins are critical for converting food for energy, cell metabolism, making red blood cells, and supporting the central nervous system. It is though their support of the central nervous system and impact to neurotransmitters in the brain that B vitamins play a role in moderating stress and anxiety.
There are studies that show that chronic stress can deplete B vitamins, which only contributes to increasing stress and anxiety.
L-theanine is often overlooked when searching for nutritional support for symptoms of stress. L-theanine is an amino acid that is typically found in tea – both green and black teas.
Multiple clinical studies have shown that l-theanine reduced stress and anxiety in various study groups. L-theanine has also been found when combined with caffeine to help to increase focus and attention, especially during demanding tasks.
Another study has shown benefits of l-theanine in improving sleep quality. It was found to reduce resting heart rate, which promoted relaxation.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a naturally-occurring amino acid which is only found in trace amounts in foods, but readily available in supplements.
5-HTP is beneficial since it helps to increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin helps to create feelings of well-being and happiness. Some clinical studies have shown benefit for 5-HTP supplementation in improving the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Another significant benefit of 5-HTP is in promoting sleep. 5-HTP produces serotonin which is a precursor to the hormone melatonin, which is produces in the pineal gland. Melatonin plays a key role in regulating sleep by working with the body’s circadian rhythm.
5-HTP has other benefits as well, including: supporting weight loss, reducing the frequency of migraines, and reducing symptoms of fibromyalgia.