By learning to recognise early warning signs of stress, we are able to manage it before it manages us.
In our fast-paced world of modernity, we are repeatedly being forced to deal with the busyness and overwhelm of daily life. From demanding workloads, unexpected traffic jams to simply staying abreast with technology, stress is a five-letter word we need to become clear on to understand how to be more resilient to it.
It’s not unnatural to be caught up by situations that are out of our control. Life is full of situations that we perceive as stressful events. Did you know that millions of years of evolution have ensured that our stress system does exactly what it’s supposed to do? It works perfectly —we are, in fact, the problem.
When we have a stressor, what happens? We have a fight or flight response — our brains tell us there’s danger (we’re going to be eaten by a crocodile) and our bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood. These chemicals give us more energy and strength, which can be a good thing if the stress is caused by physical danger (little of modern life truly requires it). But this can also be a bad thing if the stress is in response to something emotional or work-related and there is no outlet for this extra energy and strength.
As stress enters the picture, more convenience foods creep into our diet, fitness goals are buried under the burden of responsibilities, and meditation can seem like a waste of time. We become so focused on how time-poor we are that life begins to spiral out of control. This is why it’s important to control the way we respond.
Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. What one person finds stressful, another will not, and what can be stressful at one time may not cause stress during another time of your life.
In a nutshell, stress is how we perceive daily life hassles, so it’s helpful to change our perceptions by asking during times of stress, ‘Do I need to react this way?’
Becoming aware of how we deal with stress is super-important, because cumulative stress causes wear and tear on the body by:
making it difficult to sleep at night
making us irritable
disrupting hormonal balance
making us more susceptible to illness through a compromised immune system
causing blood sugar imbalances (the need for sweets to help balance the brain — and the body uses glucose for fuel instead of fat)
producing increases in abdominal fat, and
promoting digestive issues.
Factor in lifestyle habits such as poor diet, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and environmental toxins and there is no wonder that adrenal fatigue and mental health is on the rise.
Being busy is in itself a stressor that adds to the problem. Weighing up what is important versus what is urgent can help you to take stock of your priorities and better manage your time. Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to immediately: answering emails, phone calls and texts and tending to sick children. Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term vision, values, and goals.
As hard as it is, if you focus on yourself by maintaining your workouts and downtime, the better you are able to deal with these stressors. For example, I know missing a workout or choosing to eat crappy food will add to my stress load 100 per cent of the time, but if I can separate the emotion from the reality of my core values and push toward maintaining my positive health behaviours, then I know I will be rewarded.
Too much stress can result in negative feelings and a depressed mood. Our posture often tells the story as our brain tries to soothe itself through cravings for ‘comfort’ foods. This is often only short-lived and compounds the problem through mental clutter.
What we need most when stress rises is high-quality nutrition and the release of endorphins through regular exercise.
Adrenal fatigue occurs when our adrenal glands become overworked and are unable to keep up with demand. As a result, cortisol levels plummet and the body cannot respond effectively to pressured situations.
Simple signs you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue
Are you tired in the morning upon awakening? Do you feel afternoon lows, then get energised around 6pm?
Are you relying on coffee to get you through the day?
Do you suffer digestive issues such as IBS?
Is your sleep restorative?
Do you have mental fogginess and irritability?
Is your blood pressure low?
If the answer to some or all of these questions is ‘yes’, then you need to put in place strategies to better deal with what’s challenging you in life.
Stress management involves changing stressful situations when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation.
To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response system (parasympathetic nervous system) should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. Unknowingly, most of the time our stress responses are operating as a sort of background hum, keeping us on edge. Turn that off, and we relax.
10 ways to manage your stress
Guided imagery/meditation: Be sure to pencil this into your daily schedule or else you are most likely to let it go in favour of other things. Even one to two times a week for 10 minutes is helpful in bringing your awareness back to self.
Write down your thoughts: Write in a diary or journal each night before bed to help unload your mind and allow for a better night’s sleep. By jotting down your thoughts, you are parking your worries for the night and allowing yourself to give them perspective in the morning.
Maintain an exercise program: Studies have found that movement helps you feel better by harnessing the body’s natural fight or flight response, rather than suppressing it. Exercising for 20 minutes or more can enhance mood by releasing chemicals (endorphins), which relieve pain and increase a sense of wellbeing and relaxation.
Slow down and breathe: Breathing exercises are a simple way to gain relief from rising stress levels. Breathe in to the count of four, hold for two seconds, and breathe out for a count of four seconds. This helps to slow down everything while you’re out and about. You know when your stress levels are rising: you feel like you’re about to lose focus and control. Use this as a trigger to begin your breathing exercises for a couple of minutes.
Practice yoga: It’s awesome, and I love feeling the difference between the way I enter a room before yoga and after. If you’re not used to yoga, it is like going on vacation — give it at least five days or practise sessions and you will find it much easier to relax.
Take time for recovery: Most importantly, we need to make lifestyle changes to support the body and mind by not overreacting to stress in the first place. These modifications aid the body in maintaining healthy cortisol levels. One of these is to allow for adequate recovery time between workouts — exercise is a good stress, but a bad stress if it’s overdone and abused. Ask yourself, ‘Am I more tired within 60 minutes of exercise or the next morning?’ This is a sign you’re overdoing it.
Ditch the caffeine: It needs to be said, but our café society is partly to blame for a lot of overstimulated and tired folk. What is giving you energy is ultimately your undoing. The old cup of Nescafé isn’t anywhere near the stacked jolt of caffeine we find in a freshly brewed cup these days. And our adrenals are paying for it. Caffeine secretes a hormone that tells the adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, which is useless if you’re sitting down at a desk or using it as a form of relaxation. Try alternatives such as herbal teas (chai and liquorice are great for reducing sugar cravings, and green tea promotes fat burning), roasted dandelion root, or warm water with a squeeze of lemon.
Say ‘no’ sometimes: Learn how to say ‘no’ by looking after yourself first and examining what your future self is telling you. Say ‘yes’ to yourself first.
Disconnect from social media: Turn off notifications from apps and leave checking social media to a certain time of the day. Feeling like you have to be constantly connected is in itself tiresome.
Sleep in the dark: Take a look at your sleep habits by limiting screen time at night. This plays around with your natural melatonin levels that help promote sleep. Also, a small light on an alarm clock or red power light on a TV is sometimes all it takes to mess with your circadian rhythm.
So while it’s beneficial to know we are in control of what we think, sometimes things creep up on us. By learning to recognise early warning signs, we are able to manage stress better before stress manages us.
Karla Gilbert is a nutrition and health coach. For more information on her health coaching packages, healthy habit school workshops, or corporate wellbeing programs, visit www.karlagilbert.com.au