Do you ever wonder what it would be like to not feel stressed? Or do you wonder if others deal with stress better? How do they remain positive during stressful times? Stress is an essential part of everyday life, which can have a greater impact on some more than others. But why? How? Whether we’re stressed from trauma, work and finances, or more personal stressors such as our health and relationships, this can be all-consuming to the point where stress becomes the norm and before we know it, we’ve forgotten what it feels like to not be stressed!
Let us be the first to tell you, this should not be your normal. We should have a balance of stress and relaxation, allowing our bodies to recover in readiness for whatever stressful event may come next. Let’s unpick this stress phenomenon, the concept of stress, and let us help you create your own toolkit for stress recovery and resilience, using our key top tips.
What is stress? (The Science-y bit)
Stress is a healthy, positive bodily response to a stimulus. This response is carried out via various mechanisms to keep us safe, and protect us in times of danger. We experience what we call our ‘fight or flight’ response, triggered by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is our innate evolutionary reaction to either fight or run away from a life-threatening event. We see this reaction in all manner of scenarios, from slamming on the breaks in an emergency, or acting quickly to save a falling child, or you know, the common running away from a lion, this is considered acute stress. This mechanism is crucial, and is certainly a positive response.It allows us to increase our focus, alertness, performance, and energy to escape danger and react in an emergency.
In addition to the SNS, the stress response is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The chain of command starts at the hypothalamus gland, which releases a cascade of hormones to eventually signal the adrenal glands to release cortisol, that well-known stress hormone. Under normal circumstances, our bodies are exposed to fleeting spikes in cortisol during stressful events, which then return to the regular level.
What happens when this stress goes in to overdrive?
When stress becomes more consistent and chronic, it loses its positive affect, and can become more harmful to our health. We lose that sense of control, we don’t think clearly, and often find ourselves in a state of dysfunction. How this manifests is unique to everyone, but commonly can look something similar to; increased irritability or aggression, disturbed sleep, hair loss, and even weight gain.
Chronic stress can also impact other areas that are not too obvious, such as disrupting menstrual cycles, skin health, and digestive and thyroid dysfunction. Therefore, having some set ways that enable you to de-stress when things get out of hand is crucial.
What to do if you are stressed:
- Identify the cause. This can be as simple as sitting and thinking, writing everything down that’s on your mind, or speaking to someone. Once you identify what is driving or causing you stress, this then becomes much easier to tackle and resolve.
- Write a daily gratitude journal. A humble way to start the day is to come up with 3 things (or even just 1) that you are grateful for. Often in times of stress, it can feel all-consuming and we can be overwhelmed with negative thoughts. Turning to find things that you’re thankful for will alter your focus to a more positive outlook immediately. If you’re not a fan of writing a journal, it’s just as effective to say them out loud.
- Take a bath with your favourite essential oils, opt for calming ones such as lavender, rose, ylang ylang or jasmine. Not only will being in the bath soothe your stresses, but these scents will instil calm and help you to breathe deeply. For best results, aim to do this before going to bed to improve sleep quality too.
- Laughter therapy, yes it’s a thing! Laughing is a simple and effective way to relieve stress and release endorphins for instant relaxation. During stressful times, we can find that we have forgotten to smile, let alone laugh. You can do this with your partner or a friend and just simply laugh, or you can opt to try out a laughter yoga class. The concept may sound strange, but even just trying it will make you naturally laugh and smile, lifting your spirits.
- Avoid alcohol. It’s very easy to reach for that glass of wine to calm your anxiety and stress. However, alcohol can actually increase stress levels, intensify feelings, increase irritability and impact sleep, often leading to further drinking the next day, creating a vicious cycle. Instead, opt for these calming teas; camomile, lemon balm, rose, green tea and peppermint, or for those who are after a cold, refreshing beverage, consider Kombucha, a probiotic-rich drink, which supports gut health whilst keeping you alcohol-free. These will not only help to naturally calm you but they won’t add to your stresses and will allow you to start the next day with a fresher perspective.
- Exercise. Get that release of those feel-good endorphins! Exercising is a highly effective way of de-stressing, you can choose any form that suits your needs. Consider boxing if you’re feeling angry, running if you want some alone time, or yoga if you’re feeling emotional.
- Be kind to yourself. Above all, the last thing you need to is to add more stress, so allow yourself to feel the way you do. Let off steam if you need to, have a good old cry, and be patient with yourself. Remember what you’re feeling right now is not permanent.
We know that our diet is important for health, especially when we’re stressed. Ironically, this is the time when our healthy habits get thrown out the window and instead we opt for the quick, comfort eats that we know will make us feel poorly, lethargic, and guilty. Choose the healthier option with these top stress-supportive nutrients.
- Magnesium. This bountiful mineral has a natural relaxing effect, found in foods such as; green leafy vegetables (spinach, rocket, chard), legumes, and fruit (avocado, bananas). Magnesium gets depleted very quickly when we’re stressed (consider this like turning on a tap). Ensure to replace your magnesium, it’s recommended to supplement with magnesium to get a more therapeutic dose, especially as it’s common to not reach the recommend daily intake of magnesium through diet alone.[i] Alternatively, you could add Epsom salts, or magnesium flakes to the bath for extra muscular relaxation.
- B vitamins. Another nutrient that gets depleted easily from stress. B vitamins are crucial for energy production and the nervous system.[ii] Supplementing with B vitamins could be highly supportive in helping you to de-stress with an energy boost. In particular, vitamin B6 is a key cofactor in the production of serotonin, as well as our calming neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Increasing GABA can calm anxiety.[iii]
- Adaptogenic herbs. Sometimes we need something to really boost us and regain that sense of control. As the name suggests, adaptogens help you to adapt to stress. Lemon balm is a well-researched adaptogen, with great results reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and overall reducing cortisol levels and stress perception.[iv],[v]
- Probiotics. Stress directly impacts gut health. This is down to another axis called the gut-brain axis (GBA), which directly connects communication between the gut and brain via a nerve called the Vagus nerve. This is why you may experience digestive complaints, such as bloating, changes in stool consistency, or even stomach pains during times of stress. Exposure to stress has been shown to influence our gut bacteria, altering our ability to metabolise food, and can impact out intestinal barrier function too. Support gut health with probiotic bacteria-rich foods such as raw sauerkraut and kefir, or opt for an oral supplement for a more therapeutic dose.
What is stress resilience?
So back to our earlier question, why do some people appear to be less affected by stress? This boils down to a few things, however, a key mechanism is resilience.
Stress resilience enables you to adapt to stressful situations, and recover quickly to return back to a state of equilibrium. This is achieved using various approaches, or as we like to call them, a ‘toolkit’, to help you to ‘remain calm and carry on’. Here are our top choices to help you get started with building your tool kit:
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is crucial for our brains to function efficiently, think clearly, make the best decisions, and so much more. A lack of sleep can leave us in a vulnerable state, more negative, more anxious, and stress often co-occurs with a lack of sleep too.[vi],[vii] Therefore it’s paramount that we prioritise sleep to ensure we’re functioning at our best to deal with life’s challenges. Aim to get between 7-9 hours per night for an optimal night’s rest.
- Practise mindfulness. Sitting in silence and simply becoming aware of your breath, or follow a meditation practise for guidance, can be so powerful in these times. Meditation is a proven effective method to reduce stress and anxiety, and promotes emotional stability.[viii]
- Cold water therapy. Exposure to the cold is connected with various health benefits, including improved sleep quality, improved focus,[ix] strengthening the mind and our innate immune response which is dampened when stressed.[x] Try standing in a cold shower for up to 1 minute upon waking. It’ll certainly wake you up if nothing else!
- Self-care. Never underestimate the benefits of self-care. This is not something to feel guilty about, taking the time to look after yourself is key to stress resilience, and feeling that sense of control. Why not build a self-care regime you can do daily, this could include some stretching, a face mask, journaling, reading a fictional book and drinking your favourite cup of tea.
- Affirmations. These are positive statements that you can say out loud to yourself daily to ignite your inner strength. These are particularly helpful if you find that your head is full of negative thoughts. Start the day with a positive affirmation, such as ‘I believe in myself and my true strength’ or ‘I am resilient, strong, and brave’.
- Deep Breathing. The breath has a direct impact on stress by accessing our parasympathetic nervous response, to make us feel calmer, reduce heart rate and combat inflammation.[xi] If nothing else, this is simplest thing you could implement in to your daily routine. It only takes a few minutes but it can have the greatest impact.
Useful resources to get you started
- The Stress Solution book by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.
- Wim Hoff Method free app with breathing techniques, meditation and cold therapy.
- Headspace - free meditation app.
- Sleep Smarter book by Shawn Stevenson.
- Yoga with Adriene, YouTube.
- 15-minute meditation with Boho Beautiful, YouTube.
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[i] Volpe et al. Magnesium in Disease Prevention and Overall Health. Advances in Nutrition. 2013; 4(3): 378-383.
[ii] Wadsworth T. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 2005.
[iii] Jung et al. Role of pyridoxine in GABA synthesis and degradation in the hippocampus. Tissue Cell. 2019; 61: 72-78.
[iv] Awad R, Muhammad A, Durst T, Trudeau VL,Arnason JT. Bioassay-guided fractionation of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L) using anin vitromeasure of GABA transaminase activity. Phytotherapy Research 2009; 23(8): 1075–8.
[v] Cases J et al. Pilot trial of Melissa officials L leaf in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild to moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med j Nutrition Metab 2011;4(3):211-218.
[vi] Vgontzas et al. Chronic insomnia and activity of the stress system: a preliminary study. J Psychomsom Res. 1998; 45(1): 21-31.
[vii] Yoo et al. The human emotional brain without sleep – a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Curr Biol. 2007; 17(20): 877-878.
[viii] Taylor et al. Impact of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotional pictures in experienced and beginner mediators. NeuroImage. 2011; 57(4): 1524-1533.
[ix] Muzik et al. “Brain over body” – A study on the wilful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure. NeuroImage. 2018; 172: 632-641.
[x] Kox et al. The Influence of Concentration/Meditation on Autonomic Nervous System Activity and the Innate Immune Response: A Case Study. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2012; 74: 489-494.
[xi] Kox et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. 2014; 1-6.