For many people, stress is a major obstacle to wellness. Stress is a key factor in the development of many, if not most chronic diseases, and can also significantly interfere with our mental and emotional well-being. In short, it’s hard to live a good life if you’re overly stressed.
However, stress isn’t always a bad thing. There are two kinds of stress—acute and chronic. Acute stress is a normal, healthy part of life. It’s what you feel when you see a car driving towards you as you cross the street: a warning that something is going on that you need to pay attention to.
Acute stress is short-term stress. It happens during a stressful situation and usually fades away soon after. Within our bodies, our brains activate our stress response—called the sympathetic nervous system—to help us get through the stressful situation. Afterward, our parasympathetic nervous system switches on, calming us down and bringing us back to homeostasis.
Chronic stress is where we run into trouble. When we become chronically stressed, our sympathetic nervous systems are left constantly running. Elements of our stress response that are meant to be beneficial for brief periods—like slowing down our digestion, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, even deactivating some aspects of our prefrontal cortex—can cause us serious health problems when they persist over time.
What causes stress to become chronic? Many aspects of modern life can play a role, including work, lack of sleep, food allergies, poor diet or malnutrition, overstimulation from social media or the internet, lack of community and supportive relationships and exposure to environmental toxins. Trauma, poverty, pain, abuse, mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, existential malaise, social instability, and discrimination can also be factors that can contribute to chronic stress.
Being unkind to yourself or beating yourself up over unmet expectations is also a major stressor.
How do you know if you’re experiencing chronic stress? Well, you feel stressed out much or most of the time! If you feel like you’re constantly struggling to keep your head above water, chronic stress may be part of what’s going on.
How can I lower my chronic levels of stress?
What can we do about stress? Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to lowering our stress and feeling more relaxed: changing our lifestyle, and changing our perspective.
How can I change my lifestyle to lower my stress?
The first step in changing your lifestyle to help reduce your exposure to chronic stress is figuring out what’s contributing to that stress. Potential aspects of your life to consider include:
One good question to start with: what am I putting into my body? Nutrition really affects how you feel, as poor diet and food allergies tend to be major stressors. Processed foods, gluten, dairy, sugar, corn syrup, alcohol, and caffeine all put a lot of stress on your gut and brain, affecting your mental and emotional health as well as your physical wellness. So does anything artificial: flavors, colors, preservatives, and sweeteners. One suggestion—try an elimination diet. Stop eating these types of foods for a month, and see how you feel.
In addition, the more good nutrition you can get into your body, the better. This means eating lots of greens, along with other vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains (avoiding gluten if you need to), good fats like avocados, coconut oil, olive oil and ghee, and drinking lots of water. All these foods are not just full of vitamins, minerals, and other essentials, but they are easy on your body. If you do eat meat or dairy, choose pasture-raised or wild-caught. Eating probiotic-rich foods like miso and kombucha, or probiotic supplements, is also a great idea.
Everybody’s dietary needs are a little different, but these are general guidelines. Explore, and see what foods make you feel good after you eat them. A holistic physician or nutritionist can help give you more personalized recommendations as well.
Another important question to ask yourself: am I moving enough? Exercise and movement play a huge role in how you feel. Being sedentary—spending most of your day not moving—is a huge stressor on your body and associated with a host of poor health outcomes. Meanwhile, numerous studies emphasize that exercise not only strengthens your body but helps you relax—getting physically active releases feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain and supports your body in calming down. There isn’t one form of exercise that’s better than another either. The best kind of exercise for you is the one you want to do regularly.
Nutrition and exercise are fairly straightforward. Everyone knows you should eat well and move, but other forms of stress may be trickier to acknowledge. This is especially true with those that can get caught up in our sense of who we are, like our jobs.
Work can be a huge source of stress. Although some stress is a natural part of any job (and isn’t a bad thing), some jobs can leave us feeling frequently overwhelmed. Take note of how you feel at work during the day. If you’re constantly stressed as a result of what you do or who you work with, well, that’s a big deal, and worth paying attention to. Explore what you can do within your work environment to lower your stress, and start at least seeing what other possibilities exist.
It’s okay to work to live, instead of living to work.
One stressor many of us deal with constantly in both our work and our home lives is screen time. The internet and social media aren’t necessarily inherently good or bad, but how we use them certainly can be. Spending a great deal of time online or staring at a screen is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety, among other things. It also means that we’re not moving around, and can interfere with us getting enough sleep.
Pay attention to how much time you spend using your phone or computer. Take breaks, get out in nature when you can to counterbalance your screen time, and give yourself an hour before bed that is screen-free. The latter will help you sleep better.
Sleep itself is of course critical. Lack of sleep stresses us in mind, body, and spirit. Getting enough sleep—at least 8 and as many as 10 hours a night—gives our brains time to repair and reset, lowering our stress and producing hormones we need to feel more at ease.
Few things affect stress more than the relationships in our lives. Virtually all of us need loving, supportive relationships—with friends, family or romantic partners—in order to feel okay. We also benefit from a broader sense of community and feeling like we’re part of our neighborhood or larger social group.
When we have that sort of support in our lives, we tend to feel less stressed almost without trying. Feeling like we have people around us who have our backs makes life’s challenges shrink in size. Conversely, if we don’t have people we can count on, molehills can start to seem like mountains.
By making an effort to cultivate relationships with people who care about us, we can lighten our load.
How can I change my perspective to lower my stress?
This is more a question of art than of science. Changing how you see the world in order to feel more relaxed and less stressed isn’t a matter of simply following a specific formula. However, there are general concepts and practices that can be useful in helping you to feel more at ease.
A big one is practicing the idea of present moment acceptance. This means that we accept whatever is happening right here, right now. If it’s a pleasant experience, we let it be. If it’s an unpleasant, stressful experience, we also let it be.
The point is that we’re simply learning to accept reality as it is. If we deny our present moment experience, we’re causing ourselves a great deal of stress, because we’re denying reality. But if we stop fighting the here and now, a whole lot of our stress starts to evaporate. By focusing on the present, we also take our minds out of the future, which is where all of our worries lie.
Meditation, yoga, and other spiritual or mind-body techniques are a great way to work on developing present moment acceptance.
Non-attachment is another great concept to play with. If we understand that everything comes and goes and that no matter how hard we try, we can’t hold on to anything, this can help us relax. We don’t have to worry so much, because it’s all going to come and go anyway, no matter what we do. We might as well just enjoy the ride.
Two final ideas worth considering: control and influence. If we take an honest look at ourselves and our lives, we see we don’t have control over most of what happens in the world around us. We can’t dictate the weather, or the traffic, or how others see us. But we do have influence—what we do and say affects everyone around us. By accepting that we’re not in control (and that no one else is either) and taking responsibility for our influence, we can both feel more relaxed about what happens in the world, and more empowered that we’re doing what we can to make it better.
This can take a lot of the pressure off.
Who should I go see to help lower my stress?
Most holistic health and wellness professionals can help with one aspect of stress relief or another! An integrative, naturopathic or functional medicine physician can help you figure out what your body needs in terms of nutrients—what you should be eating and what supplements you might want to take in order to feel your best. A nutritionist can help with this as well.
Chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, bodyworkers, physical therapists, traditional osteopathic physicians and other hands-on healers can help you release physical and emotional tension you may be holding in your body. EFT professionals and psychotherapists can help you work through emotional suffering that may be contributing to your stress levels. A psychotherapist can also help you evaluate how different aspects of your life may be contributing to your stress, and help you plan out how to make changes.
Yoga, tai chi, qigong or meditation teachers can help you work through other mental and emotional and physical aspects of stress relief by showing you how to more actively relax, get grounded in your body, and develop a greater comfort with your present moment experience.
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How to be better at Stress
Tara Parker-Pope for The New York Times
Stress Effects on the Body
American Psychological Association (APA)
Five Things You Should Know About Stress
National Institute of Mental Health