In some situations, the right stress response can be lifesaving, flooding our bodies with hormones that help flee danger or respond to an attack. But trouble comes when modern stress is more psychological than physical. Our stress responses are better equipped to help us avoid predators and natural disasters than the pitfalls of workplace politics or busy schedules. And it’s not just major stressors that cause problems. In fact, seemingly small, everyday stressors can impair how well we regulate emotion, according to a study at New York University. And stress can negatively impact our health, contributing to problems with headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions and more. Here are some simple ways to combat the toll modern stress can take on our bodies.
Steps to Less Stress
1. TAKE CARE: Don’t let taking good care of yourself fall to the lowest priority when faced with stressful conditions. We can all fall into patterns where we push ourselves harder than may be necessary in order to live up to expectations (others’ or our own), especially when we feel overburdened. This is when we must remember to be gentle with ourselves in order to recover. To that end, a firm bedtime can be a game-changer.
For example, if you find yourself pushing to finish the dishes before bed, eating into your precious shut-eye time, ask yourself if these dishes being done is more important than getting enough rest. After all, our bodies do a lot of work while we sleep—restoring themselves, releasing growth hormones to help with healing, and processing new memories while clearing away waste in the brain. Too little sleep interferes with important bodily processes and can contribute to a vicious cycle of increased stress caused by—you guessed it—lack of sleep. In a 2012 study, researchers found that sleep-deprived people experienced greater stress and anxiety when exposed to a low-end stressor than their well-rested counterparts. A high-end stressor taxed both groups equally.
2. SAY NO: Sometimes we just have too many tasks to complete in the amount of time we have available. Chrono-optimism is a term for people who underestimate how much time any one activity will take, which sends them into a tailspin of tardiness and unfinished business. To avoid being too optimistic about your schedule, get out your calendar and enter everyday activities, including specific travel times. (Don’t assume your walk to work is five minutes. Time it to find out how long it really takes first.) Then, any time you are asked to make a new commitment, check your schedule and make sure you can realistically accomplish everything. It might sound like too simple a solution, but the exercise will make it apparent how often you are tempted to blindly commit, leading to overscheduling. It will also reveal any resistance you have to turning down commitments. You may be surprised at the pressure you feel to accommodate others, instead of honestly replying, “No, that won’t work for my schedule.”
3. HELPING HERBS: Adaptogens, a class of herbs thought to help the body regulate itself, may especially help reduce physical and mental stress. Adaptogens are considered tonic herbs, which means healthy, nonpregnant adults can safely take them long-term in recommended doses. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) are all adaptogens. If you are interested in trying adaptogens, look for tinctures of these plants in health-food stores. When purchasing rhodiola, look for companies that harvest the plant sustainably.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine both consider adaptogens to be a safe way to restore balance, rebuild health and vitality, and promote longevity. The idea is to shore up our nervous systems, helping them recover over time in order to enable our bodies to have a stronger resistance to daily stresses. For optimal benefit, adaptogens should be taken for a minimum of three months. Note: Because adaptogens enhance immune system function, they shouldn’t be combined with immunosuppressant drugs—one exception may be chemotherapeutic drugs (as immuno-suppression is an unintended side effect). Always discuss use of herbs with your doctor if you are taking prescription medicines, or if you are pregnant or nursing.
4. JUST BREATHE: Breathing exercises can help us cope with stress. Poor breathing habits, such as rapid breathing (also called chest breathing), can exacerbate the fight-or-flight response, which is not appropriate for most modern stressors. Instead, we want to encourage deep breathing, which has the capacity to calm us. Discover five simple breathing exercises. You can also find a video that will walk you through a controlled breathing exercise, as well as a one that explains the alternate nostril breathing technique.
5. NATURAL WORLD: Just being exposed to nature can help reduce stress. A famous study from the ‘70s showed that patients recovered faster from surgery when they had a view of trees from their rooms. Another study from 2003 observed that rural children who lived in environments with natural views, indoor plants and other exposure to nature experienced a buffer effect from childhood hardships, such as bullying and disagreements with their parents. The children with more access to a natural environment, though they still experienced stress, were not distressed or lacking in self-esteem. Make the outdoor world a part of your daily routine to reap the stress-reducing benefits of nature. Try taking a walk every day, situating your desk by a window, or adding houseplants to your home and office.
6. LEARN TO RELAX: Often we are not even aware that we have kicked into a stress response. Then, because we don’t realize how tense we are, we remain tense for long periods of time. Biofeedback is a technique that can help us learn to recognize the signs of stress as they occur in the body, and then help us learn to walk back the stress response, so that we can remain in a steady, calm state. Often biofeedback is taught using a video game-like apparatus, and a patient might “play” at their therapist’s office. There are also stress management tools based on biofeedback technology, such as the emWave2. The product is about the size of a phone, and it works by taking your pulse and translating the data into graphics to help you understand when you are effectively calming yourself.
7. PINS AND NEEDLES: The ancient practice of acupuncture may help counteract the effects of stress on the human body. According to research conducted at Georgetown University Medical Center and published in the journal Endocrinology, acupuncture may reduce the production of stress hormones. Depression and anxiety-like behavior in rats decreased with acupuncture treatment, as well as prevented stress hormones from being released into the body. Look for a certified acupuncturist in your area. Word of mouth can be a great way to find a fantastic provider. You can also search the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s database.