Life can get pretty crazy.
Work, family life and social obligations seem to keep piling up. And of course, we all have what feels like a million things to take care of on our to-do lists.
How do I find balance?
When can I finally invest in some self-care time?
What should I do to relax my mind and body more?
Is it possible to add more hours in the day?
You’re not alone if you have had these questions floating through your mind during your day-to-day. These thoughts, among others, seem to arrive in our moments of stress.
And this year in particular has been beyond stressful—
COVID-19 hasn’t been easy to navigate!
From quarantine and impaired holidays and gatherings, to work chaos, including layoffs, budgets cuts, and more, there’s plenty of cause to feel anxious and overwhelmed.
All of this can feel daunting and it may lead to a build up of stress that becomes chronic, if it affects you too often.
What exactly is chronic stress?
Chronic stress signifies that you feel tense regularly, as in your day-to-day lifestyle. And if you don’t find ways to better manage the stress and find relief, it could lead to consequences for your health and wellbeing—as well as those of others around you—over time.
“Chronic stress is related to a variety of negative long term health outcomes, including increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases, cancer, mood, and cognitive function,” says Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
For instance, it can hurt your ticker.
“Stress has long been linked to hypertension and a study showed the relationship between work related anxiety and stress on blood pressure in young adults,” she says.
So, by feeling stressed often, you may put your heart health at risk and be more prone to disease.
Plus, it can also impact your brain health.
“One study showed how many of the effects of aging, including psychosocial events and hormone changes, can increase psychological stress and accelerate cognitive declines, too,” she adds.
What Causes Stress?
When it’s chronic, little triggers get you fired back up instantly.
“Stress can be prompted by a variety of triggers and responses can be dramatic or slowly build. In either case, the stressful feeling people get is due to release of hormones, especially cortisol and epinephrine,” she says.
Releasing these two hormones is normal throughout the day, but when they spike, you may feel more anxious or have that "fight or flight" response.
So , if you’re already tense, a lot of little things will stress you out even more.
Here is an example--
If you go to the grocery store and they’re out of the sauce you wanted for your pasta, you might get that huge surge in stress levels and anxiety, just simply due to your chronic state.
And when you feel on edge, you will see it impact how you go about your day and communicate with others too. People may see you withdraw or perhaps have outbursts when the matter could’ve been handled in a calm, communicative manner.
Stress can change the way you act and react towards things, and it can give you a lack of sense of control.
There are Different Types of Stress, Too
You may experience various types of stress, too.
“Acute stress is the type least linked to long term health problems as it is triggered quickly by serious risks, such as slamming on your brakes to avoid an accident, or hearing someone you love has been in a car accident,” says Jones. This stress typically goes away sooner rather than later.
“Episodic acute stress is more problematic though, and is when people seem to constantly be feeling acute high stress due to taking on more than they can handle, or after going through a series of hard acutely stressful events, become overly worried about situations that have presented themselves or not yet occurred,” she says.
And if you’re always in this acute stress, you might feel more generalized anxiety.
“Being in a seemingly constant state of acute stress means having significant spikes in stress hormones, which can impact other hormones in the body and spark excess inflammation,” she says.
Remember-- more inflammation means higher risk for various diseases long-term, like brain or heart disease.
Chronic stress is problematic like episodic acute stress is. “Instead of frequent spikes in stress hormones, stress hormones are almost constantly elevated,” she says. Episodic stress can surely lead to chronic over time, too.
Knowing where your stress is coming from- and even what kind of stress you’re experiencing- is only the first step. Sitting in that stress for too long may feel more harmful than helpful.
So what do we do about it now?
Putting your stress to rest can actually be a lot simpler than you may think.
Whether it’s a tense-ridden day, a high-pressure week, or a majorly stressful year like 2020, here are 11 easy, manageable ways to get a handle on your stress.
Tips to Handle Your Stress
- Get in Tune With Your Body: Give your body some attention. Listen to how your breathing works when you start to feel tense—does your heart rate speed up and do you find difficulty taking slow, deep breaths? Getting in touch with your body’s response to anxiety will then show you how you need to improve.
- Take Deep Breaths: If you’re on edge and can’t control your breathing, take a moment to shut your eyes, go into a quiet and dark space if possible and focus on making your breaths long and purposeful. This will calm your body and help you re-focus. Here’s a great guide to working on breath technique.
- Meditate: Meditation can be whatever you want it to be: guided, on an app, or just for yourself alone in a private space. “You don't need to be listening to someone else speak or guide you through it if you don't want to, and may just take five minutes to sit or lay with your eyes closed and take deep controlled breaths,” says Jones. Centering yourself away from life's stressors even for a few minutes can help you feel more in control and can provide a place to come back to when you're feeling overwhelmed again.
- Eat Regularly: “Going too long without eating, or without eating enough carbohydrates, can cause blood sugar to drop to the lower end of normal, or even below for those predisposed to hypoglycemia,” says Jones. Your body begins to worry you don't have enough food and energy, and cortisol and epinephrine may release in excess or for too long depending on how low your blood sugar is. So, don’t go more than 3-4 hours without a snack to avoid those drops as well as to avoid overeating.
- Start With a Good Breakfast: Aim to enjoy high protein foods that also have good nutrition to boost your brain and keep stress low, such as avocado and eggs with toast, a green tea collagen latte, or a quinoa and milk bowl with berries, nuts and seeds, for example. That will clear your mind for the day and keep your mood stable bright and early.
- Eat Balanced Meals and Snacks: It's also important to eat balanced meals and snacks with fiber, healthy fats to protect your heart, and protein to avoid blood sugar spikes and crashes, since those crashes prompt excess cortisol release, too, says Jones. Make sure to eat three full meals and snacks to keep your mind energized and mood uplifted. Try this grain and veggie buddha bowl for an easy lunch.
- See a Therapist: It’s okay and encouraged to ask for support. “Having someone to talk to about how they're feeling may help them prioritize what's on their plate and worry less about the things they can't control,” says Jones. Therapy can also be helpful for those dealing with chronic stress, as there’s someone up to date on your life and who can monitor progress.
- Take a Walk: Get some air outside when you’re stressed. Taking a walk aids as a distraction and the fresh air can help you breathe better and release that stress. Plus, you can also go with a buddy! That will provide more support by way of loved ones and a community, too. “When you know stress is coming on, or you have just been triggered, attempt just a 5 minute walk,” says Jones. It’ll do the trick!
- Stay Hydrated: “Just a 2% fluid loss from the body means compromised physical and cognitive functions, which leads to lower energy levels and productivity, and can impact mood,” says Jones. Keep water nearby and if you have a high activity level, be sure you're getting enough sodium, too. You can go for electrolyte drinks, like low sugar sports drinks, coconut water, or smoothies with high potassium foods, like banana.
- Try Gentle Movement: “While exercise is shown to stimulate endorphins, fitting in a fitness routine can be overwhelming when stressed out,” says Jones. So, go for some movement to boost mood, aid as a distraction, and to improve endorphins to feel happier and at ease. “Try some jumping jacks or squats wherever you are to blow off a little steam and get the endorphins flowing,” she suggests. Or go for a 10-minute workout to squeeze in.
- Release Your Inner Yogi: If you don't think yoga is for you, you may just not have found the right style or instructor, so browse online. There are several benefits. “Yoga helps improve blood flow to the brain and internal organs while also helping relax and stretch out areas in the body where stressed individuals tend to get tight: the shoulders and lower back,” says Jones. Just having muscles more relaxed can help with mental stress, too. So, give it a shot!
Whenever stress rears its head, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and stuck in that moment. The key to relieving that heavy feeling is just on the other side of these tips and identifying where the stress is coming from.
We all go through it, and we all can get through it. Just start with a deep breath!