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Tips to Reduce Stress
Understanding the deadly consequences of “Chronic Human Stress”
In part one of this series on stress we learned that there are two different types of stress that affect our lives. Whilst acute stress is our ally the chronic kind can cause all sorts of serious side effects, some that are even life threatening. In part two we will be looking at practical ways of managing chronic stress with a view to minimizing its presence in our lives.
Managing and Reducing Stress
Due to the accelerated pace of life in today’s high achieving society chronic stress has become more prevalent in our lives than ever before. Sadly the majority of humanity have resigned themselves to the enduring intense levels of this lethal scourge; believing they must accept what they perceive to be the inevitable.
The CEO of the American Psychological Association (APA) warns that “Stress could easily become our next public crisis”. In its survey the APA found that 33% of Americans were suffering extreme stress, half of which reported experiencing severe symptoms at least 15 days out of the month. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), one of the major sources of stress is in the workforce, and people suffering from stress related illnesses incur on average an additional 46% in health care costs. It is therefore ironic that by disregarding their own body’s warning mechanisms in order to remain productive, not only are people risking their long term health but also sacrificing the very thing they are trying to hold on to, as chronic stress starts taking its toll.
In this current age of financial meltdowns, natural disasters, ongoing wars and personal hardship, how can we possibly subdue this arch enemy? Before we can answer this question by ascertaining any effective solutions we first need to get an accurate handle on what actually triggers chronic stress. Following 20 years of research, the Institute of HeartMath has discovered that stress is caused by a human’s perception of events, rather than the actual events themselves. This is a powerful phenomenon and one that we can leverage to our advantage, by changing the way we respond to situations, events, and occurrences in our lives we have the power to significantly reduce chronic stress.
One of the most fundamental strategies in managing stress is to increase our organization skills, in so doing, we gain more control over our lives which in turn leads to a reduction of stress. Prioritization is key here; when organizing a busy schedule it is essential to first create a list of tasks and then place them in order of precedence, the most critical tasks are listed first followed by the less important ones.
In her article “The 14 Habits of Ultra Organized People” Sara Klein advocates the “Capture, Calendar, and Contain” technique. Firstly tasks are captured; this is our created list of tasks as mentioned previously, they are then placed on a calendar in order to prioritize them. Containment refers to the physical containers organized people use to capture physical items in order to make them easily accessible. For example by pinning our monthly bills to a cork board in order of due date we get quick and easy access to every active bill; as each bill gets paid it is removed from the board and placed in a folder named “Paid Bills”. The remaining outstanding bills are then physically rearranged by moving them up the line.
Advances in mobile technology have greatly simplified the burden of efficiency with productivity apps such as Evernote and Google Keep. Using these types of apps it’s possible to efficiently combine the concepts of capture and containment in a single click. For example imagine you have an important letter you wish to file away for future reference, using this technology it’s now possible to take a snapshot of the letter and automatically archive it to the cloud in a single click. Similarly there are a plethora of electronic calendar apps now available which are increasing in sophistication and ease of use. The new Google Calendar app can even create calendar events automatically e.g. by referencing a flight confirmation from an individual’s Gmail inbox it can create a calendar event without human intervention. There are also apps available to make tracking and controlling our finances much easier. Specialized applications such as Mint and Personal Capital are capable of sending automatic alerts when bills are due, or accounts go below a certain amount. In addition they can easily categorize monthly expenses and display them in graphical charts, providing a month by month snapshot of our spending habits.
As we start becoming more organized we are able to set realistic goals for ourselves, although we may not always reach those goals we will certainly complete more of the important items on our to do list. People usually find that when more order and structure comes into their lives stress stars depleting and their quality of life is greatly enhanced.
One of the easiest steps to take in reducing stress is Journaling; keeping a journal is more than merely just documenting your thoughts and experiences, recent research has shown journaling to be an effective exercise in stress relief. Since most journals are not meant to be seen by others there is no need to worry too much about grammar and punctuation when writing.
Photo Courtesy of morgueFile
James Pennebaker a psychologist and researcher at the University of Austin Texas, believes that writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, thereby reducing the impact of stressors on your physical body. Pennebaker also contends that journaling strengthens immune cells known as T-Lymphocytes. In her article The Benefits of Journaling for the Huffington Post Dr. Gail Gross lists the other benefits of journaling in addition to stress relief as, improved immune system, reduced blood pressure, and improved lung and liver function.
When our working lives become more organized and efficient we usually find that we also have more time for other pursuits. It would therefore be folly not to utilize some of that extra time we have created for relaxation purposes.
One of the easiest ways to relax is to lie down in a quiet place and practice rhythmic breathing, this technique consists of taking slow deep breaths in a controlled cadence. Slowly breathe in until your lungs are filled to capacity, then hold your breath for about 10-15 seconds before slowly exhaling; continue this cycle until you have performed ten repetitions. When you practice rhythmic breathing you are in effect refusing to concur with your own body’s stress pattern by completely isolating yourself from the rhythm of your pent up emotions. This also works when other people’s negative emotions start to affect you; don’t buy into anyone else’s rhythm of rage, instead create your own rhythm of calm using the same breathing technique we just discussed.
It has long been recognized that certain types of music have a calming effect on the emotions, the true power of music therapy however is only just starting to be realized as this cutting edge domain of alternative therapy begins penetrating the realms of mainstream medical care. Not only is music therapy being used to treat stress but experts now recognize it as a potent force in the treatment of physical pain.
An article by Amy Novothey entitled “Music as Medicine” recently published by the APA, describes several clinical trials involving sound wave therapy. In particular the article documents a meta analysis of 400 studies carried out by Daniel Levin, a PhD specialist in the neuroscience of music at the McGill University in Montreal. Results showed that not only does music therapy boost the immune system while reducing stress, but it was also found to be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery.
The Huffington Post recently carried out an on-line survey in which 1000 plus Americans nationwide aged 18 and upwards participated. In the initial phase of this ongoing project participants were asked to name the most common stress triggers in their lives. The biggest source of stress found among the participants was lack of sleep with 66% of responders citing sleep deprivation as a major cause of stress.
A team of scientists from the University of Bristol have studied the effects of jet lag on selective female cabin crews. As reported in the Daily Mail, using scanning technology to measure the size of the brain it was found that a lack of sleep had caused the temporal lobe region of the brain of those with the shortest flight intervals to shrink. However the group with longer flight intervals were not affected in the same way, further tests also revealed that those who suffered temporal lobe shrinkage had the worst memories and the highest levels of cortisol in their bloodstream. A lack of sleep or insomnia as it is known by its medical name can happen for several reasons, such as too much caffeine, inconsistent sleep patterns, working the night shift, lack of physical activity, smoking, and depression or anxiety.
From the list of causal elements presented above it is evident that some are easier to eliminate than others, for example it’s obviously easier to reduce your coffee consumption and begin a light exercise regime than it is to give up smoking. Other conditions like depression or anxiety are more complex and can become somewhat of a catch 22 situation. If insomnia is causing you to be depressed and stressed out, but one of the causes of your insomnia is actually stress itself, then how can you break the cycle?
One of the most popular and effective ways of reducing stress and breaking insomnia is natural sound therapy, this works in a similar way to music therapy where instead of music natural sounds such as a babbling brook, deep sea whales or an ocean are played. This brings a soothing and calming effect upon the mind and body thus aiding sleep; numerous mobile apps are available (many of them free) which offer a variety of natural sounds some of which are combined with music.
The unconditional love that our pets show us creates a bond which is so simplistic and awesome it’s nothing short of a round the clock emotional support system. Pets have been known to reduce blood pressure, improve recovery from heart disease and even reduce rates of asthma and allergy in young children. In 2011 the Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library engaged the services of a 4 year old Shih Tzu as a therapy dog. Every Monday and Thursday students staff and faculty members can visit him for 30 minutes in his own office space complete with couch, table and dog bed surrounded by a plethora of toys. When you pass through the gate into his special corner Cooper is there ready to support you. If you need a good cry he will provide a sympathetic ear, or maybe you feel like playing a game of rough and tumble, Cooper is more than happy to oblige. But if you just feel like cuddling up to him for some quiet time, no worries this guy is flexible and will give you just what you need. A somewhat unscientific observation carried out by staff at the Countway lobby confirms that on the days Cooper is working there are fewer complaints and more smiles. For those of us who are not Harvard Medical affiliates, Cooper even has his own blog where you can follow and get to know him better.
Photo Courtesy of Sheila Greenwood
Many hospitals are now acknowledging the healing power that pets can bring to their patients by opening up their doors to these four legged friends. As reported by ABC News a children’s hospital in Houston Texas has initiated its Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) program, in which the pets of young patients are allowed to visit them in hospital. During their research ABC discovered that numerous hospitals have pet therapy programs in which a trained owner-volunteer brings their pet in to the hospital for patients to enjoy. “These programs have been said to help patients with their mood,pain and comfort levels”. It should be point out here that whilst owning a pet does bring many joyful benefits it also demands a lot of responsibility; so before considering offering a home to any kind of pet be sure that you are able to fully meet their needs. Some pets require more care than others e.g. cats are more independent and therefore don’t require as much attention as their canine counterparts.
If you are not in a position to keep a pet yourself its still possible to benefit in other ways for example by volunteering your time at the local Animal Shelter you will be offering a much needed and valued service whilst at the same time enjoying some soothing pet therapy.
The Benefits of Exercise
The many benefits that exercise can bring to our overall health and general sense of well being, are well documented, in addition it is also one of the most potent stress busters available. Virtually any type of exercise whether it be a moderate brisk walk or performing deadlifts in the gym can help relieve stress. According to the APA exercise may aid by helping the brain to cope better with stress. Preliminary tests carried out indicate that “active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people”. To try and determine how exercise brings about this particular health benefit researchers are studying the possible links between exercise and brain chemicals.
During exercise chemicals known as endorphins are released into the body, these substances trigger the feel good factor similar to the narcotic morphine. In addition to being a natural stress alleviator endorphins are also analgesic meaning that they diminish the perception of pain. However since endorphins are produced naturally by the body they don’t produce the same negative side effects as morphine. In order to gain the maximum benefit possible from physical exercise it is advisable to first determine your current level of fitness before engaging in any type of exercise program. If you are unsure about your fitness level you should first consult your doctor since people with certain medical conditions could be putting themselves at risk by undertaking an unsuitable exercise regime. In order to help break the ice the Mayo Clinic has published a useful article entitle Fitness Program 5 steps to get started.
The healing qualities of aromatherapy have long been recognized for centuries in China, India and ancient Egypt, where the essential oils of plants like lavender and orange blossom were used for bathing, massage and other healing. practices. Today in the US one of the major uses for aromatherapy is for stress relief. Although experts are still not entirely sure exactly how aromatherapy works, it is thought that receptors in the nose communicate with the amygdala and hippocampus parts of the brain which serve as storage units for memory and emotions.
Aromatherapy can be applied in several different ways either through direct/indirect inhalation or topically, it should never be taken orally though since ingesting essential oils could be harmful. It is also important to realize that the essential oils in many products such as scented candles have been replaced with chemicals rendering them counterfeit products, hence it would be prudent to double check before purchasing such products. Although aromatherapy is considered to be a natural source of healing it is still an ongoing area of research and anyone considering this form of therapy should seek professional advice before engaging in it. Certain essential oils can also be harmful to people with particular medical conditions such as asthma and epileptic seizures and so should be avoided. For more information on aromatherapy please consult the references at the end of this article.
The Food Factor
What we eat can have a direct affect on our stress levels as well as our overall general health. The problem is that once we start to feel stressed out we usually reach for those foods that aggravate our stress rather than soothe it. These tend to be foods that are high in protein fat and carbohydrates but with very few vitamins and minerals, we are of course talking about junk food here. Numerous studies have shown that an increase in stress triggers strong cravings for larger quantities of fat and sugar. A Harvard Health article entitled How stress can make us overeat, suggests that a combination of high cortisol and insulin levels may be responsible for this. The article also documents the differences in response to stress between the genders with women being more likely to turn to comfort food whilst men tend to indulge more in alcohol or tobacco. Before we can avoid stress inducing foods we must first know specifically what they are; foods to avoid include high cholesterol foods like chips and fries, processed foods that contain a lot of artificial additives such as packaged TV dinners, and foods that are high in sugar and fat like doughnuts and candy bars, tip: stay away from the vending machine there is nothing good in there.
In addition caffeine beverages such as coffee, soda and energy drinks as well as alcohol should also be avoided or at least consumed in moderation in order to reduce and maintain lower levels of stress. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) advocates a low fat, high fibre, carbohydrate rich diet incorporating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Healthy carbs such as brown rice combined with other nutritious foods like sautéed vegetables are believed to be responsible for the brain t producing more serotonin. The area of diet and nutrition is a complex one and there are many pitfalls to planning a healthy eating regime. Unfortunately food manufacturers frequently exploit legal loopholes when it comes to declaring all the additives in their products, this combined with sophisticated marketing techniques can mislead consumers into believing something is healthy when it actually isn’t. An exhaustive list of stress inducing foods and stress reducing foods is out of the scope of this article, for more information regarding this topic please consult the references at the end of this article.
It is hoped that this article has provided the reader with sufficient knowledge and understanding regarding the health hazards associated with chronic stress, thus prompting them to take control and begin managing their own personal stress more effectively. After studying this article the reader is also encouraged to continue researching this topic on their own through the references provided below as well as any additional sources.
- The Psychology of Stress
- How to Reduce Stress by Being More Organized
- Journaling to Reduce Stress
- Just Breath: Body has a Built in Stress Responder
- The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response
- Stress Recovery During Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise
- Aromatherapy Benefits Autonic Nerve System
- How Aromatherapy Works
- How Owning a Dog or Cat Reduces Stress?
- Cat Therapy for Autistic Children
- Harvard Health Publication: Exercising to Relax
- Food and Stress: 8 of The Worst Picks – Huffington Post
- Fight Stress With Food? Yes Really!
Share your thoughts with us regarding the Dangers of Chronic Stress and on Tips to Reduce Stress
Some questions to consider:
- Do you suffer from stress? And how often?
- How do you deal with stress?
- Are there certain proactive measures that you put into place to avoid stressful situations?
- What are the main causes of your stress?
- Do you suffer from Anxiety of Depression caused by stress?
- What method, if not mentioned in the article, works for you when dealing with stress?
If you would like to share your thoughts please leave a comment below.