In this reassuring and easy-to-follow book, Wendy Green explains the psychological and physical factors that contribute to stress and offers practical advice and a holistic approach to help you deal with its symptoms, including simple dietary and lifestyle changes and DIY complementary therapies. Find out 50 things you can do today to help you manage stress, including:
• Identify your stress triggers and learn how to manage them
• Choose beneficial foods and supplements
• Reduce stress in your day-to-day life through aromatherapy and therapeutic massage
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
50 Things You Can Do Today To Manage Stress
By Wendy Green
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2012 Wendy Green
All rights reserved.
This chapter explains what stress is, as well as the differences between pressure and stress. It outlines the three stages of the stress response, and the effects each has on the mind and body. It also considers the causes of modern-day stress including society, biology, work, lifestyle, life changes, psychology and disconnection from nature.
1. Learn about stress
What is stress?
Stress is a term generally used to describe what we feel when we are experiencing too much pressure in our lives. It is usually considered to be a negative and destructive force that can eventually lead to illness.
Pressure usually arises from a positive mental or physical challenge that is within our control and has an end in sight – for example, a work deadline, an exam or a sponsored walk. Often this type of pressure is relatively short-lived and we have an element of control over it; there is usually time for recuperation before the next bout. A little pressure in our lives can be stimulating and challenging; it can motivate us to improve our performance and reach our full potential. Most of us would find life without any kind of pressure boring, and that in itself can be stressful.
According to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), stress is 'that which arises when the pressure placed upon an individual exceeds the capacity of that individual to cope'.
Excessive pressure usually comes from situations beyond our control that are unrelenting and have no end in sight – such as an unhappy relationship, overwork, chronic illness or unemployment. If you experience this type of pressure over a long period of time, stress hormone levels remain high, causing chemical changes in the body that increase your risk of suffering from physical and psychological symptoms.
What are the effects of stress on the mind and body?
Whilst a little pressure can boost immunity, when we are placed under excessive pressure (stress) hormones like cortisol have a negative effect on immune function, making us more prone to infections, such as colds and flu; allergies, such as hay fever, asthma and eczema; and autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Long-term stress can also cause irritability, depression and anxiety, which can lead to relationship problems and further stress.
We all have our own individual levels and types of pressure we feel comfortable with – what is challenging and motivating for one person might be completely overwhelming for another. Also, we all react to stress in different ways – some people suffer from emotional or behavioural symptoms, while others develop physical problems, or a mixture of both. It is important to understand both the difference between pressure and stress, and how much pressure you are able to handle at any one time. It is also vital that you learn to recognise your individual early signs and symptoms so that you can take steps to reduce your stress levels before they cause you serious harm.
What is the stress response?
The stress response is basically how the body responds when confronted with what the brain perceives to be a stressful situation. The stress response has three stages:
1. Alarm – this involves the 'fight or flight' response.
2. Adaptation – if the stressful situation isn't resolved, your body uses all of its resources to adapt, and you are likely to suffer from physical and mental symptoms.
3. Exhaustion – this is where the body has used up its resources and you are at risk of suffering from more serious health conditions.
When faced with what you perceive as a stressful situation the sympathetic nervous system takes over to trigger the alarm stage of the stress response. This is designed to enable us to deal with difficult, or even dangerous, situations and involves the brain preparing the body to either stay put to face the perceived threat, or to escape from it. This worked well in primitive times when you might have to deal with a passing threat or danger fairly quickly, but unfortunately the situations that induce the stress response (stressors) nowadays are unlikely to require either of these responses, and can happen more often and continue for longer. The 'fight or flight' response triggered at the alarm stage invokes these reactions in the body:
* Adrenal glands release stress hormones cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline.
* Heart rate speeds up.
* Liver releases energy stored as glycogen.
* Blood sugar rises.
* Cholesterol level rises.
* Blood pressure rises.
* Breathing becomes faster and shallower.
* Sweating increases.
* Blood vessels close.
* Digestion slows down or speeds up.
* More white blood cells are released, increasing immune function.
* Fibrin, a substance that promotes blood clotting is released into the bloodstream.
You may notice these physical signs of acute stress:
* Forehead tenses.
* Eyes strain.
* Jaws and teeth clench.
* Skin tightens.
* Mouth dries up.
* Butterflies in stomach.
Your body is under strain as it harnesses its resources to adapt to chronic stress. During this stage the body continues to produce stress hormones to provide energy to deal with the situation. Stress hormones affect the way the immune system functions – increasing the risk of infections, autoimmune and allergic conditions. Over time the effects of this stage of the stress response include:
* Sleep problems
* Muscular aches and pains, especially in the neck, shoulders and back
* Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
* Skin conditions, e.g. eczema, psoriasis
* Food intolerances
* Weight gain/weight loss
* Panic attacks/nausea
* Minor infections, e.g. colds/sore throats, due to reduced immunity
* Menstrual changes
* Loss of libido
* Difficulty making decisions
* Poor performance
* Lack of concentration
* Panic attacks
* Blaming yourself
* Feeling inadequate
* Dwelling on the past
* Inability to relax
* Feeling tense and anxious
* Losing your temper easily
* Poor sense of humour
* Smoking more
* Drinking more alcohol
* Using recreational drugs
* Poor appetite/overeating
* Craving sugary, fatty or salty foods
* Talking too quickly
* Outbursts of anger
* Avoiding contact with other people
* Nervous habits, e.g. nail biting, hair pulling, fist clenching, foot tapping, blinking and nervous tics
The body has used up its physical and emotional resources. The constant bombardment from stress hormones over a long period of time has reduced levels of important brain chemicals, impaired immune function, raised blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and increased blood clotting, leaving the body at risk of more serious health problems. These can include the following:
* High blood pressure
* Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
* Coronary heart disease
* Rheumatoid arthritis
* Menstrual problems, such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
* Fertility problems
* Thyroid disorders
* Stomach ulcers
How does stress affect the immune system?
In short bursts, stress can stimulate the immune response. However, chronic stress can compromise the immune response, leaving you more prone to infections and viruses; yet paradoxically it can also trigger excessive immune activity, leading to allergies like eczema and autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Researchers believe this is because stress hormones such as cortisol affect the balance of cytokines, which are a type of white blood cell involved in the immune response. After a while Th1 cytokines are reduced, leaving the body more prone to infections, while Th2 cytokine levels are raised; higher levels of Th2 cytokines are linked to inflammation, and increased allergic and autoimmune responses. This helps to explain why, after a period of stress, people often catch a cold or flu, or those with allergies or autoimmune diseases tend to experience flare-ups.
Another factor is that stressed people often turn to junk food, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine to help them cope, and often suffer from sleep problems – all of which can compromise immune function.
Clearly stress can have a serious negative impact on your physical and mental health, therefore managing it should be considered an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.
What causes stress?
Human beings have always experienced stress, but nowadays the types of stresses and strains we encounter in everyday life are different to those our ancestors might have had to deal with; thousands of years ago stressors commonly faced were probably a lack of food or shelter, or even a close encounter with a wild animal. Today most of us in the Western world have plenty to eat and drink, and a roof over our heads, but fast-paced modern-day living poses a host of completely different problems, ranging from being stuck in a traffic jam, to divorce, losing your job and worries about debt.
Society is more aspirational and materialistic than ever before and, as a result, we are constantly striving to look, feel and do better, and are working longer and harder to earn more money. Consequently, many of us are overloaded and experiencing stress.
The combination of juggling a job with childcare and possibly caring for elderly parents, as well as shouldering most of the domestic chores, leaves many women stressed; men, too, often have to juggle work with helping to care for young children. The current economic downturn means many are struggling with losing their jobs and finding themselves unable to provide for their families. Young people also face increasing pressures not only in terms of educational achievement, but also from bullying, parental divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, and difficulties finding a job.
Our relationships with our partner, family members and friends can be sources of stress, especially when facing relationship breakdown or divorce, bereavement, and problems with childcare etc. On the other hand, being happily married and/or having a good social network can help you to cope with stress better.
A poll of 2,000 people carried out by the Stroke Association and Siemens in 2011 found that nearly twice as many women as men felt their stress levels were out of control.
This is possibly because women's biology predisposes them to take on a nurturing role and to multitask, both of which can lead to stress. According to leading American gynaecologists Dr Stephanie McClellan and Dr Beth Hamilton, who have spent years studying the way women's nervous systems react to stress hormones, women also release more stress hormones than men and they stay in their bodies for longer.
A report by the Institute of Personnel & Development in 2011 cited job insecurity caused by the economic downturn, an excessive workload, poor management and restructuring in the workplace as the leading causes of work-related stress.
Work can be stressful, especially if you have little control over your work situation, work long hours or shifts, don't have time to take breaks, have a heavy workload, or too much responsibility. Lack of help and support from your co-workers or supervisors and worries about job security can all take their toll. Other causes of work-related stress include lack of opportunities to advance, and doing a job that is boring and repetitive.
Many people are working longer and longer hours, often without breaks, in the hope of impressing their managers and holding on to their jobs. Unfortunately, working in this way is likely to increase your stress levels, which could hamper your performance and make you more susceptible to illness, therefore reducing your productivity.
Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and insufficient relaxation and good-quality sleep can stress the body and affect the way it deals with stress. Overindulgence in caffeine and alcohol can also increase stress levels, and affect the way we cope with everyday pressures.
Life changes are a source of stress because change involves dealing with the unknown, which most people find stressful, and often they are caused by events out of our control such as bereavement or redundancy. Listed on the next page are the life events most likely to cause stress.
Psychologists believe that most stress is the result of our self-image and individual perception of events, rather than the events themselves. For example, a person with a positive self-image and outlook is less likely to feel threatened by difficult situations and powerless to address problems than someone with lower self-esteem. A negative outlook can contribute to stress. Your personality type can also determine how much stress you experience; people with 'Type A' personalities tend to be perfectionists who are very driven, rushed, ambitious and time-conscious – traits which can increase the risk of experiencing stress. 'Type B' personalities are more relaxed, less driven and time-conscious and much less prone to stress.
Disconnection from nature
Recent studies suggest that city dwellers experience more stress than those living in rural settings. Pollution, noise, crowding, heavy traffic and the faster pace of living in urban areas could all contribute. Some researchers argue that man has a natural affinity with nature and modern society's 'disconnection' from the natural world is a major cause of stress.
Does stress affect men and women differently?
While both men and women experience the alarm, adaptation and exhaustion stages of the stress response, women's biology slightly modifies this process. This both predisposes women to experience more stress and affects the way they deal with it.
Women are more likely to become stressed than men because their brains are programmed to multitask, and take responsibility for the care and well-being of others. Studies suggest women release more stress hormones when under pressure and these stay in their bodies for longer than they do in men's. Research suggests that women not only release cortisol and adrenaline when under stress, but also oxytocin, a chemical that makes them want to 'tend and befriend'. The researchers put this 'tend and befriend' reaction to stress down to Stone Age women needing to protect their children from predators and to join forces with other women in order to survive.
The need to nurture (tend) when under pressure means women often take on too much, which makes them even more stressed. However, the befriending instinct makes women want to talk to others when they are feeling stressed, which lowers cortisol levels, making them feel calmer. This helps to explain why social support appears to help women to deal with stress more than it does men and why women tend to want to talk things over when they are stressed, while men are more likely to retreat.
Before the menopause, women are less likely to suffer from stress-related heart disease than men, probably because of the protective effects of oestrogen. The risk of heart disease increases after the menopause when oestrogen levels fall dramatically.
Men's reaction to stress tends to be mainly the fight or flight one – either react aggressively or escape from the situation. This is why they are less likely to open up to others when they are feeling tense and are more likely to try to escape from a stressful situation to help them cope. They might do this by engaging in a sport such as golf or fishing, or in risky behaviour; research at the University of Southern California in 2009 suggested that men often deal with stress by drinking heavily, driving too fast, smoking, gambling, taking drugs or having extra-marital affairs.
Research suggests that the impact of stress on men and women's immune systems is also different. A recent study of 1,200 office workers found that when men were stressed at work they were more likely to develop a cold than women were. This might be because women have stronger immune systems with more white 'fighter' cells. Women's more robust immune systems might be one of the reasons why they are more likely to develop autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis as a result of stress.
2. Keep a stress diary
The best place to start when looking to reduce the amount of stress and overload in your life is to identify your stressors. Sometimes when we're feeling under pressure we lose sight of what's really going on in our lives. Taking stock and identifying the areas of your life that could be contributing to your stress levels will enable you to do something about it.
For a couple of weeks, record the details of situations, times, places and people that make you feel stressed.
Excerpted from 50 Things You Can Do Today To Manage Stress by Wendy Green. Copyright © 2012 Wendy Green. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – About Stress,
Chapter 2 – Simplify Your Life,
Chapter 3 – Eat a De-Stress Diet,
Chapter 4 – Exercise to Ease Stress,
Chapter 5 – Adopt an Anti-Stress Attitude,
Chapter 6 – Try Stress-Busting Supplements,