Our bodies were designed to deal with stress as an event.
You encounter a threat (for example, the oft-quoted sabre-toothed tiger) – your blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases, you start breathing faster...and you run! All your other body systems such as digestion, reproduction and immune response shut down. After all, who needs to be thinking about sex when you’re running for your life? Then, once the stressor has gone, you slow down, recover, relax and all your body systems return to normal functioning.
The master controller of how your body responds to stress is the hormone cortisol (along with adrenalin and noradrenalin). Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands which are situated on top of your kidneys. Its production is controlled by your brain which is constantly assessing your world & the things that happen to you. It decides what is friend & what is foe. This is your body’s way of protecting you & ensuring your survival.
However, the pressures of modern life have resulted in stress being a constant event – with no downtime to rest, digest & reflect. We are constantly on the go trying to juggle work, family, finances, our social lives (and social media!). If we live in cities we’re battling traffic & pollution & people. We flop into bed at midnight only to get up & do it all again the next day. Symptoms such as on-going anxiety, depression, fatigue, gut problems, allergies, frequent colds & flu & a lowered sex drive start to appear. Eventually chronic prolonged stimulation of cortisol from the adrenal glands can lead to ‘adrenal fatigue’ – the adrenal glands become exhausted and cortisol levels (along with all the other hormones secreted from these glands) start to drop. Further symptoms develop such as severe fatigue, feeling like you are a slow starter & can’t get up in the morning, poor tolerance to exercise & an inability to handle any stress.
Symptoms are always our body’s way of warning us that something’s wrong, it’s struggling. And if we don’t heed our body’s cry for help the underlying imbalances that are going on can lead to serious health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, immune system disorders such as autoimmune diseases and infertility to name just a few.
But what can I do you cry? I can’t get rid of my children! I can’t leave my job!
Often the constant worry that you have to reduce your stress because you know it’s hurting you leads to feeling more stressed!
Well, it’s all about developing resilience.
Stress is a constant today & that is not going to change any time soon. But there are many ways in which we can take care of ourselves to ensure that we can withstand its constant bombardment.
Resilience has been described as “a human capacity to adapt swiftly and successfully to stressful/traumatic events and manage to revert to a positive state”1. It is beginning to be understood as a protective factor against developing mental health disorders (Ibid). We cannot always have control over what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. Developing resilience is a proactive way in which to protect yourself against the damaging effects of chronic stress in a modern world.
Here are 6 simple but powerful ways in which you can start developing resilience today:
Cultivate a regular mindfulness practice (and the important point is regular!). Daily prayer, meditation or just taking some time to be in the present moment by walking outdoors in nature or doing some breathing exercises has been found to be extremely effective in warding off the negative effects of stress2. Apps such as Calm & Headspace are excellent tools. I also highly recommend the book “Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world” by Mark Williams & Danny Penman which comes with a free CD of guided meditations.
Practice good sleep hygiene. The latest research is showing that getting from 7 – 9 hours of continuous sleep per night is hugely advantageous to good health. If you are struggling to sleep stop looking at screens at least an hour before bedtime, ensure your bedroom is dark & well ventilated & decrease your intake of stimulants such as coffee, tea and alcohol3.
Laugh (a lot!). Studies are finding that laughter increases quality of life and resilience4. Watch funny movies, listen to humorous podcasts, hang out with people who see the funny side of life & don’t take yourself too seriously.
Exercise (moderately!) Intense, prolonged exercise results in increased amounts of cortisol production which is the last thing you need when you are trying to withstand long term elevated cortisol output. Walking, swimming, Pilates and yoga are all gentle forms of exercise which can help to lower cortisol production5.
Eat as nutritiously as you can. Cortisol uses up energy fast so you need to ensure your blood sugar is well balanced to avoid crashing. Eat 3 meals per day and make sure they all include good levels of high quality, healthy fats & protein which keep blood sugar levels stable. Good sources of healthy fats & protein include nuts & seeds, avocadoes, coconut oil, olives, free range eggs, organic grass-fed meat & dairy. Eating foods rich in vitamin C, the B vitamins, vitamin E and magnesium assist in supporting your adrenal health. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, nuts & seeds) are important in decreasing the inflammation that chronic stress can cause & research has shown that increased consumption may decrease depression.
Ensure you have a healthy social support network around you. We were not designed to live in isolation. Surround yourself with people you love & who love you. Practice gratitude – be thankful for everything you have, and learn to serve others more than yourself.
Above all, remember that fabulous Winnie the Pooh quote: “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
Shrivastava A, Desousa A (2016) Resilience: A psychobiological construct for psychiatric disorders. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 58: 38-43. [Online] Pubmed Central (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc) Accessed: 6th September 2016.
Shapiro SL, Oman D, Thoresen CE, Plante TG, Flinders T (2008) Cultivating mindfulness: effects on well-being. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64(7):840-62. [Online] PubMed – Abstract only (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed). Accessed: 6th September 2016.
Harsora P, Kessmann J (2009) Nonpharmacologic management of chronic insomnia. American Family Physician, 79(2):125-30. [Online] American Academy of Family Physicians (http://www.aafp.org/ ). Accessed: 13th September 2016.
Shin HS1, Ryu KH, Song YA (2011) Effects of laughter therapy on postpartum fatigue and stress responses of postpartum women. Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing, 41(3): 294-301. [Online] PubMed – Abstract only (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed). Accessed: 6th September 2016.
The Mental Health Foundation (n.d) How to look after your mental health using exercise. Accessed: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-to-using-exercise, 6th September 2016.