Stress is unfortunately an unavoidable part of modern life. It tends to get a pretty bad rep when it comes to both our health and our happiness.
But, stress is actually an essential response to a perceived threat- it helps to keep us alive. It is only a concern when it becomes relentless, causing us to live in a near constant state of fight or flight.
Stress management involves understanding our two main modes of being, namely, rest and digest, or the aforementioned fight or flight.
Once we understand how to manipulate the body into spending more time in the former, we can gain back control over the role stress has on our health, and our lives as a whole.
Here, we examine a variety of tools which you can use to tame the beast which is chronic stress.
What is Stress, Really?
Stress, when acute, is an appropriate and necessary response to a threat. Traditionally such threats would be real, tangible things like the sudden appearance of a tiger.
Once the brain registers the approaching tiger a series of biological responses rapidly occurs, which primes the body to act appropriately.
Energy is required to prepare us to fight or flee, and hence the body produces a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, increases breathing and heart rate, whilst redirecting blood flow towards the limbs so they are ready for action.
Once the tiger has been fought, or you have fled- the body can switch back from fight or flight to rest and digest, and the result is a slower breathing and heart rate, and an ability to prioritise repair and restoration once more.
Our ideal default setting is rest and digest, with occasional, short lived periods of fight or flight- to deal with things that require immediate physical action. Sadly, modern life tends to trigger more pervasive, chronic stress.
Chronic stress involves the same biological mechanisms involved in acute stress, but without the actual fight or flight.
Here, when exposed to daily annoyances such as a barking dog, a looming deadline or a overflowing inbox- the same stress response is triggered, but we do not ‘switch’ into rest and digest, as there is always another stressor to contend with.
Of course, we can also experience more severe stressors in the form of relationship issues, financial troubles or ongoing health concerns, all which feed into the chronic stress response.
Impact on Health
Chronic stress has been associated with an incredible array of health conditions, and has the ability to exacerbate many pre existing health issues, triggering painful ‘flare ups’.
Chronic stress also puts a burden on the body, with increased blood pressure and heart rate straining the cardiovascular system unhelpfully.
Similarly, chronic stress has its own array of unpleasant symptoms which can hugely diminish our sense of wellbeing in the here and now. Whether in the form of digestive distress, restless sleep, or a racing heart, we cannot feel our best under such circumstances.
There are also some more unique aspects to stress, as, when experienced chronically, elevated cortisol levels can increase our circulating insulin, increasing our risk of type 2 diabetes.
Chronic stress can also negatively impact our gut microbiome, leading to a cycle of dysbiosis and reduced stress tolerance. Long term stress also raises systemic inflammation, encourages our overconsumption of highly palatable foods and adversely impacts immunity.
Clearly, constant stress has the potential to hugely affect our health, and yet is often overlooked when it comes to managing our wellbeing.
What Can We Do About It?
We have established that chronic stress is not desirable for health or happiness, and therefore we need to find ways to trigger rest and digest mode on a more regular basis. Helpfully there are a number of ways we can do this.
Chronic stress and poor sleep issues can form an annoying vicious cycle where one exacerbates the other. But we can break this cycle via some gentle lifestyle adjustments:
- Regulate sleep schedule: wake at the same time each day- evidence suggests this regulates our circadian rhythm and increases our internal sleep drive.
- Let the light in: aim to expose yourself to bright morning light, even in the form of a light box if necessary- to halt melatonin production and boost daytime energy levels
- Blue blockers Wear blue light blocking glasses if you have a tendency to nighttime scroll
- Move more: exercise carried out earlier in the day not only boosts energy during the day but also encourages deeper sleep at night
- Jot it down: write down all worries/concerns/ plans immediately prior to bed to free your mind
- Yogic rest: short relaxation exercises known as ‘yoga nidra’ offers a very restorative deep rest for your body- 20 minutes can be as effective as a longer nap. There are plenty of great free guides online.
It's interesting that many ancient techniques integrating body and mind are recommended today by health experts due to their scientifically backed stress reducing abilities.
Any form of mindful movement whether yoga, tai chi, qigong, or even gentle walking, where the breath and the body synchronise to create focus in the present, all stimulate the restorative rest and digest mode.
For others, the act of sitting in a mindful meditation can stop stress in its tracks. Studies conducting brain scans on well practiced meditating monks indicates that the part of the brain associated with anxiety can actually be reduced in size after 8 weeks of daily practice.
Recent scientific studies have also indicated a powerful role for yogic type practices in the quest against chronic stress related physical symptoms, including high blood pressure and insomnia even when practiced for as little as ten minutes a day.
Think of these practices as little pauses in our daily routine, which act as a kind of reset button- telling the body that we are safe and can afford to relax..
Whilst a nutrient dense diet is always encouraged, specific nutrients can bolster our bodies resilience against chronic stressors:
- Magnesium is known as ‘nature's tranquiliser’ for good reason. Magnesium is involved in the relaxation response, and acts on several of the stress pathways, including the modulation of stress soothing neurotransmitters. Ironically, stress further depletes this essential nutrient, so be sure to stock up via dark green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate and supplementation.
- B Vitamins also offer stress support via modification of the nervous system as well as acting as a precursor to both sleep inducing melatonin and soothing serotonin. You can find B vits in whole grains and green veg, but additional supplementation during periods of stress can be beneficial.
- Multibiotics- our gut microbiota speaks directly to our brain, helping with the regulation and production of feel good neurotransmitters such as GABA. Therefore, we want a healthy diverse microbiome for optimum gut- brain communication. Eating prebiotics found in onions, green bananas and garlic helps to feed the bugs, whilst fermented foods such as kombucha and kefir help to establish beneficial microbial colonies. Taking a multibiotic supplement also encourages a diverse range of helpful gut bugs, to support your stress response.
- Whole food multivitamins can bridge the gap between our daily dietary intake (which understandably can be suboptimal during stressful times) and ideal nutrient intake.
- Acute stress is a healthy response to a ‘threat’, whereas chronic daily stress can negatively impact our wellbeing
- Chronic stress creates unpleasant symptoms, changes in health habits and can increase long term health risks
- We have a number of tools to support our management of chronic stress, which include sleep support strategies, traditional mind-body techniques, and specific stress supportive nutrients such as Magnesium, B Vitamins and Multibiotics.