The festive season is almost upon us and at this time of year, it can all get a bit busy and chaotic, juggling family commitments, preparations, work and financial pressures which can all lead to feeling stressed out. In addition, there is a tendency to overindulge with one too many mince pies and go a little overboard with the alcohol, which can contribute to the stress we put on the body.
In the previous article, we looked at the biology of stress and the effects on the body. When we get stressed, the body is flooded with stress hormones which mobilise the body for an emergency situation. There is also a cognitive response and our mind shifts gear too. Attention tends to fixate on the thing that we are stressed about. In this modern age, it isn’t the sabre toothed cat that is causing the stress response, it is more likely to be a large bill arriving, work pressures, traffic jams and the list goes on. If the brain is focusing on what we are worried about or what we are angry about, this means we don’t have much attentional capacity left for doing other things. In addition, our memory reshuffles its hierarchy so that what’s most relevant to the perceived threat is what comes to mind most easily. Everything else may be deemed as unimportant and takes a back seat position in the mind. This just makes it harder to get things done.
When we are stressed, the body will release stress hormones in varying degrees dependant on the stimuli. The idea is that these hormones are used for some kind of physical response, the so called fight or flight response. These days, the physical response very rarely happens because the perceived stressful event could be in our minds. In fact, they may not have happened yet. Consistent worry and anxiety about an upcoming meeting or an exam can trigger the stress response and in this scenario, cortisol levels becomes elevated. To prevent the negative health consequences of chronic stress, we need to address the root cause. We need to avoid stress where possible and when we have to face stressful situations, we need to better prepared for them.
Unhealthy Ways to Deal with Stress
Healthier Ways to Deal with Stress
Stress is part of a daily lives and while there are things we can do to avoid unnecessary stress, we need to think of ways to manage stress more effectively and develop our stress management strategy. Everyone reacts to stress differently. What one person perceives as stressful, another may perceive as quite normal. Lets take a closer look at some of the things we can do to deal with stress.
As we know, diet plays a key role in our health so getting this right is important. We also tend to feel better about ourselves knowing that we are looking after ourselves in this respect. We’ve only got one body and it has to last a lifetime. Why wouldn’t we look after it! When we are in good shape healthwise, and eating a nutritious diet, our bodies can more effectively combat the effects of stress hormones such as cortisol. For example, salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty which studies have shown to be effective in lowering cortisol when it is elevated, as well as reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. Wild-caught salmon is the best type with high levels of omega 3. Flaxseed and walnuts are also rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and contain polyphenols that have been shown to lower cortisol levels. For all you choccy fans, there is good news. Dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa, is packed with polyphenols and flavonols that have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, reducing oxidative stress in the body. A clinical trial found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed.(1)
We all know that excessive alcohol can contribute to a multitude of poor health outcomes. Reaching out for the alcohol after a stressful day could be doing more harm than good. Studies have shown that there is a relationship between excessive alcohol consumption and excessive secretion of stress hormones, the gluco-corticoids, which include cortisol. Researchers have found that chronic exposure to both stress hormones and alcohol produces symptoms resembling premature or exaggerated aging.(2)
Taking regular physical exercise is a great way to reduce stress levels. There are times that we are going to be experiencing stress and there is no way around this. Stress hormones are released into the bloodstream and the situation may not call for a ‘fight or flight’ response. Physical activity helps to increase the production of endorphins that are our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Research shows that regular exercise reduces stress, elevates mood, improves sleep and improves self esteem.
Another good strategy is to avoid unnecessary stress in the first place. Easier said than done, I know, but we are pretty good at piling on the stress all on our own without any external stressors. Sometimes, we say ‘yes’ to too many things, particularly at this time of year, and become overwhelmed. It makes sense to say ‘no’ when we simply cannot get any busier. We put far too much on the ‘to do’ list which just gets longer as the week goes by. Effective time management will help to reduce stress which results from overwhelm and overload but a key part of this is not to overload the 'to do' list in the first place.
Sometimes, your environment can stress you out! For example, if there are jobs around the house that are not getting done and now they are building up, it can contribute to overwhelm. The lawn needs mowing, the kitchen needs painting, the leaky tap needs fixing, the fence has fallen down, that pile of books and papers need sorting and so the list goes on. These are all ‘bugbears’ and they can sit around for months bugging us! Sometimes, it feels like a conspiracy as one job gets done, another one comes along to take its place! It can potentially sap the motivation and its just another thing to be stressed about. Taking control of your environment can help enormously. Prioritise what needs doing. What are your biggest bug bears? Make time to tackle these first. You’ll certainly feel better for getting them done and ticking them off the list.
Mindfulness is another way that can help with stressful situations. It helps us to avoid that knee jerk reaction in a stressful or emotionally charged situation where we might say something that we regret later. Mindfulness is defined as the non-judgmental awareness of present moment experiences and can help to widen the gap between initial impulse and action. The idea of mindfulness is to take a moment or two so that we can change our relationship with our experience and not get caught up in the moment or swept away by impulsive behaviour. We have the ability to step back from the situation, be more objective and make a better decision about our actions. There is mounting evidence that mindfulness meditation is beneficial for the treatment of stress and anxiety disorders. Research shows that the amygdala plays a prominent role in emotional processing and attention. The activation of the amygdala in response to emotional stimuli varies from person to person based on a number of factors such as personality traits, emotional intelligence and meditative experience.
One particular study investigated the effects of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotional stimuli. Another major goal of this study was to examine the impact of the extent of mindfulness training on the brain mechanisms supporting the processing of emotional stimuli. Twelve experienced (with over 1000 hours of practice) and 10 beginner meditators were scanned as they viewed negative, positive, and neutral pictures in a mindful state and a non-mindful state of awareness. The results indicated that the Mindful condition reduced the emotional intensity perceived from pictures. For experienced meditators compared with beginners, mindfulness did not influence responses in brain regions involved in emotional reactivity during emotional processing. On the other hand, for beginners relative to experienced meditators, mindfulness induced a down-regulation of the left amygdala during emotional processing. These findings suggest that the long-term practice of mindfulness leads to emotional stability by promoting acceptance of emotional states and enhanced present-moment awareness.(3)
We also need fun, laughter and relaxation in our lives to balance our ‘always on’ lives. We need to recharge our batteries. For me, I like to listen to music, read a book, watch a good film, go for a walk in the country or a walk along a beach on a beautiful evening. Everyone has their own way of relaxing and having fun. We should absolutely make more time for these things. Laughter is a powerful antedote to stress and pain. A good laugh will literally bring your body back into balance and reduce those stress hormones. Laughter produces the ‘feel good’ endorphins which promote an overall sense of wellbeing. You simply cannot feel bad when you are laughing. You can’t feel anxious, angry or sad when you are laughing. Another important aspect of laughter or humour is that we tend to see things with a different perspective. We see things in a more light hearted way and don’t take things too seriously. This can help to reduce feelings of overwhelm and reduce stress levels.
While there are no randomized clinical trials on validating the therapeutic effect of laughter, benefits have been reported in many clinical areas such as geriatrics, oncology, critical care, physciatry, rheumatology and so on. This goes to show that humour can be used for the therapeutic purpose of healing. With regard to laughter and stress hormones, one study has shown that laughter appears to reduce serum levels of cortisol and epinephrine. However, this study, while controlled, used a rather small sample of 10 people and this was made up of male subjects only. (4)
Reports on the Internet claim that children laugh as much as 300 times per day, but adults tend to laugh only 17 times a day. There are no scientifically validated studies that I have seen where children have been found to laugh 300 times day. That is a lot of laughing and when you work it out, if a child is awake 12 hours a day, it means a child is laughing every 1 to 2 minutes during each day! I think the point here is that children laugh a lot more than adults as a general rule.
There are a few studies on adult laughter, however, these are limited and inconsistent. One research does suggest that adults laugh an average of 17.5 times per day.(5) Other studies show that adults laugh a bit more than this but I suspect that it depends on the people in the study, their personalities, their circumstances, how much social interaction there was and so on. Both adults and children laugh primarily during social interactions with others. As a result, how much a person laughs at any age depends on how much time they spend in the company of others.
What this does show is that as we becomes adults, we tend to become more serious and for many, it seems they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We’ve all had those stressful situations where we said to ourselves, you know, one day, I’m going to look back on this and laugh. Why not laugh about it now! It certainly seems like we could do with more laughter in our lives. The best thing is, laughter is completely free! So lets have a good laugh and enjoy the festive season.
1 - Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living Subjects.
Journal of Proteome Research, 2009: 091007113151065
2 - Alcohol, aging, and the stress response.
Alcohol Res Health. 1999;23(4):272-83.
3 - Impact of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotional pictures in experienced and beginner meditators.
Neuroimage. 2011 Aug 15;57(4):1524-33.
4 - Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter.
Am J Med Sci. 1989 Dec;298(6):390-6.
5 - Daily occurrence of laughter: Relationships with age, gender, and Type A personality.
International Journal Of Humor Research 1999; 12 (4): 355-84.)
Sports & fitness nutritionist, researcher and author on a mission to improve the human condition. Focusing on evidence-based and outcome-based nutrition, training, mindset & environment