We have all experienced stress. It is one of the most common afflictions in our very fast and very modern world.
This topic is especially top of mind for me, as I am doing my best to stay grounded with a swirl of projects, changes, holidays and nearing the end of year – these things are all tugging me in a million different ways. It doesn’t take long before my body starts to feel the effects of the crazier, faster pace of life and the energy swirling through.
I don’t feel overtly stressed, as thankfully long walks with the pug and mindful eating along with cutting out unhealthy choices are helping me manage it all as well as some very determined conscious thinking with gratitude!
It doesn’t always go so well though. Often we try to tell ourselves that we are not stressed out (after all, other people have it so much worse. I should just be grateful!) and so therefore don’t recognise the early stages and how we could manage it to ward off the damage it can cause as well as side effects, such as sneaky weight gain, fat distribution, and even disease.
Symptoms of Stress
Some of the symptoms of stress include but are not limited to:
- Chest pain
- Appetite trouble (overeating or not able to eat enough)
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of libido
- Trouble concentrating
Stress Increases Your Appetite (which is not helpful when you are already starting to stress!)
What do you do when you are stressed? You crave things. Apparently you even crave them long after you full. One study took place with 59 healthy, pre-menopausal women in two types of situations—one was stressful and one was the control. When cortisol levels were up high as a result of stress, they ate significantly more than they did on the non-stressful days, and they often went for sweets (Sound familiar?? For me it is more danger by cheese!). Over time, chronic stress or frequent episodes of stress can cause weight gain and toxicity in the body via excessive sugar consumption. It is all the bad(s). Sugar has a horrific impact on the body and if your stress levels are too high, you can literally feel it.
It is often when struck by stressful situations that we turn to food as an easy comfort – think security blanket. It tastes good (instant gratification. Tick!) and is easy to get. In fact the sweet foods we crave are super cheap and everywhere. But the moment passes so quickly and the stress remains just as it was prior to your sugary snack – in fact worse. Guilt is then thrown in… so therefore you really have to focus on a non-food way of dealing with your stress. We will get to this shortly.
Heart & Other Related Diseases
When stress strikes, your heart may pound against your ribs, your blood pressure starts to rise (if you have any of the smart watches iWatch, Fitbit etc you can see this instantly and it can be quite alarming) and your breathing becomes faster as you move into the fight-or-flight response.
In most short-term cases, that’s exactly what should happen, and then once that moment ends, everything returns to normal. However, prolonged exposure to a stressful situation (like a job you hate but can’t leave yet or stressful, unhappy relationships) can increase your risk of dying from a cardiovascular complication because there’s an ongoing stress (to be exact!) to the system.
A very scary fact about all of this is that you don’t even need to have cardiovascular issues before the stress hits to have it escalate into something deadly, so it’s important to monitor your stress levels and take precautions to bring them back down when you feel yourself getting frazzled. In a study that looked at people in three age groups, 18-27, 28-47, and 48+, and took into account gender, lifestyle, and other factors that could contribute to cardiovascular disease and related death, the employees under the most stress—mainly the ones who worked extremely hard but felt there was little reward—were much more likely to die from a cardiovascular issue.
Chronic Stress and Bad Habits
So you may not be suffering any of the above and think that you have a fairly good grasp on your stress levels. It is possible that stress doesn’t even directly affect your body per se, but is indirectly wearing away at your health.
The American Psychological Association proved that stressful circumstances could lead to poor lifestyle choices, like smoking, drinking, or consistently overeating. How many people do you know who, in the face of a challenging situation want to press pause for a cigarette break? That was certainly me in a past life. What about that stressful day that has you suggesting a wine after work to help you forget the long, rough day? What about the stressful day that has drained you and you no longer want to cook, “lets just eat out” you hear yourself say, and you know you don’t mean healthy!
We know the risks—cancer, smoking, heart disease, obesity, diabetes… There are so many diseases that are often linked to stress in just this way. These habits are so much harder to resist when it feels like the walls are caving in.
Stay strong and do something to help your health. You’ll get the same calming benefits and the satisfaction of knowing you did something you don’t need to feel guilty about. For instance, going for a walk/hike with a friend or taking a yoga class can really help destress you rather than heading to the local bar (again). If this is your habit and this is what you do with your partner/friends/coworkers, start a new trend and make a focus of changing up your triggers and routine.
The (Almost) Direct Link to Cancer
A lot of research has been done over the years regarding stress’ ability to actually cause cancer directly. Nothing conclusive has turned up, but we do know that stress increases inflammation and can lead to bad habits, both of which could make it easier for tumors to grow.
However, some new evidence is showing up that suggests that stress makes it easy for cancer to grow and spread, and in some cases, even halts and reverses treatment progress. A study on breast cancer has shown that stress could help morph the anti-tumour inflammatory response that would normally prevent tumours from growing in the early stages into something that actually helps the tumours grow. With acute and chronic inflammation from stress, certain genes react in an abnormal way and encourage cancer to come in and take over.
Our mind and body are fused, and stress can become a conglomeration of negative thoughts that can manifest into a physical reality, which can be localised (to start) in one particular area in your body where one holds stress or has an energy block. Think lower back, hunched shoulders. these are common areas for stress to sit. Our skin, our largest organ will showcase your stress almost immediately with breakouts and other negative changes.
Stress Makes Fat Stick to Your Abdomen
Feel like you’re putting on weight in your middle? If you are, it may be stress-related. In a study using monkeys, there were four groups: stressed monkeys that exercised, stressed monkeys that were sedentary, non-stressed monkeys that exercised, and sedentary monkeys that were not stressed. All ate the same diet. Regardless of physical activity, the stressed monkeys had higher fat deposits around the abdomen area. (No, this isn’t an excuse to cancel your gym membership or skip your evening walks!) Fat around the abdomen particularly has been linked to insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammation.
Stress and the Immune System
Ever had a big project, meeting, or interview coming up that you were really stressing over, and then, to top it all off, you got sick? What about going hammer and tong at work and then you go on holiday, straight away you got sick? Thank stress for that. Chronic stress takes your normal, happy, functioning immune system down a couple of notches, making it easier to catch whatever is going around at the time. This will play hell on your body if travel on planes or trains is involved!
All Is Not Lost
If just looking at the list makes you feel stressed about the damage that being stressed can cause in your body, there are changes you can make to ease the stress even when you don’t have enough control of the stressful situation to change it!
In life, we can’t control everything that comes up or comes at us, but we can control the way we react to things and create a strategy to manage the stress overall. This has been my biggest and most valuable lesson to learn.
Make time for you to be alone with your thoughts. In my opinion, there is no way around this if you want to deal with stress. You need time to ground yourself to work on your stress management.
This can mean a daily meditation practice, which for me is when I walk, with the pug and my music. Long walks outside by myself help me to get my head back in order. All the quicker if beside water or through trees. I consider it the most important thing I do every day, because it makes everything else more efficient and better, besides the profound benefits of it in and of itself. Plus it includes movement!
But it can also mean reading a book in a closed room for a while, cooking (if you enjoy it), writing in a journal… The important thing is that you’re doing something you enjoy, no one else is around, and there’s no additional stimulation, like a television or computer screen. It does help if you try to remember to take deep breaths, even if your sole purpose during those moments isn’t breath work.
Work these moments into your life daily.
You can incorporate yoga into your quiet time, but you don’t have to. You can take a yoga class, follow a DVD or online tutorial, or do it alone. It’s totally up to you. Yoga helps you get in tune with your breath, your body, and you’re focusing on the poses and movements so much, all your stress melts away. The best part is, you carry that less-stressed feeling with you for the rest of the day; the stress doesn’t come swooping in as soon as your teacher says namaste.
Some may see this as a hippy or wishy – washy option – however if you think about it, this is simply conscious thinking. How often are you around someone that is negative and you walk away feeling on edge, anxious, frustrated and stressed. It is important to open your mind to this.
If you’re chasing after something—a new way of life, perhaps—just stopping to be thankful for what you do have in your life. This can massively shift your perspective and highlight what is going right. All of the things that you can be thankful for and that you do have. It also helps you to see that you are in control because if everything around you is spinning, the one thing that you can control is how you chose to feel and be. That doesn’t mean you’ll stop trying to achieve new things, but you’ll remember to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and have a calmer outlook.
Calm is good!
Time with Friends
This does not mean Facebook!! This is face to face interaction with actual people. Skyping is included!
Friends and family will stop you feeling alone, allow you to reset and help you to work through what is stressing you out. This will have a lasting effect that goes far beyond that cheese cake you were eyeing up. Starting to move towards a stressful event – grab your girlfriends as soon as you can and plan a walk and talk session!
Important note: If you are stressed out by particular people, make sure that these or not the ones that you turn to. Add a little distance and see if that actually helps your stress levels.
Manage Your Stress
As I mentioned. Stress is a part of life and you cannot stop it from happening. In some situations it can be beneficial, helping you to get things done and actually move you from dangerous or more stressful situations.
You do need to acknowledge it, listen to it and asses whether your stress is making you sick or damaging your health. By doing this you can replace it with more fulfilling parts of life, like friendship, exercise, goal setting and gratitude. Make yourself less susceptible to its effects, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
As always, make sure you eat consciously so that you alkalize your body in order to fight the inflammation stress causes and make it nearly impossible for disease to grow, backed up with digestive probiotics to fortify your body. The act of caring for yourself and giving yourself nourishing foods are important acts of self-love, which in and of themselves are anti-stress. Remember the instructions on a plane? Fit your own oxygen mask and then you can help others.
The yoga, quiet time, time with friends, and gratitude I mentioned above will decrease the likelihood that you’ll feel stressed, even if you can’t change the outside circumstances. Your threshold for stress will simply move higher once you’ve achieved a more balanced life and a slightly different perspective. You’ll have more space so you don’t have to react so quickly and in the same ways that you have in the past.