When it comes to stress in our life, it is important to be able to accurately understand our stress levels, understand how we respond to stress, and develop effective ways to respond when stress levels get too high. Some stress is a good thing, keeping us alert and motivated. By triggering a burst of energy, stress can stimulate memory, help us to accomplish a task, or meet a challenge. Stress hormones increase with light exercise, or when we face the challenge of a test or deadline. Individuals vary in what they find beneficial or productive.
For some, meeting a challenge such as a ski run or performing before an audience is enjoyable; a different person may have an entirely different response. When we feel in control of a situation and gain a sense of accomplishment, we experience stress in a beneficial way. Stress is also a normal response when facing a critical situation. Normally, once the cause of stress is gone, the body’s metabolism returns to normal.
However, chronic high levels of stress can result in continued elevated levels of stress hormones, where the body does not return to a normal relaxed state. It is this state of continued high level of stress, never really returning to normal, which will lead to physical and psychological problems that threaten our health and well-being.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, medical studies have shown that continued elevated levels of stress hormones may lead to anxiety or depression. When we feel overwhelmed by circumstances, we begin to experience a perpetual stress response.
This is especially true when circumstances are not in our control, or when a stressful situation is ongoing, such as a death in the family, accident or illness of a loved one, as a caregiver for someone with a conditions such as Alzheimer’s, a job loss, financial difficulties – especially when compounded by lack of health insurance, domestic violence, or substance abuse by a family member.
Here are some tools you can use if you are wondering how to deal with stress and depression:
A healthy diet is a powerful tool for health. But just what is a healthy diet? Which, among the barrage of diet recommendations, will help with stress and depression? Much of what is quick and easy to grab to eat when we are overtaxed and stressed is highly counterproductive. Some foods will boost serotonin, and are “comfort foods”. Other foods cut the cortisol and adrenaline levels, reducing those stress hormones that trigger stress.
Carbohydrates are comfort foods, but need to be complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, pasta and cereal. Simple carbohydrates such as sugar and foods sweetened with fructose and corn syrup will destabilize the blood sugar and aggravate the effects of stress.
Magnesium is an important electrolyte that is essential to good muscle tone. A lack of magnesium will lead to muscle tension, resulting in the intensification of the stress response. Nuts and beans, whole grains, green leafy vegetables and seafood such as halibut and salmon are rich in magnesium. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, and a soak in a hot bath with two cups of Epsom salts is also a good way to relax the muscles and absorb magnesium.
A modern diet tends to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fatty acids that are critical for a number of metabolic processes. Fatty fish, (not farm-raised; because of the low-omega-3 feed, farm-raised fish do not supply omega-3 fatty acids), flax seed oil, or supplement with fish oil or a combination fish and flax seed oils.
Although more research is needed to verify effectiveness, two herbs show promise for their calming effect. The most researched is St. John’s Wort; studies have shown this herb may relieve mild to moderate levels of depression. Valerian root has not been as well researched to date, but has a long history of use for its ability to reduce stress and tension.
Many holistic clinics recommend Valerian for the relief of muscle tension, which is a common condition with those under stress. As with any supplement, it is very important to always discuss the wisdom of using any herbal remedy with your health provider before using it, in order to understand any possible side effects and make sure there are no contraindications or interference with any medications you may be taking.
Mind and Body
While it may be difficult to summon the motivation to exercise and engage in mindfulness-based stress reduction practices, research has shown that these are very helpful in reducing stress and depression. Whether it is a workout at a gym or at home, a walk in nature, yoga, and tai chi are all effective by helping to support the health of mind and body. Spiritual practices such as meditation and prayer have also been proven to help cope with stress and depression.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Because stress and depression are so debilitating, and often triggered by events outside of our control, getting the kind of help that will effectively address the issues is very important. Research is showing that cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective strategies for dealing with stress and depression. Dr. Esther Sternberg, M.D., chief of neuroendocrine immunology ad behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health is a top stress researcher. In an article by Karen Bruno, reviewed by Lauren J. Martin, M.D., on WebMD, she states: “It is important that people suffering from depression not blame themselves – it’s partly your genetic makeup, partly your current environment, and partly your early environment that led to the depression. If you’re depressed, seek help. You can’t beat it on your own.”
As stated by Dr. Arthur Janov, creator of primal therapy, suppressed pain and painful memories are highly stressful physically, mentally and emotionally. Primal therapy was highly controversial when first introduced in the late 60’s. Nevertheless primal therapy is one of the most documented therapies for stress and PSTD, and is found to be one of the most effective treatments for stress from repressed emotion or trauma.
Dr. Janov states that “talking therapy” involves the higher reasoning process and cerebral cortex, without engaging the source of pain in deeper areas of the central nervous system. In an interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Janov states:
“A common misnomer: it is not Primal “Scream” Therapy, but Primal Therapy, and rather than saying it is “cool”, I would rather say that it is scientific. It is one of the most heavily researched private psychotherapies extant in the world; and the “cool” thing about it is it is also one of the most effective modalities extant.”