Medical research very clearly indicates that chronic elevated stress is injurious to health, and at the same time, offers suggestions for ways to reduce stress. Stress is described as a state of mental and emotional strain and tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. This is not to say that life should be stress-free; without some stress, life would be boring and dreams would never be realized. Without sufficient exercise, bone and muscle mass declines and the body becomes fragile.
Health problems develop when the level of stress is too high for too long … the body never relaxes from the “flight or fight” response. The causes of prolonged stress are variable, and in each case may result from a combination of factors. Health providers tell us that our physical condition and sense of well-being begins to suffer when three or more stressful events occur within one year; for instance, a death in the family, an accident, and negative work environment. In a recent interview on National Public Radio with leaders in the health field, one participant stated that disease accounts for less than half of negative health impacts; that socio-economic and environmental factors have even more significant bearing on overall health. For each individual, this translates to a number of circumstances outside of individual direct control. For an in-depth discussion of health and our surroundings, check out the documentary “Unnatural Causes – is inequality making us sick?”
The key to knowing how to deal with stress is to take very good care of yourself, and find out about proven stress management strategies that work for you. Chronic elevated stress may be a single traumatic event, or may be the result of a number of stressors leading to a feeling of being overwhelmed. In either case, stress management is most effective when we take advantage of a number of complementary actions. I will be advising seeking the advice of a holistic physician often in the following paragraphs, primarily because stress is a critical health issue with long term consequences; remember that health is wealth and you want the best advice you can get.
Begin your stress management program by addressing your physical well-being. The brain and brain chemistry generate the “fight or flight” response, and muscles become tense, along with a cascade of other harmful physical effects. Sleep deprivation is almost universal in today’s high-stress culture; paramount is getting good quality sleep. Even medication (which typically only masks symptoms) and talk therapy will fail to bring the body back to balance if there is a chronic lack of sleep. If sleep Is a problem, see a holistic physician, napropathic doctor or holistic health practitioner for solutions such as supplements, herbal teas, or acupuncture, all of which have a degree of research suggesting these can be helpful for problems relaxing enough to get a good night‘s sleep. Deep sleep is when our body heals and restores itself; without it the system simply breaks down over time. Massage is almost guaranteed to bring a good night’s sleep, with the relaxing effect often lasting for a number of days. For severe stress, get a massage a week for a series of weeks, once a month for maintenance. If cost is an issue, seek out a massage school for appointments in their student clinic. Some insurance will cover massage as long as it is prescribed by a physician, including chiropractic physicians who will often have massage therapists in their clinic.
Diet is critical, perhaps especially for chronic stress. Food allergies are so common, and a food allergy alone can lead to a number of problems including pain, inflammation, anxiety, foggy thinking, muscle tension and loss of sleep. If seeing a holistic physician to determine food sensitivities is outside the budget, study the elimination diet and you can easily find out any obvious sensitivities. There are so many excellent books on doing your own investigation for food sensitivities; ask around or consult your holistic physician. Dr. Timothy Weil has an excellent book “8 Ways to Optimum Health” that is very helpful regarding not only diet but is also a great overview of basic self-care. Get very serious about a whole foods diet; there are many studies and well researched books available that point out the health disaster that is the modern diet. Many health practitioners advise going at it gradually if you rely primarily on fast food and processed food. The first thing to eliminate is sugar and processed foods, especially processed carbohydrates such as white bread.
Exercise is essential, especially if your work is sedentary. Weight-bearing exercise is proven to be the best builder of bone density given that there are no metabolic issues; this can be done at home with or without any number of DVD’s go coax one along. Almost any article you read on stress management and general health practices recommend a walk in nature at least several times a week. Well-known physicians such as Dr. Anthony Weil and Dr. Oz recommend regular practice of Yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong. Taking a class helps with the motivation and helps keep the program from becoming too routine.
Learn positive self-talk; life is too short to spend on negative thinking. The power of the mind is great, and negative thoughts not only will not solve problems, but will accelerate the physical stress response. The Serenity Prayer is a classic reminder to keep a realistic perspective and not get overwhelmed with things that we cannot control: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Breathe … practice Dr. Weill’s 4-7-8 breath throughout the day. It works!
If you drink a lot of coffee, change to green tea and herbal tea. While coffee has been vilified for years off and on, some coffee may actually have some health benefits. However, too much is too much; switch to tea or Maté later in the day and even to a relaxing or stress-busting tea in the evening. Green tea is rich in antioxidants, and contains the amino acid l-theanine, which has a relaxing effect on the body. Skip the sugar though.
Make time to be with family and to socialize. Call a friend; get together with good people just to hang out. Take time out just to relax and do things you love; this nourishes the soul and spirit. Do some journaling; Julia Cameron’s inspirational book “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” is a wonderful resource based on the author’s own life experience.
Ask for help when feeling overwhelmed. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if needed; when we are in the midst of a situation or situations, it is very difficult to have a clear perspective. Friends and family are very important allies, but may not have the experience to help when hard decisions need to be made. It can be a lifesaver to have an objective “coach” to help with strategies to deal with highly stressful situations. If work is highly stressful without the benefits of being rewarding, seriously research what other opportunities might be available. Journaling can be especially helpful with researching what the issues might be and mapping out ways to get out of dead-end situations. Dr. Wayne Dyer’s books and CD’s are a great resource for daring to change when a work situation is toxic, or simply when we crave something that is more satisfying. Doing something we love infuses our whole life with such vitality, it’s almost like magic.