WHO declared it the health epidemic of the 21st century.
In 2016, it accounted for nearly half of all sick leave.
Juggling work and family; delays; traffic jams; losing keys; crowded trains; driven by deadlines; as well as trying to make ends meet, in our busy, 24 hour connected world, there’s plenty to stress us out.
Learning how to relieve stress may offer the key to unlock a new life of vibrant health, vitality and mental clarity.
The Hidden Dangers of Stress.
Stress is linked to a number of serious health issues:
- Heart problems
Costing the economy billions of pounds…it’s something we all suffer from.
What Presses Your Stress Button?
And what can you do to learn how to avoid stress?
In this post, I’m going to reveal the very latest scientific research on stress.
According to latest surveys, almost half of us feel we’re too stressed.
And I am no exception, trying to do too much in too little time.
This causes a racing heart and sleepless nights which makes us feel even more out of control.
But What if The Right Kind of Stress Could be Good for You?
I’m also going to show you how to turn stress into your secret weapon.
So why do we have all this stress and where does it come from? One study reveals that many of us are close to breaking point.
The Origins of Stress.
The origins of stress are linked to our primal past.
When we encountered dangerous animals, our bodies would react:
- Heart rate starts spiking
- Breathing rate increases
- Body temperature rises
All signs of increased stress.
This acute reaction lasts for just a few seconds. Once the threat passes, out bodies return to normal.
Fight or Flight.
Our bodies were designed to respond like this.
Acute stress is our bodies primal emergency system, otherwise known as fight or flight.
It evolved for good reason and harks back to the days of when we lived in caves and got stalked by predators.
When we sense danger, the fear centre of the brain, (the amygdala), sends a distress message to the control centre, (the hypothalamus), which tells the adrenal glands to start pumping stress hormones into the blood.
This makes our heart beat faster, pumping blood to the muscles, and increasing our breathing to get oxygen to the brain to sharpen our senses.
The body is primed to fight… or run away.
This information places us one step closer to the secret in how to relieve stress and perhaps avoid stress.
Modern Day Stress.
The thing is, in the modern world, we no longer face the occasional threat of a wild animal.
Instead, we’re constantly bombarded with a host of triggers. None of them life-threatening, but all launching the same stress response.
Many of us face a daily commute to work and end up being stuck in traffic. This sort of stress can lead to spiking blood sugar levels and higher cholesterol.
Finances are a cause of concern for many of us. Which over time, can lead to anxiety and depression.
Our mobiles are both a blessing and a curse. Constant interruptions to our workflow can cause jobs to over-run causing late nights and less time with our family.
With our bodies experiencing so many stress triggers throughout the day, what sort of effect can this have on our brains?
When our brain is flooded with stress hormones, we lose the ability to focus. Our brains literally freeze.
Why does this happen?
It seems there’s a mismatch between the way we’re programmed to deal with stress: run or fight, and the kind of stress we face in our modern lives.
Small amounts of acute stress keep our bodies in a super-alert state to deal with whatever life throws at us.
But too much stress means the rational part of our brain is hijacked by the primal part, and our ability to think rationally becomes overwhelmed by our emotional response.
This means we can lose control, triggering an emotional outburst or a complete meltdown.
How to Control Stress.
So, can we learn how to avoid stress so this sort of response doesn’t happen and we feel more in control?
One approach is to change your perception of threat from negative to positive.
- Beating heart.
- Twisted stomach.
- Dry mouth.
- Sweaty skin.
These are all symptoms of stress…but also excitement.
Feelings of anxiety, anger and even excitement, exhibit the same bodily symptoms.
This is where the magic happens…you can change these from one emotion (anxiety) into another (excitement).
How it Works.
Stand up straight, take a deep breath and say to yourself,
“I feel excited!”.
Repeat it with conviction…and again.
You’re tricking your brain into creating a different emotion.
As far as our bodies are concerned, the feelings of anxiety and excitement are the mirror images of each other.
They both make our hearts race and we breathe faster. The difference is all in the mind.
So how can we manage to face our fears, control our stress and enjoy it?
One of the hormones released into our brain when we’re excited or anxious is noradrenaline, produced in a tiny area called the locus coeruleus.
This part of the brain is sensitive to how much carbon dioxide is in our blood, so we can regulate it by taking a few, slow breaths.
And we can control it further by adopting a confident, head up posture which not only helps deepen the breath but also affects our mood.
Balance is Key.
Too little or too much of this stress hormone and we underperform.
But once we hit that sweet spot where we’re challenged but not overwhelmed, we’re capable of performing at our best.
It’s all about tapping into the energy of a stressful situation.
If we can learn to control our stress by turning our anxiety into excitement, can we also use it to improve our performance?
One strategy is when we’re feeling anxious, our instinctive approach is to try and de-stress and calm down.
We try and relax by saying something like,
“I feel calm…I feel calm”.
In other words, we use positive affirmations.
The other strategy is using the technique we’ve already discussed by tricking our brains into turning anxiety into feeling excited.
In a stressful situation being excited, rather than calm dramatically improves our performance and how we feel.
It’s much harder to convince ourselves that we’re calm, because the symptoms of calmness are the opposite of those of excitement or anxiety.
It’s much easier to go all ninja on our brains and trick it into reinterpreting those anxiety feelings as excitement.
These feelings are an energy that you can use and make the most of the stress you feel.
Turn Stress to Your Advantage.
So, the next time you’re heading into a difficult meeting or have to face a difficult situation, don’t try and get rid of those anxious feelings, instead turn them into excitement. You’ll perform better.
Leveraging stress to your advantage can, therefore, be the key to feeling less anxious.
Successful athletes, performers and entrepreneurs do this all the time.
But how do they optimize their stress to turn out world-class performances?
Ordinarily, when we feel stress, this tends to hamper our performance. These feelings of stress essentially block us from doing what we love.
The key is to Deal With Stress in a More Positive Way.
For example, we can’t exceed our own ‘self-image’. Our self-image precedes and predicts everything we do and all our outcomes.
So, if you’re feeling stressed about a situation and telling yourself that you ‘can’t’ do something, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are what you think about…the way you see yourself becomes your reality.
If you expect a lot of pressure, if you expect a lot of hassle, if you expect to get stressed or to not cope, then you’ll live out your expectations.
Change Your Perception.
By changing your perception of stress…you can perform at your peak.
Elite athletes, performing at the highest level, don’t perform in the absence of stress. They have learned ways to re-frame and use stress as a sign that their bodies are getting ready to perform when their best is needed.
We can’t always control the situations in which we find ourselves, but we can always control our response.
Mindset defines performance.
Stress can be seen as something positive. Stress can drive success, instead of it becoming a hindrance.
It all hinges on how you view it.
Stress can be an empowering tool if you learn to use it properly. It can be invigorating and sharpen your performance.
But when you’re constantly feeling stressed, it not only causes uncomfortable physical and mental sensations, but it can tip over into the real killer: chronic stress.
Acute stress now and then is fairly normal, but when you’re constantly stressed, it can lead to the overproduction of cortisol.
Also known as the steroid hormone, cortisol has an effect on our blood sugar to give us more energy.
When we’re chronically stressed, our cortisol tap is turned on all the time.
And this can have a serious effect on your health:
- It weakens parts of your immune system making you more vulnerable to disease.
- It increases your blood pressure putting a strain on your arteries which can lead to heart disease
- It’s been linked to serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
I have suffered from this type of stress. The type you can’t get away from because it’s totally out of control.
It can go on for weeks, months…or even years.
Can Stress Affect Your Other Senses?
Lots of stress, as we all know, can often lead to bad lifestyle habits which can further damage our health. I am, of course, talking about comfort eating. We eat not because we’re hungry…but to boost our mood.
The problem with most comfort food is that they tend to packed with sugar and fat.
But why do we crave sweet, fatty foods, when we’re stressed out?
Could it be that feeling stressed affects the way we taste our food?
Science has revealed that there is indeed a link between how we’re feeling and our sense of taste. How we taste our food is altered by our emotions.
When we’re experiencing success, we literally experience the sweet taste of victory.
Being stressed seems to make food taste less sweet. This explains why we crave sweet things as comfort food.
When you consume something moderately sweet, it’s not as satisfying. You don’t get the same positive feeling from it. Therefore you become more likely to opt for something that’s more intensely sweet.
So when we’re stressed, many of us power through our day with coffee and sugary snacks.
If work is your main stress trigger, it’s difficult to escape that pressure. But you can make some simple lifestyle changes to avoid stress and stop it spiking unnecessarily throughout the day.
For example, there are some foods that can satisfy both your comfort eating cravings and relieve your stress response.
When you are struggling with stress, what you need are foods that will keep you energy levels and your blood sugar stable.
Sugary, comfort foods cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then dip which can cause you to feel more anxious, not less.
Foods to Help Relieve Stress.
Examples such as:
- Blueberries – high in vitamin C, full of antioxidants, very protective and will also give you that sweet taste in the mouth without upsetting your blood sugar levels.
- Pumpkin seeds.
The last three are all good sources of protein which help stabilize your blood sugar and they all make for excellent portable snacks to relieve stress.
Walnuts contain the highest amount of omega 3 of any other nut – good for the brain and when you’re feeling anxious.
Pumpkin seeds are incredibly high in magnesium which is good to help you keep calm, also good for anxiety.
Many of these foods not only relieve stress but dial down the amount of cortisol that your bodies are releasing.
Off the Bean.
Another top tip to avoid stress, is to cut back on coffee.
If you’re already feeling stressed, flooding your system with coffee will just make you feel worse.
An eye-opening account of the hidden dangers of caffeine is the best selling book, Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America’s 1 Drug by Stephen Cherniske, M.S.
Too much caffeine can cause insomnia, nervousness and an increased heart rate. In fact, all the symptoms of stress!
Is There a Healthier Alternative?
Green tea is very high in the amino acid L-theanine. It’s what gives this beverage it’s slightly bitter tang.
L-theanine helps improve your concentration, focus and keeps you feeling calm.
The (ahem) ‘take away’ here, is to avoid comfort food and opt for healthy foods which can genuinely help our bodies avoid stress.
Here’s some other tips on how to avoid stress:
- Don’t skip breakfast. Studies show that if you do, your cortisol levels will rise to increase your blood sugar levels.
- Carry a bottle of water with ‘time markings’ (e.g. 9.30, 12.00, 16.00) to make sure you keep hydrated throughout the day. Dehydration puts your body under more stress and that means more cortisol.
- Eat vitamin C rich produce like peppers, oranges and berries which will all help boost your immune system.
Stress is part and parcel of our daily lives and few of us can escape it. But there are some simple ways on how to avoid stress. Your stress triggers may stay much the same…but you CAN change the ways you cope with stress.
Here’s 3 Manageable Techniques.
- Work at improving your diet.
- Increase the amount of physical exercise.
- Practice mindfulness.
You don’t need to spend mega bucks on the gym.
Simple activities such as walking more briskly, doing a few step-ups at home or using a skipping rope for a few minutes each day.
Regular exercise releases feel-good hormones – endorphins. These counteract your negative feelings and anxiety which means you release less cortisol!
Mindfulness, which has its roots in meditation, is another effective method of how to avoid stress.
Some schools in the UK now employ mindfulness to help students reduce exam anxiety.
Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years. In an attempt to reduce these figures, over 5,000 teachers are being trained in mindfulness techniques.
Mindfulness helps us to anchor our attention on the present moment. It’s amazing how much time we spend ruminating about the past or projecting into the future. Both of which, can cause stress.
Mindfulness, therefore is about paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment.
For the skeptics among you, mindfulness can help us deal with a mind that’s constantly worrying about stressful things, or’ mind wandering’.
Science has revealed that when we mind wander, 60% of the time it’s about worry and negative mind wandering.
The reason for this is to do with ‘self-referencing’. When you mind wander, you indulge in ‘me, me, me’ thinking. This constant ‘me-me-me’ thinking agitates your mind. When you switch into mindfulness and plug into the ‘now’, your brain relaxes, no longer subject to a running commentary.
Mindfulness allows you to silence your inner critic and experience clarity, rather than a stream of thoughts of inability to cope, failure or stress.
It takes a bit of investment time wise, but is definitely worth it.
Stress is a complex, powerful yet perfectly natural response to everyday situations. Although sometimes we experience extended periods of stress or chronic stress, you can learn to manage this with exercise, diet and mindfulness.
Remember…YOU are in control.
Do you suffer from chronic stress? What presses your stress button? Please share your comments below.
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