Dr Jess: Stress is a 6 letter word nearly all my patients use at some point to describe how they are feeling or what has caused their symptoms. A terrifying 3 in 4 people in the UK have felt so stressed in the last year that they have felt unable to cope. Although stress is more commonly expressed by women, men experience similar feelings but are less likely to seek help.
With so many of us struggling with managing stress, learning how to deal with stress and truly ‘switch off’ should be a regular lesson in school, from early childhood.
When you feel more relaxed and in control, life is much more fun, and you aren’t tipped over the edge by triggers, like running late or an unexpected bill, and you learn to build a ‘reserve tank’ to help you prepare for life’s ups and downs.
The tips below really work, but you have to do them regularly. Like you have to maintain your car, you have to continue to evaluate your workload and stress levels and balance them with ways to cope…
What Is Stress?
Stress is the way your body responds to threats, or the demands placed upon it. Stress can actually be mental, emotional, physical or chemical, like infections, pollution or even extremes of heat or cold. However, we most commonly use the word to mean mental and emotional stress – feeling like there is pressure upon us. There are three types of stress reaction:
Acute (sudden trauma): When we first feel or experience stress our body reacts in a pre-programmed way and begins to release hormones and chemicals which create physical, mental and emotional reactions in our body. This beginning response is called the ‘acute stress reaction’ and is commonly known as ‘fight or flight’. This mechanism kicks in with a sudden, intense trauma or shock, like a grief, loss of job, breakup of a relationship, or experiencing violence. The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, and increase heart rate and breathing, dilate the pupils and create heightened anxiety (or detachment and numbness) and alertness. Blood flow in the body moves to the arm and leg muscles so we can run away or fight, and diverts energy away from the digestion and urinary systems which aren’t needed urgently.
Episodic: When acute stress happens regularly it is called episodic stress. Those always having a crisis, or with multiple regular traumas, where ‘everything that can go wrong does’, can be experiencing episodic stress. These people can become pessimistic and see the negative side of life, they can struggle to organise and order the demands of their lives, taking on more and more, until it becomes chaotic and self-fulfilling. Stress becomes part of this personality, and they can believe it is necessary to have stress to keep going. ‘Type A’ personalities could be described as episodic stress seekers and this way of living can be difficult to change.
Chronic (long term): When acute stress is ongoing for a long period of time, or many demands are made on the body and mind for long periods, it becomes chronic. Causes include long term financial difficulties, abusive or difficult relationships, health problems, bullying or difficulty at work.
1 in 5 people in the UK suffer from work-related stress. Money and work are the top two causes of stress under 55. These two factors are the biggest areas that we struggle with along with relationships, time poverty, health problems and demands of family life. When we are under long term stress, we release large levels of cortisol from our adrenal glands. Cortisol has a necessary role in our body regulating blood sugar and the immune system, and has wide-ranging affects throughout the body. Unfortunately, continued high levels of cortisol from stress, can have a big impact on our health. Long term stress is likely more dangerous than smoking.
Are You Suffering From Stress?
Common symptoms or conditions associated with excessive stress are:
- Feeling overwhelmed/ tearful/ can’t cope
- Irritable/ angry/ short fuse
- Poor memory and concentration
- Panic attacks
- Fatigue & exhaustion
- Insomnia & sleep problems
- High blood pressure
- Joint pain & stiffness
- Frequent illnesses/ infections
- Digestive problems
- Weight gain
- Headaches & shoulder/ neck tension
- Hormonal problems
- Teeth grinding
For more information on the symptoms and conditions caused by stress, and some simple tips to combat it, download our FREE stress handout here:
How Do You Manage Stress?
It is not all bad news, once you are aware you are struggling with stress, or have reached overwhelm, it is time to look at the balance of your life, and start using the many techniques that can make a huge difference. Find the right one to work for you and build them into your routine.
Although you may have heard of mindfulness and meditation, or feel the urge to do something creative or go for a walk, until you put regular ‘appointments’ in your diary to make time for what we now call ‘self-care’, you won’t experience the amazing benefits that a few minutes a day can make! It isn’t difficult, but it does require making your emotional health a priority.
You might think you do not have time for stress-busting activities… but really, you don’t have time not to do them…
Real-Life Ways To Deal With Stress
Start with one of the most useful stress reducing techniques you can learn – Time management… and yes, Dr Jess groaned too when they forced attendance at this session as a Junior doctor, but the hospital did it because it saved lives, and it is still one of the most useful sessions she has ever done!
- Write it all down – Until you define and face your problems, it is difficult to tackle them. Often, they are not as bad as you think. Get everything out of your head, write it all down on a piece of paper (Dr Jess likes to mind map) and then organise it into areas to tackle. Your brain may be amazing, but forcing it to try and retain all the jobs, worries, ideas and projects that are ongoing, and in the future, makes it hard to focus on what is important. This creates stress – download your head onto paper.
- Clear a space – Space clear! Tidy up your workspace. If it is a huge job, then move items into rough piles by category, for further sorting later, but clear a space. Put important items into a ‘To Do’ file and again if clearing space is overwhelming, set a timer and work on it for 20-40 minutes a day, depending on what you have spare. Make organising any clutter and mess that is getting in the way a priority. Once you are ordered physically, the problem feels clearer mentally and you aren’t wasting more time looking for things.
- Get organised – If you have no time, then don’t waste any being unfocused. Make a to do list, look at it and manage it daily. Get a wall calendar, or a calendar app you can use easily, if you prefer electronic (there is an advantage to phone calendars as you can set alerts to remind you of appointments). Any time sensitive jobs, can then be written on your calendar, for example, buy Mum’s birthday present 1 week before her birthday, or pay car insurance, when it is due. A year to view wall planner may help you manage your time better, as you can easily see the busy times of year.
- Schedule stress-busting activities – Putting rest/ self-care time in your diary, like appointments, will help you cope. You can often deal with a busy day better, if you know you have scheduled a two hour relaxing walk the next morning. If you are struggling to motivate yourself, take an evening class that interests you, or is creative or musical. If really stuck for time, there are now many apps like the Calm app, that help you create a regular 10 minutes of mindfulness, to fit in with any schedule.
- Financial stress – Money is one of the most common stressors. In our experience the best book to help you successfully learn to manage money and get out of debt is The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsay (a life-changer for Dr Jess). Online resources like moneysavingexpert.com also have great advice on debt. The most common themes running through all the advice are ‘don’t bury your head in the sand’ – define the problem, work out the number, regularly watch your spending and run a budget to get debt under control. Once you are under control – always have an emergency buffer (put a small, regular amount away to build one up) which stops unexpected bills, or job losses from creating acute stress – you should aim towards 1-3 months of living expenses.
- Relationship stress – There are some excellent relationship books for women including The Empowered Wife by Laura Doyle and Why Men Love Bitches by Sherry Argov. For Men the classic, but still brilliant Men are from Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray is good to understand the emotional needs of women, No More Mr Nice Guy by Robert Glover and The Way of The Superior Man by David Deida.
Diet, Your Gut & Stress
Can changing your diet affect your stress levels? Yes! It can make a big difference because cortisol levels can be altered by foods, particularly stimulants – the most dangerous being sugar, but also caffeine and alcohol, can increase cortisol levels, and therefore increase the feelings you are experiencing.
The problem with sugar – We are designed to crave sugary treats and refined carbohydrates (white flour) when we are stressed, as short term they cause a dip in cortisol which calms us… but this is a very short term fix. The problem is that long term, high sugar and carbohydrate levels in our diet massively increase the physical stress on our body (not to mention many other effects, read more here). This increases overall cortisol levels, and worryingly, sugar focuses stress on our brain, affecting memory, learning and mood.
Caffeine – If you are partial to a sugar-laden coffee shop latte, then you combine the negative impact of both caffeine, and sugar. Whilst the activity may be relaxing in the short term, you suffer the consequences later of increased stress and anxiety.
Can oranges help? – Orange essential oil has been shown to have stress-busting properties. A study showed cortisol levels were reduced in children undergoing dentistry who inhaled orange oil (1). Whilst oranges may have stress-busting properties, the sugar levels in an orange (3 teaspoons per orange), can offset this. The healthiest alternative to eating oranges is to infuse your water with orange (slice an orange and place it in a jug of water for a couple of hours to get the flavour without the sugar), or use orange essential oil in a diffuser.
Can digestive problems increase stress? This is a chicken and egg problem. Stress can cause digestive problems, raised adrenaline and cortisol can have a negative impact on the gut, causing IBS, heartburn and even ulcers. Conversely, when your digestion is unhappy it can raise your stress levels. Working on your diet (decrease sugar and increase vegetables), probiotics, aloe vera, activated charcoal and psyllium husk can all help.
Your Posture & Stress
Did you know how you stand and sit can make a major difference to stress?
Several studies (2)(3) have shown that closed postures – slouched, head and neck down, arms and/ or legs crossed has a negative impact on mood and increases feelings of stress. However, open posture (standing or sitting straight, head up, arms or legs uncrossed) creates a more positive mood and increases feelings of relaxation and self-confidence.
Are you worried about your posture? Notice that you have rounded shoulders, slouch a lot of have niggling back or neck pain? Fix your posture in under 90 days with our unique, individually tailored posture program that only takes a few minutes a day…
Top 7 Ways To Manage Stress Naturally
1. Mindfulness & Gratitude
Mindfulness has been shown to offset the effects of spending too much time on phones and computers, and can reduce anxiety, depression and stress by over 50% (better than many antidepressants). It needn’t be difficult, and it is easier to get into your routine than you think. Read more about this simple, effective practice here.
Gratitude, or being thankful, is a way to change your filter on the world. This is particularly good for those with a tendency towards pessimism, or experiencing episodic stress. Write a daily gratitude journal and bring thankfulness into your consciousness to enrich your life and lower your dependence on stress. Read more here.
2. The Most Important Nutrients
There are at least 7 critical vitamins, minerals and nutrients that we know affect our stress levels and mood. It is possible for deficiencies in these vitamins and nutrients to cause increased feelings of stress, and in many cases you can improve cortisol and stress levels by ensuring your levels are adequate.
3. Adaptogens & Super Herbs
Adaptogens are an amazing class of herbs which help the body cope with and recover from stress. Probably the most well-known and effective of these for emotional stress is Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – read more about this safe and wonderful Ayurvedic herb here.
Reishi mushroom is another gentle, calming and strengthening herb great for long term stress. Dr Jess’s all time favourite Chinese herb for stress and mood is Chai Hu (Bupleurum chinensis), she uses it on a daily basis and has seen its remarkable calming and uplifting effect thousands of times. Chai Hu can be taken as a tincture or as part of the classic Chinese herbal formula Xiao Yao San ‘Free and Easy Wanderer Powder’.
4. CBD Oil
CBD oil has been in the news for its cited benefits in cancer and epilepsy but did you know CBD could be beneficial for stress. The medicinal part of the cannabis plant is particularly helpful where there is a lot of anxiety (including PTSD and Generalised Anxiety) and is good for calming and to aid sleep (4). CBD Brothers, now known as the Original Alternative, is an excellent source.
5. Yoga & Martial Arts
Both Yoga and Tai Chi are a wonderful moving meditations which are shown to significantly lower cortisol levels, help manage stress and negative emotions (5)(6). If you find mindfulness and sitting still for meditation difficult, you may find these forms of stress reducing exercise better for you.
As an alternative, if you want to improve your fitness, posture and strength at the same time as helping your mind then also consider Karate (a favourite of the Natural Doctors). Karate has been shown to have a significant positive impact on well-being, chronic stress, anxiety and depression (7) (compared to mindfulness).
Cortisol is temporarily raised by exercise, but over the longer-term, exercise reduces stress and cortisol levels for several days. Regular exercise is an essential part of managing stress, and the feel-good endorphins are a great natural high. Find a form of exercise you love (consider a martial art like karate for maximum workout and stress relief) and do it regularly as part of your routine.
Focusing on your body and physical movement is a way to shut off stressful thoughts and emotions and brings you into the present, as a moving meditation. The more stressed and busy you are, the more you need to make exercise part of your life.
7. Ho’oponopono & Shinrinyoku
Ancient rituals could hold the key to managing modern day stress – Ho’oponopono, the Ancient Hawaiian ritual of forgiveness can help let go of pain and resentment causing stress in our relationships. Shinrin-yoku – the Japanese practice of forest bathing (walking in the woods) has been shown to have a dramatic effect on stress, anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.