If there’s one thing we don’t take seriously enough as a nation, it’s our mental health. Although we’ve gotten better in recent years, we still have a habit of taking on too much and ignoring our need for self-care, and when that happens we start to become the victim of a killer issue: Stress.
Why we need stress
Without stress, of course, life would be pretty dull indeed. We deliberately seek out stressful situations when we watch thrillers in the dark, visit haunted houses on Hallowe’en or play high-tension video games. We don’t often think about it, but stress can be linked to positive emotions such as excitement, arousal or elation.
Stress also encourages us to be alert to avoid danger and to work harder, which helps us navigate life and succeed. But when one fails to find much relief or respite between periods of high stress, that’s when it starts to hinder rather than help us.
How stress affects the body
When we are under considerable stress, our bodies go into what is known as “fight or flight” mode. The adrenal glands, located at the top of our kidneys, are responsible for releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The former increases heart rate, blood pressure and temporarily boosts our energy levels, and is the main reason we find we are able to run much faster than normal when we feel threatened.
The latter has many functions including regulating metabolism, blood sugars and immune responses, but under extreme stress it increases our blood glucose levels for energy and brainpower, while also suppressing functions that are not needed such as those associated with the immune system, reproductive system and digestive system.
This is all perfectly effective for brief periods, and our bodies do go back to normal after we have recovered from the stressful situation. Generally with no harm done.
What happens when we experience too much stress?
The problem comes when we begin to experience stress for extended periods of time. High-pressure jobs, parenting, difficult relationships, financial strains and health problems are just a few of the most common causes of chronic stress, and when the body constantly thinks it’s under attack, it will begin to malfunction in the long-term.
If you ever wondered why you seem to suffer from more colds during stressful times, it’s not a coincidence. In order to fight infection, our bodies need white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are significantly reduced to boost efficiency in other areas when we are stressed.
Furthermore, reduced function of the digestive system can cause everything from relatively minor complaints like constipation and diarrhoea, to more serious conditions such as stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the raised blood sugar levels can put one at risk of diabetes and cause kidney problems, while the increased blood pressure and raised heart rate can have a severe impact on our circulatory systems and potentially induce a heart attack or stroke.
Meanwhile, stress has a profound impact on our sleep, both the quantity and the quality, and when we don’t get enough sleep the body does not get the chance to undergo the essential healing and repair work needed after a stressful day.
Then there’s the indirect health problems caused by our attempts at relieving stress through quick-fixes like drinking alcohol and smoking. Both of which exacerbate the physical effects of stress even if the mental effects are alleviated for a while.
Simple measures we can take to combat the effects of stress
While it’s not always easy to tackle the situations causing the stress, there are things we can do to help stay healthy and reduce the physical effects.
1. Reduce sugar intake
Grabbing that chocolate bar might seem like the best idea in the world after a stressful day, but it’s best to avoid the temptation. With your blood sugar levels already raised, sugary food and drinks increase your risk of diabetes. Stick instead to fruit and healthy snacks, the more nutritionally rich, the better.
2. Increase fibre intake
Go easy on your digestive system by including more fibre-rich foods in your diet such as wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, brown rice, fruit, nuts and beans. Fibre is well known for combating constipation, which will dramatically reduce the work your digestive system has to do.
3. Stay hydrated
Since stress can cause all sorts of problems that affect the kidneys, one of the best things you can do to keep your kidneys healthy apart from keeping a healthy diet is to drink plenty of water. This will help the kidneys remove waste products from the body and prevent the formation of kidney stones. Water also helps reduce blood pressure and lowers blood sugar levels. It really is a wonder drink.
4. Set up a proper sleep routine
If you’re struggling to get to sleep at night, the chances are you’re not setting yourself up for success. Ensure that you are going to bed at roughly the same time every night and getting up around the same time too. Switch off the TV and put your phone away an hour before you go to sleep and do something restful like reading, meditation, yoga, taking a bath or listening to calming music before you get ready for bed. The more of a routine you have, the better chance you have of getting enough sleep.
5. Take regular breaks
It sounds obvious, but how many of us find ourselves eating our lunch at our desk and working at the same time? It’s time to stop doing this and allow yourself a few minutes every hour or two to mentally regroup.
6. Exercise daily
We’re not saying you have to do two hours of cardio at the gym every night, but something as simple as a daily walk or yoga routine can make a huge difference to your health. Exercise releases endorphins which induce positive feelings, relieving us of emotional stress. Plus, over time it lowers blood pressure, improves blood circulation, and there’s even evidence that it can boost the immune system.