Stress is often a topic talked about by the press with headlines such as “Britain will break down“1, but how often do people recognise the effect stress is having on them before it is too late? With GPs and other NHS employees leading in the stress stakes, the irony is the people that should be telling us to manage our stressful lives are not being allowed to manage theirs. Hopefully this only applies to the 30% that are going to quit and the 20% that are already ill from stress 2, the remainder presumably have got it sussed!
My own irony in preparing for a talk on the subject was seeing how my stress affected me during preparation, causing disturbed sleep and irritability certainly. However stress is definitely a good thing when it comes to performance for an athlete as well as a speaker. “This action-enhancing stress gives the athlete the competitive edge and the public speaker the enthusiasm to project optimally.”3
So the key question here is what is too much stress for us as individuals? Are we performing optimally or are we just managing to get through each day? Those that think they’re doing OK should not assume that their hectic lifestyle will not catch up with them at some stage, particularly if they have a poor diet and other unhealthy habits.
Take a look at the stress in your life both past and present. Things that stress you, known as stressors, can be physical, emotional and chemical. Physical stress can result from extreme exercise or temperature and illness. Much of our stress is emotional and although major events such as death or divorce will have a big impact, often it is our mind not dealing with Novel situations, Uncertainties, Threats to our ego or loosing a Sense of control which can send us NUTS.4 Chemical stressors are toxins that is anything that does harm to the body. Unfortunately there is not a shortage of those! They are present in food, in the air we breathe or the cosmetics we put on our skin. The other important aspect is that all stressors are cumulative.
How do we know that stress is having a detrimental effect on our health?
Here are some common symptoms
- irritability a “short fuse”
- poor sleep
- unable to deal with stressful situations
- weight gain
- high or low blood pressure
- craving for salt or salty food
- increasing time to recover from illness
So stress is negative when it exceeds our ability to cope. This harmful stress is called “distress”. Functionally distress can affect every system in the body. This means it can be connected with many conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome, auto-immune diseases, hypothyroidism, as well as psychological illnesses.3
When thinking about how stress affects you, think about where you feel it. Commonly our gut is effected, from butterflies in our stomach to an urgent need to go to the toilet. When we are in fight or flight mode there is no resource to digest. Just as no point in reproducing or fighting a cold, thus our immune system and hormone balance can be affected. Finally our adrenal glands, the small organs that sit on our kidneys are where stress hormones are produced, these are our shock absorbers and when overused can become fatigued, not producing the cortisol needed to boost our performance when needed. A tell-tale sign of this is that stimulants are needed more and more to lend a hand.
So what can be done?
It is important to assess where you are. Are you strung out? leading a very full and stressful life or burnt out? completed zapped of energy? As well as looking at symptoms to assess your status, an adrenal stress profile test is a useful tool. This simply measures cortisol and DHEA (a pre-cursor to cortisol) levels in saliva; samples are taken throughout the day helping to see if you’re over producing stress hormones hence too much stress or under producing indicating you have run out of reserves. This really helps to guide appropriate action needed and help focus changes you need to make to your lifestyle.
The good news is there are many lifestyle considerations that will help in dealing with stress in anyone’s life, helping to maintain a balance and thus not having a negative effect on your health.
Eat for stable energy
- Eat three meals a day and never skip breakfast
- Eat protein with every meal e.g. eggs, fish, meat, nuts or pulses
- Choose slow-releasing carbohydrates rather than refined foods – e.g. brown rice, oats etc.
- Reduce your dependence on stimulants e.g. coffee, colas, energy drinks and cigarettes.
- Snack pre-emptively– if you know you have an energy dip before lunch and around 4pm, have an energy sustaining snack ready to avoid sugary snacks.
- Avoid sugary snacks – all the above should help you to do this
Get a good night’s sleep
- Avoid alcohol before bed, and limit any caffeine intake after midday (or preferably avoid it completely).
- Aim to follow a soothing bedtime routine, such as having a warm bath with Epsom salts and lavender oil or listening to relaxing music.
- If you have difficulty sleeping, take a magnesium supplement before bed.
- Have good sleep hygiene – ensure your bedroom is quiet and dark and you are comfortable.
Manage your stress
- Find ways that work for you to deal more positively with stressors e.g. writing down your worries, mindfulness, CBT
- Take time to relax e.g. activities such as Yoga, walking outside reading a book or a massage
- Enjoy a laugh either with good friends or find a funny movie or TV program
If you would like to discuss any of this please contact me.
- Salleh, M. R. (2008). Life Event, Stress and Illness. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS, 15(4), 9–18