Making Sense Of Modifiable Personal Lifestyle Factors
Stress seems to be an inevitable consequence of our lives. At times, it also seems that there is little we can do about the stress around us. Stress, however, is an essential part of life. In fact, stress teaches us how to adapt and survive. In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (from a physical illness, medical procedure, or emotional disruption). Without adaptation to stress, we would cease to exist from the stressors around us. Stress, then, is really your body’s responses to the changes in your environment.
Because our lives and our environments change over time, there is no real way to avoid stress. Instead it must be recognized and managed. Stress can come in many forms and affect all of us differently. Marriage and buying a house may constitute one type of stress while divorce or death of a loved one may constitute another. The goal then is not to avoid or eliminate stress, but rather to determine the causes of stress and remove unnecessary stress from our lives.
What Causes Stress?
Stress, as we have suggested, can come from many different sources. In addition to our stressors, our own experiences and perceptions may heighten or alleviate stress. As a starting point to the cause of stress, it may be beneficial to determine what uniquely causes you stress. This may require some reflection on our own past and upbringing. It may also be helpful to discover our own character traits and personalities. The Myers-Briggs personality assessment is a nice place to start if you are curious about what things may be more likely to stress you out personally.
Still, there are many common factors that cause and contribute to stress. Jobs, relationships, finances, and health are a few of the major stressors in all our lives. Some things may be more mundane than these, but most stressors come from the feeling that we lack control over our environment and our circumstances. Worse yet, stressors can come from the feeling that we lack control over our very selves.
This lack of control in an ever-changing world is the root of our stress. As a result, taking charge is part of the solution. Taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, and your circumstances is the true beginning of stress management. As Wayne Dyer said, “You can’t always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside”.
How Does Stress Affect Us?
Stress by its very definition is supposed to create tension. It should make us uncomfortable and motivate us to do something. However, just as stress is perceived differently, how stress affects us is also unique to the individual. Typical symptoms like higher heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, and sweating are common. Some people may get headaches from stress while others get gastrointestinal distress. These symptoms usually are related to the release of stress related factors like adrenaline and cortisol. These factors motivate us to act in response to stress. However, if the stress is prolonged, these factors and symptoms may be deleterious to our health. No one exactly knows how stress impacts our health, but one thing is agreed upon: Stress makes everything worse.
Managing Our Stress:
We can all feel overwhelmed by our stress from time to time. But if this overwhelming feeling starts to become a regular thing in our life, then we may need newer and better ways to manage our stress. The thing that is most helpful is to first identify the sources of the stress in our lives. Sometimes our stressors are obvious. However, more often we can over look our stress inducing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In these circumstances it may be helpful to keep a stress journal. As you track the times and situations in which you feel stressed you will see a pattern beginning to emerge. And most importantly, if we can identify a pattern, we can change it.
Next steps are to look at how we are currently coping and dealing with our stress. Are the strategies you use healthy or unhealthy? Unfortunately, some of the ways we deal with stress only compound the stress rather than dissipate it. Here are some of the methods that may temporarily reduce stress, but in the end can cause more harm than good when dealing with stress:
|Smoking||Escaping to social media||Sleeping too little|
|Drinking||Withdrawing from friends and family||Procrastinating|
|Over-eating||Using medications or drugs to relax||Filling up time with menial tasks to avoid problems|
|Under-eating||Sleeping too much||Taking stress out on others|
|Staring mindlessly at screens|
The final steps in stress management are to engage in practical and healthy alternative ways to manage our stress. Since everyone handles stress differently, it is reasonable to try multiple methods to find out which one, or ones, work best for you. Below are some of the common recommendations from psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in stress management:
- Keep a positive attitude.
- Accept that there are events that you cannot control.
- Be assertive instead of aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques; meditation.
- Exercise regularly: try yoga, or tai chi for stress management.
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Learn to manage your time more effectively.
- Set limits appropriately and learn to say no to requests that would create excessive stress.
- Make time for hobbies, interests, and relaxation.
- Get enough rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
- Seek out social support. Spend enough time with those you enjoy.
- Seek treatment with a psychologist or other mental health professional trained in stress management or biofeedback techniques to learn healthy ways of dealing with the stress in your life.
Along those general lines, here are some more specific activities that can be done to help manage stress:
- Go for a walk.
- Spend time in nature.
- Call a good friend.
- Sweat out tension with a good workout.
- Write in your journal.
- Take a long bath.
- Light scented candles.
- Savor a warm cup of coffee or tea.
- Play with a pet.
- Work in your garden.
- Get a massage.
- Curl up with a good book.
- Listen to music.
- Watch a comedy.
Supplements That Help with Stress:
To add to the healthy techniques and practices of stress management, there may be a role for supplementation to assist with stress. Here are some of the more helpful ones that can assist with stress and promote relaxation during times of stress:
Magnesium: Magnesium plays a key role in regulating and coordinating the stress-response of our mind and body. Magnesium deficiency is linked to higher stress and anxiety. In addition, magnesium deficiency can compromise gastrointestinal health, which is also linked to anxiety. Lastly, magnesium increases GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which encourages relaxation as well as sleep. Low GABA levels in the body can make it difficult to relax. Supplemental magnesium has also been shown to have a stabilizing effect on mood. This essential mineral has been demonstrated to be effective in relieving symptoms of both mild-to-moderate anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression. Of note, the magnesium most likely to assist with stress and tension is Magnesium Glycinate.
B Vitamins: Our brain and nervous system rely on several B vitamins for optimal functionality. Research supports how B vitamins benefit our bodies when it comes to managing and coping with stress. This family of vitamins helps increase neurotransmitters for optimum brain function, calms the nervous system, and supports adrenal function. The vitamins most commonly associated with managing stress are B1 – thiamine, B2 – riboflavin, B3 – niacin, B5 – pantothenic acid, B6 – pyridoxine, B9 – folate, and B12 – cyanocobalamin. Of note, the methylated forms of some B vitamins tend to be the most active, especially for individuals who may have methylation pathway problems.
Adaptogens: These are natural occurring substances considered to help the body’s adaptation to stress. They work through and with the pathways that exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. Some have stimulatory effects while others cause relaxation. Still others help with resiliency, endurance, and focus. It is important to choose the correct adaptogen for the individual response to stress. We recommend consulting with a professional in functional medicine or Chinese medicine to assist with your choices. Several common adaptogens are listed below. The most common ones are in bold print:
|Aloe Vera||Fo-Ti||Milk Thistle|
|Ashwagandha||Gotu Kola||Reishi Mushroom|
|Dong Quai||Maca||Tree of Life|
As stated from the start of this article, stress is inevitable. Equally so, it is an essential part of life. But when stress experiences become too frequent or too much for our lives, there can be negative responses and damage to our mental and physical health. Of course, it is usually best to practice consistent stress management techniques even when there is little to no stress in our lives. This way, when the stress begins to increase, we will have already mastered the skills necessary to cope best with our stress. However, even when we are not prepared, our health depends on our management of our stress. Some medical professionals believe it is the leading factor in all cause mortality. For that reason, stress management should be practiced regularly and taken seriously.
Of course, taking life too seriously can lead to stress, so in then end, I would like to take the advice of a childhood hero, Fred Rogers, who said: “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers”.
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