Stress is the "wear and tear" our bodies experience as we adjust to our continually changing environment. It has physical and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings.
As a positive influence, stress can help compel us into action. It can result in a fresh awareness and an exciting new perspective. As a negative influence, it can result in feelings of distrust, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, rashes, insomnia, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
With the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a job promotion, or a new relationship, we experience stress as we readjust our lives. While adjusting to different circumstances, stress will help or hinder us depending on how we react to it.
Positive stress adds anticipation and excitement to life, and we all thrive under a certain amount of stress. Deadlines, competitions, confrontations, and even our frustrations and sorrows add depth and enrichment to our lives.
Our goal is not to eliminate stress but to learn how to manage it and how to use it to help us. Insufficient stress acts as a depressant and may leave us feeling bored or dejected. On the other hand, excessive stress may leave us feeling "tied up in knots." What we need to do is find the optimal level of stress which will individually motivate but not overwhelm each of us.
There is no single level of stress that is optimal for all people. We are all individual creatures with unique requirements. As such, what is distressing to one may be a joy to another. And even when we agree that a particular event is distressing, we are likely to differ in our physiological and psychological responses to it.
It has been found that most illness is related to unrelieved stress. If you are experiencing stress symptoms, you have gone beyond your optimal stress level. You need to reduce the stress in your life and/or improve your ability to manage it.
Identifying unrelieved stress and being aware of its effect on our lives is not sufficient for reducing its harmful effects. Just as there are many sources of stress, there are many possibilities for its management. However, all require work toward change: changing the source of stress and/or changing your reaction to it. How do you proceed?
1. Become aware of your stressors and emotional and physical reactions. Notice your distress. Don't ignore it. Determine what events distress you. What are you telling yourself about the meaning of these events? Determine how your body responds to the stress. Do you become nervous or physically upset? If so, in what specific ways?
2. Recognise what you can change. Can you change your stressors by avoiding or eliminating them completely? Can you reduce their intensity (manage them over a period of time instead of on a daily or weekly basis)? Can you shorten your exposure to stress (take a break, leave the physical premises)? Can you devote the time and energy necessary to making a change (goal setting, time management techniques, and delayed gratification strategies may be helpful here)?
3. Reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions to stress. The stress reaction is triggered by your perception of danger or fear. Are you viewing your stressors in exaggerated terms and/or taking a difficult situation and making it a disaster?
Are you expecting to please everyone? Are you overreacting and viewing things as absolutely critical and urgent? Do you feel you must always prevail in every situation?
Work at adopting more moderate views; try to see the stress as something you can cope with rather than something that overpowers you. Try to temper your excess emotions. Put the situation in perspective. Do not labour on the negative aspects and the "what if's."
4. Learn to moderate your physical reactions to stress. Slow, deep breathing will bring your heart rate and respiration back to normal. Relaxation techniques can reduce muscle tension. Electronic biofeedback can help you gain voluntary control over such things as muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure. Medications, when prescribed by a doctor, can help in the short term in moderating your physical reactions. However, they alone are not the answer. Learning to moderate these reactions on your own is a preferable long-term solution.
5. Build your physical reserves. Exercise for cardiovascular fitness three to four times a week (moderate, prolonged rhythmic exercise is best, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or jogging). Eat well-balanced, nutritious meals.
Maintain your ideal weight. Avoid nicotine, excessive caffeine, and other stimulants. Mix leisure with work. Take breaks and get away when you can. Get enough sleep. Be as consistent with your sleep schedule as possible.
6. Maintain your emotional reserves. Develop some mutually supportive friendships/relationships. Pursue realistic goals which are meaningful to you, rather than goals others have for you that you do not share. Expect some frustrations, failures, and sorrows. Always be kind and gentle with yourself - be a friend to yourself.
Eating when under stress isn’t just about filling an emotional need. Your body has a system of hormonal checks and balances that actually promote weight gain when you're stressed.
The so-called "stress hormone" cortisol is released in the body during times of stress along with the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine that constitute the "fight or flight" response to a perceived threat. Following the stressful or threatening event, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels return to normal, while cortisol levels can remain elevated over a longer time period. In fact, cortisol levels can remain persistently elevated in the body when a person is subjected to chronic stress.
How does cortisol influence weight gain? Cortisol has many actions in the body, and one ultimate goal of cortisol secretion is the provision of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions is an increase in appetite. Thus chronic stress, or poorly-managed stress, may lead to cortisol levels that stimulate your appetite, with the end result being weight gain or difficulty losing unwanted pounds.
Cortisol not only promotes weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Doctors have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as "toxic fat" since abdominal fat deposition is strongly correlated with the development of cadiovascular disease including heart attacks and strokes.
Experts agree that stress management is a critical part of weight loss regimens, particularly in those who have elevated cortisol levels. Exercise is the best and fastest method for weight loss in this case, since exercise leads to the release of endorphins, which have natural stress-fighting properties and can lower cortisol levels. Activities such as yoga and meditation can also help lower your stress hormone levels.
To effectively reduce elevated cortisol due to stress, lifestyle changes are essential