Stress Essentials & 5 Ways to Wind Down

We all get stressed – it’s a natural, human response. But how can you tell when you’re ‘too stressed’ and what can you do about it if you are? We asked our naturopaths to layout the stress essentials, the need-to-know info about stress.  And also 5 easy ways to wind down when you’ve been particularly wound up!

First things first, you need to understand what stress is...

We all know what stress feels like.  That sense of pressure when we’re running late. The feeling of overwhelm when dealing with a difficult challenge. Or worry that keeps us awake at night. 

But stress is also a biological process that happens inside our bodies.  It’s designed to guard us against threats to safety.  But we’re not having to run from tigers anymore! Nowadays the ‘threats’ we face often go hand-in-hand with living a normal, fast-paced, modern life.

There are a number of basic steps that the body goes through when faced with a threat

There are a number of basic steps that the body goes through when faced with a threat

  1. First is the awareness of a threat through our senses that sends an alarm to our brain.
  2. Then, the brain responds by sending a signal to our adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormone).
  3. These chemical messengers travel around the body interacting with every organ and cell to prime our body to respond. For instance, they increase our heart rate, and raise our blood pressure, increase oxygen and blood sugar supplies.
  4. This occurs so that our body is ready to move quickly if needed to either face the danger or run away. It’s why stress is known as the “fight or flight” response. 

And when the threat is over, and we can relax, the body slowly returns to normal. 

But how much stress is too much?

What might be too much stress for one person, can be the motivating push another person needs. 

The real problem is when the stress response is too sustained that the body never really returns to normal. This means the pressure never really lets up.  Fortunately, there are some recognisable signs when stress levels become too high.

When the body remains on ‘high alert’ for too long, we adapt.  We may think we’re coping well but there are clues that suggest we are not.  Such as:

  • Mood changes
  • Feeling more irritated and angry, being more easily frustrated
  • Sleeping problems
  • Reduced energy
  • Reduced motivation and ability to concentrate.

Eventually, though, too much stress for too long leads to exhaustion or burnout. Our ability to cope with stress diminishes. So now we get stressed more easily or just can’t cope with any stress at all.

This can be dangerous as it leads to more significant mood, emotional and behavioural changes. 

What effect does stress have on our bodies?

High amounts of stress or even small levels constantly, over the long-term, can be detrimental. It is estimated that as much as 90% of illness and disease are stress-related. 

Signs you’re under too much stress can include:

Signs you’re under too much stress can include:

  • muscle tension that leads to frequent headaches and pain in the body.
  • changes in appetite leading to overeating or undereating, and therefore weight gain or loss.
  • more frequent hair fall leading to thinning hair or trigger skin complaints.
  • hormonal changes that lead to reduced sex drive, menstrual irregularities or impotence.
  • Digestive symptoms such as changes to bowel motility (leading to diarrhoea or constipation), or feelings of nausea.

Just some of the outcomes of too much stress includes:

  • Lowered immunity – causing an increase in our susceptibility to illness or infection;
  • Poor memory – stress shrinks our hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for memory and recall,
  • Digestive dysfunctions – stress slows down digestive system processes, leading to a host of digestive symptoms, reduced nutrient absorption and ultimately poorer gut health
  • Increased risk for mental health problems – including mood disorders and anxiety
  • Cardiovascular problems – stress raises blood pressure which if elevated constantly can lead to the development of heart disease.

Can stress ever be a good thing?

Sure! Stress itself isn’t necessarily ‘bad’ – it’s long-term, unrelenting chronic stress that has a negative effect.  Some stress is necessary to provide motivation, and can even lead to health gains.  Exercise is a good example of this, of a stress on the body that provides long-term positive gains and health improvements.

‘Good’ stress produces a feeling of excitement, anticipation, satisfaction and fulfilment. It’s when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone just enough to challenge ourselves positively and not experience anxiety or overwhelm.

Is there a difference between stress & anxiety?

Although stress and anxiety may look a bit the same they are different.  Anxiety can occur as a consequence of stress and looks a little like an ‘acute stress attack’ – a racing heart, faster breathing rate, and feelings of distress or dread.  

But anxiety is usually a longer-lasting experience than stress.  And it can also become a default reaction to stressful events.  It is often also more debilitating than stress is as well. Where stress might make you feel pressured and overwhelmed, anxiety makes you feel fearful, worried or panicked.  If these feelings are or become persistent and disabling, then it is a good idea to seek some help.

Now for the best part - 5 Easy Ways to Wind Down...

1. Relax

1. Relax

Relaxing your body both physically and mentally is the very first step you should take when you are under stress.  This will help deactivate the stress response in your body. The simplest way to do this is just to breathe – slowly and deeply.  This activates the opposite part of the nervous system to the stress response and halts the damaging effects of stress.

Meditation can also help to calm the mind and the body as well as progressive muscle relaxation exercises, where you systematically tense and then relax every single muscle in the body.  Yoga, tai-chi, mindfulness, taking time out, indulging in a hobby, reading and taking a relaxing bath are just a few more relaxation techniques to adopt to overcome stress.  

2. Say no to stimulants

2. Say no to stimulants

Coffee is the most common ‘remedy’ for stress – people feel they manage better once they’ve had their daily fix.  But as a stimulant, coffee provides only a temporary boost of energy before the inevitable crash.  This only serves to increase your stress levels rather than reduce them.  The same goes for sugar.

Then there’s nicotine and alcohol which may be used to ‘take the edge off’, unwind or relax. But these substances create their own problems in the body and actually worsen the body’s ability to cope with stress over time.  Alcohol is a good example.  In small doses, it’s a stimulant as above. But in larger doses, it has a depressing effect on the nervous system. This in turn worsens your mood and reduces your ability to reach deep, restorative sleep. So over time, you will actually be worse at managing your stress.

3. Move More

3. Move More

Exercise is a wonderful stress buster.  It’s a ‘positive stress’ on the body and the more you do it, the more health-enhancing it is.  Exercise reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in the body and also increases feel-good chemicals calls endorphins.  Regular exercise also improves the quality of your sleep to help your healing and recovery from stress.

You don’t have to run a marathon or spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits either.  Just try integrating more movement into your day – even getting into the fresh air for a walk works wonders.  Small, incremental amounts of exercise add up.  Eventually, work your way up to at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days.

4. Rest & Recharge

4. Rest & Recharge

Stress can upset your normal sleep patterns and leave you feeling tired yet unable to sleep well. But sleep is an important mechanism for the body to heal and recover, so it’s not only a necessity – it’s a must!

Following the tips above will go a long way to help improve natural sleep during periods of stress.  But you can also take a look at your environment in the lead up to bed-time to improve your chances at getting to deep, restorative sleep.  These include:

  • removing electrical items from your room,
  • ensuring your bedroom is dark and cool,
  • avoiding bright white or blue lights in the evening, instead use candles or low level ‘warm’ lighting
  • avoiding stimulating TV shows or working late
  • using essential oils to promote relaxation, such as lavender oil

5. Time for tea

5. Time for tea

Plant essences as found in essential oils aren’t the only way to use the healing power of plants as an antidote to stress.  Herbal infusions of calming plants are a long-standing tradition to promote relaxation – we call it tea!  Favourite herbs to use for supporting your stress response include:

  • chamomile
  • passionflower
  • skullcap
  • lemon balm (which is a great day-time herb to promote focus and concentration)
  • holy basil (also known as tulsi)
  • green oats
  • Withania (also known as ashwagandha)
  • nettle leaves
  • linden
  • Rhodiola
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Liquorice

So there you have it, the stress essentials you need to know and a few ways for how to wind down. We hope you’ve found this article useful and feel free to reach out to our naturopaths on our 0800 number for some free advice if you have even more questions!