Stress is the body’s way of responding to risky and threatening environments and experiences. No one is spared from stress – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because of the ‘fight or flight’ response, the body and mind are more alert during times of stress and produce greater amounts of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are responsible for increasing blood pressure and heart rate and decreasing digestion, respectively.
This natural response of the body is designed to last as long as stressful stimulus is still present. Unfortunately, because most of the things that cause stress are long-term factors, such as work and relationships, the risk of developing chronic stress increases as time passes. Chronic stress is characterized by the body’s inability to shut off its natural stress responses, causing a perpetual state of alertness, and consequently, a decline in the immune system.
Stress disorders develop as a result of traumatizing events and can cause intense fear, horror, and helplessness. Acute stress disorders are short-term and occur right after the event, while post-traumatic stress disorders may not kick in immediately but last for more than three months.
Effects of Stress on Health
Stress has been known to cause a number of minor and more serious health problems. These include the following symptoms:
- Chest pains
- Muscle pains
- Grinding teeth
- Upset stomach
- Increased arousal
- Excessive fatigue
- Bouts of insomnia
- Difficulty focusing
- Frequent mood swings
- Increase in blood pressure
- Drastic changes in weight
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Irregular and rapid heartbeat
- Excessive alertness and startled responses
Stress can also cause problems in mental and emotional health, especially mood and disposition. Symptoms include the following:
- Excessive worrying
- Emotional detachment
- Depression and hopelessness
- Intrusive thoughts and dreams
- Impulsive thoughts and actions
- No recollection of traumatic events
- Disturbing flashbacks to a traumatic event
- Inability to function normally in social settings
Therapeutic drugs are sometimes prescribed to aid in stress relief, including:
- Benzodiazepines, which are sedatives that help lessen anxiety level such as diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan)
- Buspirone (BuSpar), a drug that combats anxiety but takes two weeks for the effects to kick in
- Antidepressants, which block neurotransmitters involved in the body’s natural response to stress, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), Duloxetine (Cymbalta), and Escitalopram (Lexapro)
Natural Ways to Relieve Stress
Stress should not be a major problem or pose any threats to one’s wellbeing if proper stress management measures are employed in order to ensure that it is kept at bay. These measures include the following:
- Better time management. It is easier to get more things done with less stress when working on a set schedule. Setting priorities and sticking to a timetable will ensure that the most important things are taken care of first, and the more trivial tasks are left to be done in spare time.
- Find better ways to cope. Objectively assessing coping methods can be a big help in improving the way stress is handled. For instance, writing down the possible sources of stress and figuring out which ones can be controlled and which cannot may be a big help.
- Take care of yourself. Adequate rest and a proper diet can do wonders for your stress level. Ditching smoking and drinking habits can also improve health, as can regular exercise.
- Let your feelings out. Talking about worries, needs, and concerns with a trusted confidante can significantly lessen stress. Not opening up can only worsen negative emotions.
- Finding new hobbies, doing volunteer work, and engaging in meditation exercises can greatly relieve stress, as well.
Eating a proper diet can also help the body adapt better to stress. The following food items have been known to reduce stress levels:
- Avocados, which reduce high blood pressure
- Spinach, which reduces headaches and fatigue
- Milk, which helps ease anxiety and reduce mood swings
- Black tea, which lowers stress hormone levels and calms the nerves
- Simple and complex carbohydrates, which trigger the release of serotonin
- Nuts and seeds, which lower cholesterol levels and boost the immune system
- Oranges, which decreases stress hormones and strengthens the immune system
- Fatty fish, which curbs stress hormones and prevents heart diseases and mood disorders
It is also best to stay away from refined food such as white bread and sugar, unhealthy cooking oil, and trans fatty acids, such as in processed food.
Some procedures have also been designed to help combat stress. These include acupuncture, which helps reduce blood pressure and lower anxiety levels, and chiropractic, which relies on spinal manipulation to reduce stress levels.
Health Supplements for Stress
Using herbal medicines and supplements has been proven to be quite effective in decreasing stress levels and promoting relaxation. Most of these are available in dried and liquid extracts, pills, and capsules, but must always be taken as per the recommendation of a healthcare provider. Some of the common herbs used to reduce stress include:
- Bacopa, which is said to reduce anxiety
- John’s wort, which helps combat depression
- Ginseng, which strengthens the immune system
- Kava kava, which helps combat mild to moderate anxiety
- Green tea, which is an antioxidant and improves immunity
- Valerian root, which helps promote calmness and relaxation
- Catnip, chamomile, and lemon balm, which are often made into tea to help calm nerves
Other vitamins and minerals are also available as supplements that may help combat stress and its negative effects on health. These multivitamins include:
- Probiotic supplements
- L-theanine, an ingredient in black tea
- Vitamins A, C, E, and the B-complex vitamins
- Trace minerals like magnesium, zinc, calcium, and selenium
Individuals who suffer from stress disorders have greater risks of developing serious anxiety disorders and mood swings, as well as heart and gastrointestinal conditions. Thus, it is important that lifestyle changes and the proper preventive measures be taken so that chronic stress is managed successfully.
UMMC. Stress. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/stress
MedicineNet. Diet for Stress Management. http://www.medicinenet.com/diet_for_stress_management_pictures_slideshow/article.htm
WebMD. Stress Management. http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-topic-overview