Pay attention to the signs of stress. Too much stress hurts your physical, emotional, and mental health.
You can lower your stress level by incorporating a social Mediterranean lifestyle.
Your stress response is naturally higher in the first half of the day, and decreases at night.
Healthy sleep, mindfulness, exercise, and diet can all help you to decrease stress.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. While certain levels of stress are natural and at times, necessary to help you to react quickly during emergencies, too much, too often, can be harmful. An immediate crisis might be an appropriate time for your stress level to spike, and for your body’s natural stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, to pump you up. However, that same response in non-emergency situations, such as being stuck in traffic, or in line at the bank, may have detrimental effects on your health.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another type of stress condition that can develop after exposure to a shocking, frightening, or dangerous incident. You don’t necessarily need to be a war veteran to develop PTSD. This disorder can occur after physical or sexual assault, car accidents, even the the sudden death of a loved one.
All forms of chronic stress or worry, anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, strokes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, insomnia, excessive fatigue, unwanted weight loss, difficulty concentrating, panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), substance abuse, alcoholism, and premature mortality. Learning strategies to manage these conditions can decrease your risk of these symptoms and improve happiness, relaxation, and overall better health.
Think about what can happen when you put a car under an extreme amount of stress. Say that an automobile is driven long distances for excessive periods, in extreme temperatures without stopping, getting gas, changing the oil, or following other standard maintenance practices. Under this pressure, a car will break down earlier than it would if given proper care. A human body is similar. It needs adequate rest and maintenance. Under excessive tension, your body can overheat, run out of “fuel,” or burn up its own “engine.”
How can I lower my stress level?
Thankfully, there are many simple strategies you can employ to reduce and treat stress and to bring your emotional health back into balance. Here’s how:
Understand Your Stress
Certain glands in your body are responsible for producing and releasing the stress hormones that help you to be alert and to respond to stressful experiences. These glands follow a schedule of a sort that is influenced or “set” by light, sleep, activity, diet, and stressful events. In the past, humans slept at night when it was dark and were active during the daylight hours. Your stress clock is made to work ac- cording to this natural schedule, but that’s not how most of us live these days. In today’s modern world, most of us experience light at atypical times. Most people are awake, and stay awake during naturally dark hours and this can increase stress. Why? Cortisol and adrenaline are both naturally more responsive and active during the earlier part of the day when the human body is made to be the most productive. These hormones decrease naturally at night. This infers that your body is made to be more relaxed and resting during nighttime hours. You can’t relax and recover with elevated stress hormones. If you work at night or regularly stay up late into the night, your body can become overtaxed and stressed.
Fortunately, you can combat this disruption to your stress response by taking some simple steps.
- Live a Mediterranean Lifestyle: Studies of the people who live a Mediterranean lifestyle show that these leisure activities and social interactions reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The Mediterranean lifestyle can help. Why? Because it’s more than just a diet, it’s a way of life. These cultures prioritize and include a great deal of social interaction. Meals are a relaxing social event shared with family and friends, not rushed or isolated.
- Exercise Outside: Doing any exercise for 30-minutes to an hour a day helps your body to better respond to and recover from stress without it hurting your mind or body. You can get even more stress-relieving benefits if you take exercise outdoors where you can see plants, trees, and flowers. Spending time in nature helps to relieve stress and anxiety, and increases feelings of happiness and peace. One small study found that bicyclists who pedaled in front of green images were more serene than those who looked at gray or red images.
- Be Mindful: Being mindful is the ability to be—mentally and physically—to be fully conscious and aware in the present moment. Our minds are made to evaluate the past and to plan for the future. It’s one of the reasons the human animal has survived for so long. However, spending all your mental energy on the past or future leaves no space to check in with the now, and this may cause elevated stress. That’s where practicing mindfulness can help. Some cultures are better at cultivating this state of now-ness than others. In China and India, meditation, and mind-body exercises such as tai chi and yoga are a regular daily activity. All of these activities have been shown to lower stress and improve mood. Thankfully, our western society is learning. Today it is easy to find these types of classes at health clubs and community centers. You can also reduce stress by learning to meditate, practicing relaxation techniques, and including mind/body practices.
- Slow Down: “I’m too busy!” It’s the number one excuse that people give for not taking the time to get enough sleep, exercise, or to prepare healthy meals. On the flip side, prioritizing these activities gives you more time in your day. Healthy sleep, physical activity, and proper nutrition lowers stress and increases energy while improving emotional balance and stability. So, slow down. Even a 5-minute pause to meditate or to breathe slowly and deeply helps to reset your mindset and lower stress.
- Get Outside Help: Sharing your worries or concerns with family and friends helps you to lower stress, but that’s not all you can do. Get a physical from your doctor once a year—your mental health is just as important as your physical wellbeing. If you are suffering from chronic stress and anxiety, and it is affecting your daily life, consider talking with a qualified therapist. Talk therapy is an effective way to address and reduce these symptoms.