Stress - friend or foe?
Updated: May 29, 2019
"Are you stressed?"
"Tell me about what stresses you out."
"What does stress feel like for you?"
These are standard questions I ask all my new clients. Stress seems to affect is in so many ways. Work stress, home stress, relationship stress, parenting stress, financial stress, physical stress, emotional stress. I think this often surprises some people, they don't expect to be asked about their stress levels at a dietitian appointment and it often catches them unawares. There are often tears and I wonder: Gosh, how can people prioritise their health and happiness when they have all this stress! Stress can have profound affects.
In research, stress is defined as the autonomic physical responses to stressors. Perhaps more specifically, stress is the physiological and psychological responses that we experience when faced with challenges.
The American Institute of Stress describes 4 different types of stress:
Acute Stress – short term stress, fight or flight activation - e.g. a car accident. This is normal and even helpful for our safety.
Chronic Stress – stressors from daily living – bills, kids, jobs. Left uncontrolled this can impact our health.
Eustress – Stress in daily life that has positive impacts – marriage & relationships, making new friends, graduation, going for a promotion.
Distress – Stress in daily life that has negative impacts – divorce, punishment, injury, financial difficulties.
Stress is a natural physical response. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial. Stress causes physiological changes that affect our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and muscle contractions. However for most of us in our day to day lives, we continue to feel stressed despite no imminent danger to our survival.
The effects of chronic stress
As interesting as the physical impacts of chronic stress, I am particularly interested in the mental health impacts.
Chronic stress has been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, reduced cognitive functioning and personality changes. These in turn can affect our intimate and social relationships which have further consequences on health and happiness.
In addition to this, we can often develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to stress, such as smoking, drinking or comfort eating.
It may seem logical to plan healthier snack options to reduce binging on chocolate every night (and this can be helpful), however it makes much more sense to address the ongoing stress that is causing that habitual eating. It is very difficult to commit energy, effort and time to meal planning, food preparation, and regular exercise when we are stressed, tired and our cup feels half empty. When we're chronically stressed our ability for self-care drops considerably and often it isn’t our priority - we’re too busy getting through the day, week and month.
So, what can we do?
Ironically, one of the best ways to combat stress, is to slow down, do less & practice self-care! Fill your cup before you try to take care of everyone else. This doesn’t just mean eating well and exercising. It may mean getting adequate sleep, taking some time out (maybe read a magazine or have a bath) and re-evaluating our to do lists.
It may also be helpful to do the following:
Become aware of what is causing you stress. Why are these things stressful? Are there things you can do to make them less stressful? Can you delegate or share tasks, are you doing too much and need to let something go (practice saying no!), or can some things wait until later?
Remember to breathe. Deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing helps to turn off the stress response. This is where meditation can also be an amazing tool.
Practice different techniques to deal with the things that stress you out. Different things work for different people.
Accept that there are some things that are out of your control – know when to let go and spend this energy on more important things.
Practice gratitude daily.
Get outside. Get some sunshine & fresh air!
Try to shift your perspective on the things that stress you out.
One of my favourite health experts Dr Libby Weaver describes stress in the 21st century as our perceptions of pressure and urgency. We perceive our busy lives, the school rush, our emails and to-do lists as urgent and stressful, when they don’t have to be this way. Oh, and she also mentions caffeine. But we’ll save that for another day!