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How to cope better with stress

Healthy Food Guide editor Jenny de Montalk offers ways to thrive under pressure.

Doesn’t life feel frantic sometimes? Work and financial pressures, family commitments, fighting through traffic and 24/7 connectivity via the internet and mobile phones have filled our modern lives to the brim with daily stressors.

Being busy and having goals and responsibilities can be stimulating and positive but, when stress accumulates and isn’t managed well, it can affect your health, mentally and physically. Finding ways to unwind and manage your stress is key to thriving under pressure.

What is stress?

According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is the physical or emotional response to demands, or ‘stressors’, in our environment. These can be challenges in our daily lives, such as taking on a new role at work or being confronted with a problem to solve, right through to a close call on the motorway or an argument with a colleague.

We are designed to cope with a certain amount of stress and it can help us perform better in certain situations, such as exams or meeting a deadline, but prolonged or intense stress is damaging.

What are the physical effects of stress?

When you are stressed, your body responds in multiple ways. First, your muscles tense up. This is a reflex designed to protect against injury or pain. When stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – are released, you breathe harder, your heart rate increases and your blood vessels dilate.

Stress triggers a part of the brain called the hypothalamus to signal the nervous system and pituitary gland to release cortisol and another hormone, epinephrine, which causes the liver to produce more glucose. This glucose is to give you extra energy to get away from a situation quickly. It is released as part of our instinctual ‘fight or flight’ response to danger.

Stress can also affect digestion, causing diarrhoea or constipation, and changes in which nutrients are absorbed by the intestine.

Some people have changes of appetite, eating more or less than usual.

If not managed, chronic stress can be a drain on the body causing health problems, including increased risk for hypertension, heart disease and stroke, erectile dysfunction and impotence in men, and irregular or absent menstrual cycles in women.

What are signs of too much stress?

  • loss of enjoyment and interest in activities usually enjoyed
  • fatigue
  • dry mouth
  • chest pains, rapid heartbeat
  • anxiety
  • changes in sleeping patterns: sleeping difficulties, sleeping too much
  • indigestion or stomach upsets
  • muscle tension, neck or back pain or headaches
  • skin itches or rashes for no apparent reason
  • frequent sickness, such as cold, flu and stomach bugs
  • shortness of breath or shallow breathing
  • memory or concentration problems
  • doing risky or careless things (excessive drinking, gambling, drug use)
  • continuous feelings of anxiousness and tension for no obvious reason
  • feeling irritable, impatient or teary for no apparent reason
  • finding it hard to make decisions
  • a persistent sad mood despite good things happening
  • loss of appetite or overeating
  • isolation by avoiding people, places and events

If you experience any of these symptoms persistently, it’s time to see your GP.

What can you do about stress?

According to the Mental Health Foundation, there are a couple of approaches you can take to reduce the effect of stress in your life. The first is to change your environment to remove stressors. This might mean a change of job or living situation.

The second option is to cope differently with stress.

Ways to cope better with stress

  • Talk your worries over with someone you can trust.
  • Exercise at least three times a week.
  • Eat well and keep an eye on portion size. Often, we crave foods that are not really good for us when we are stressed. Instead of instantly gratifying food, such as chocolate or chips, reach for carbohydrates that release energy slowly, such as wholegrain breads, cereals and pasta, and legumes, fruit and yoghurt, and protein for satiety, such as lean meats, oily fish and eggs. Too much caffeine can enhance feelings of stress and interfere with sleep and, while an alcoholic drink can feel relaxing, drinking too much or too frequently can exacerbate feelings of stress.
  • Set realistic goals and don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Make friends with your workplace. Get up five or 10 minutes earlier so you don’t have to rush.Set aside time for dealing with emails, and break large projects down into small steps. Spend five to 10 minutes at the end of the day preparing for the next day. Take time off and have a breather once in a while.
  • Try to be a problem solver rather than looking for obstacles, and learn to say no.
  • Practise positive self-talk.
  • Practise relaxation. Try yoga, meditation or take time out to have a massage, run a hot bath or listen to music. The main thing is, do it regularly.
  • Get enough sleep. Going to bed and getting up at similar times over the week, switching screens off before bed, exercising in the morning and avoiding caffeine after 3pm all help with getting a better night’s sleep.
  • Have a laugh – catch up with friends, go to a comedy show or just dance badly to some great tunes. Fun is a great stress reliever.

Breathing exercise for stress relief

  • Sit on the floor with your legs easily crossed or in lotus position. Or, if you prefer, sit on a chair with your arms resting at your sides and your feet hip-width apart, flat on the floor.
  • Keep your spine tall but soft, as if a string is pulling you from the top of your head toward the ceiling. Think length.
  • Observe the hiss of your breath as you inhale and exhale.
  • Exhale fully, but softly, using your abdominal muscles to empty the breath.
  • Inhale long and deep through the nose, feeling the breath fill the back of the ribcage and all the way down into the abdomen, without forcing it.
  • Exhale fully, using your abdominal muscles to empty the breath. Repeat for one to two minutes.

Date modified: October 2 2018
First published: Jul 2017

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