Jillian Levy, CHHC via Dr. Axe – Stress: We all deal with it, yet we know how much better off we’d be — both physically and mentally — if we could only get it under control and find stress relievers that really work. While stress can be a positive, motivating factor at times (such as when you’re under pressure to perform well at work or to ace an important exam), more and more research shows that chronic stress impacts the body in ways similar to a poor diet, lack of sleep or sedentary lifestyle.
Would you believe that 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctors office visits are related to conditions caused by stress? (1) How exactly does stress negatively affect our health in so many ways? It mostly boils down to changes in our hormones, which then cascade to an increase in inflammation and various other problems.
Uncontrolled stress experienced over a long period of time is considered “chronic,” dangerous and capable of increasing someone’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain or obesity, mental disorders, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, and even cancer.
Let’s face it, the stress we face today isn’t going anywhere, which is exactly why it’s more important than ever to find natural ways to bust stress that work well for us. If you’re up against large amounts of stress in your life (and who isn’t?), studies show you can greatly benefit from carving out more time in your busy schedule for things like regular exercise, meditation, spending time outdoors and keeping up with fun hobbies.
We can’t always control sources of stress in our lives, but we change how we react to them. The good news is this: The human body is actually designed to experience and handle stress, which is exactly why our bodies react to it so strongly. With some practice, we have the power to learn to use certain elements of stress to our advantage (for example, the fact that stress keeps us more alert and attentive), while better controlling other negative reactions (like digestion problems or giving in to cravings for unhealthy foods).
So, what are the best stress relievers available to us, and how can we ensure we don’t allow stress to control our lives? If you adhere to the following eight practices, you’re sure to feel less pressure and better manage your stress on a daily basis.
We’re More Stressed Today, Whether or Not We Admit It
In many parts of the world, more people today report experiencing negative experiences — which includes physical pain, worry, sadness, stress and anger — on a daily basis than at any recent point in history. What is causing everyone to feel so stressed and burnt out?
- Worries over finances and the economy
- Health and health care-related concerns
- Disapproval of government performance and worries over politics
- Anxiety over current events, including natural and societal events such as mass shootings, climate crisis, racial tensions and terrorism
- Stress due to social media and technology use
- Feelings of loneliness and depression
Chronic stress is considered the type of stress that interferes with your ability to function normally over an extended period, such as more than 6 months.
Obviously people of all ages can experience chronic stress, however it’s thought that younger and middle-aged adults between the ages of 15 and 49 are most likely to deal with debilitating chronic stress. “Generation Z” is considered to be the most stressed-out age group in many industrialized nations, due to factors like violence, political turmoil, poor finances and poor health, while “Millennials” report the highest rates of anxiety, loneliness and depression.
Do people always know that they are dealing with chronic stress? Not necessarily. It’s not always easy for someone to make a connection between stress in their lives and symptoms such as pain and brain fog. People also tend to struggle with identifying exactly what’s causing them to worry or to feel angry, overwhelmed or depressed.
When chronically stressed, you release more “stress hormones” such as adrenaline and cortisol, a steroid hormone in the broader class of steroids called glucocorticoids that is secreted by the adrenal glands. When levels of stress hormones remain elevated over time, they impact many bodily functions.
We know that stress can negatively affect nearly all parts of the body, including the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system gastrointestinal system, nervous system, and both female and male reproductive systems. Here are some of the ways ongoing stress can lead to discomfort and disease:
- Causes headaches and migraines
- Makes it harder to sleep and causes fatigue
- Triggers digestive issues such as stomach aches or IBS
- Can lead to overeating and weight gain, or sporadic eating patterns and skipping meals
- Makes it more likely that people favor sedentary activities and don’t exercise
- Can lead to social isolation, loneliness and poor relationships
- Cab increase obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and asthma.
8 Natural Stress Relievers to Try Now
1. Exercise and Yoga
One of the best stress relievers available to us is exercise, a natural remedy for anxiety because it releases powerful endorphin chemicals in the brain, which act like the body’s built-in painkillers and mood-lifters.
Research suggests the negative effects of stress on the body seem to be exaggerated in people who are inactive, a phenomenon called”stress-induced/exercise deficient” phenotype. Because we react to stress by experiencing changes in our neuro-endocrine systems, regular exercise is protective because it regulates various metabolic and psychological processes in the body, including reinforcing our natural circadian rhythms, sleep/wake cycles, moods and blood sugar levels.
Exercises improves insulin sensitivity, can help someone become more aware of their hunger levels, improves confidence/self-esteem, and leads to better mental processing and a lower risk for depression. (2) Can’t sleep? Well, exercise can help with that too, which is very important considering quality sleep is needed to regulate hormones and help the body recover.
Yoga has been shown to have similar benefits, reinforcing the “mind-body connection,” improving how people (especially women) feel about their bodies, helping with sleep and controlling anxiety. A review of over 35 clinical trials that tested the effects of regular yoga on stress levels and health found that, overall, yoga offers significant improvements in various physical and psychological health markers for the majority of people. (3)
Looking for an even more impactful way to feel the benefits of exercise? Do so while listening to uplifting music. Research findings indicate that music listening positively impacts the psycho-biological stress system, helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, improves recovery time, and has benefits for hormonal balance and brain functioning overall. (4)
2. Meditation/Devotional Prayer
Meditation and healing prayer are both proven stress relievers that help people deal with worry, anxiety and finding peace of mind. Best of all, they can both be practiced conveniently anytime of day, in your own home and with no therapist, practitioner or program needed, making them a no-brainer.
Meditation and prayer have been used for literally thousands of years to improve well-being and connection to others, but today they’re actually backed up by science as well. Breathing exer
Natural stress relief meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction are types of simple mental techniques that are practiced for as little as 10–15 minutes once or twice a day in order to bring about more “mindfulness” and reduce stress or anxiety. (5, 6)
Various other forms of meditation have been shown to lower physiological responses to stress, improve mental alertness, and help people overcome various emotional and physical problems, such as: anxiety, depression, poor mental health that affects quality of life, attention problems, substance use, eating habits, sleep, pain and weight gain. (7)
Acupuncture has increasingly been used to treat many stress-related conditions, including psychiatric disorders, autoimmune or immunological-related diseases, infertility, anxiety, and depression. Researchers have found that acupunture treatments result in changes in the cardiovascular and immune systems, increasing protective T-cell proliferation and helping with cellular immuno-responses. (8)
Studies have shown that acupuncture is one of the best stress relievers for patients recovering from heart disease because it helps regulate the nervous system, therefore having positive effects on blood pressure levels, circulation, hormones and other factors. (9)
4. A Nutrient-Dense Diet
A steady supply of nutrients like essential vitamins, trace minerals, healthy fats, electrolytes, amino acids and antioxidants all help your brain handle stress better, therefore benefiting your entire body.
Some of the best foods for natural stress relief include:
- Foods high in B vitamins (which the body uses to convert nutrients to energy) — raw or cultured dairy products, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, poultry, brewer’s yeast and green leafy vegetables.
- Foods high in calcium and magnesium — as relaxing minerals and electrolytes, calcium and magnesium are important for relaxing muscles, relieving headaches and helping you sleep. Try unsweetened organic yogurt, wild-caught salmon, beans/legumes, leafy green veggies, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, avocados and nuts.
- High protein foods — foods with protein provide amino acids that are needed for proper neurotransmitter functions.
- Healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids — cold-water, wild-caught fish like salmon or sardines can reduce inflammation and help stabilize moods, plus omega-3s are great for the brain, development and heart health. Other healthy fats that support brain health include nuts/seeds, avocado, olive oil and coconut oil.
On the other hand, foods to avoid in order to keep stress levels down include:
- Packaged or sugary foods — processed, refined foods or those with added sugar can give you blood sugar highs and lows throughout the day, increasing anxiety and causing cravings and fatigue.
- Too much alcohol or caffeine — both alcohol and caffeine can cause or worsen anxiety, make you dehydrated, interfere with sleep leaving you tired, and make you unable to cope with stress well.
- Refined vegetable oils — imbalances in polyunaturated fatty acids, meaning getting much more omega-6s than omega-3s from your diet, are tied to metabolic damage, inflammation and even poor gut health, which can affect mental processes.
5. Challenging Your Thoughts with “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapeutic practice that has been proven to lower anxiety, stress and multiple disorders — including addiction, eating disorders, insomnia and depression. Knowing that at least 50 percent of the time experiencing a mental disorder is due mostly to chronic, untreated stress reactions, therapists use CBT to train all types of people to better react to situations that are stressful.
CBT focuses on challenging and changing your thoughts first and foremost, since the way you perceive an event (not the actual event itself) means everything in terms of how your body reacts. (10) Once you can identify the root thought pattern that is causing harmful behaviors, you can work on changing how you think about events and therefore react to them.
The idea behind CBT is this: If you can reframe the way you think about events in your life — for example, instead of panicking over a job change you choose to embrace it, prepare as best you can and seize the opportunity to start fresh — you can literally reduce the stress you wind up feeling from the event. CBT is useful for training us to avoid internal causes of stress, such as “all-or-nothing” thinking, jumping to conclusions, pessimism, having unrealistic expectations for ourselves, always expecting the worst-case scenario, and feeling guilt or shame over events that are out of our control. (11)
6. Spending More Time in Nature and Being Social
Making time for connecting with the people around you, spending time outside and doing things you love with family, friends and your spouse are all stress relievers that are good for your health in many ways. Social connection is tied to longevity, since it helps people feel like they’re a part of something larger than themselves and helps give them perspective.
7. Keeping a Journal
Keeping track of your emotions, both positive and negative, along with the events that can trigger them helps you identify what’s causing stress. A journal is an easy, effective way to monitor your state of mind throughout the day, focus on thoughts that cause you harm and figure out what’s really bothering you when you’re unsure.
A journal can also reduce stress by helping you to stay organized, such as listing out appointments, household responsibilities, job assignments or other tasks so you’re less frantic and likely to miss important deadlines.
8. Using Adaptogen Herbs and Essential Oils
Several adaptogenic herbs and essential oils have been shown to improve anxiety symptoms by reducing the effects that stress and cortisol have on the body. Adaptogens (including ginseng, ashwagandga, maca, rhodiola, holy basil and cocoa) are a unique class of healing plants that balance, restore and protect the body and make it easier to handle stress by regulating hormones and physiological functions.
Bonus Stress Relievers:
- Breathing Exercises
- Cooking Therapy Benefits for Stress + Mental Health
- Singing Bowl and Sound Bath Benefits for Stress Relief & More
The Impact of Stress on Your Health
Stress can be defined as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.” While feeling stressed has certain protective roles, too much stress can also do scary things to our health. (14)
What are some common experiences or thought patterns that can cause the body to feel stress, including some that you might never have associated with stress before? Things like financial pressure, a lack of sleep, emotional problems in your relationships, overtraining or doing too much exercise, and even dieting can all send signals to the body that it’s under stress.
Stress can either be perceived as feeling good/positive or bad/negative depending on the context, and the body reacts differently to both kinds. However, where the body isn’t so clever is distinguishing between very serious threats (like being robbed or starved) and events that are stressful but not actually life-threatening. Unfortunately, whether a problem is very serious or not, the body usually has no way of knowing the difference− — anything that causes you to worry, anticipate, regret, overthink or panic can send your stress levels through the roof.
In many ways, stress, even the “good kind of stress,” has an immediate and noticeable effect on the body. For example, have you ever noticed you lose your appetite when you’re anxious or excited, your palms sweat when you’re nervous, or you can’t seem to sleep the night before a big meeting at work or a date you care a lot about?
But below the surface, stress also manifests in the body in multiple ways you can’t always feel: increasing levels of “stress hormones” like cortisol, causing blood sugar levels to rise, altering your appetite, getting in the way of normal digestion by changing the gut environment, and affecting the way our thyroid glands and hormones works.
Dozens of studies have shown that chronic stress is related to health conditions and stress symptoms, including:
- tension headache
- fatigue (including chronic or adrenal fatigue)
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- acne and other skin conditions
- allergies and asthma
- depression and anxiety
- autoimmune disorders
- sleep disorders
- eating disorders
One of the most well-known effects of stress is that it increases cortisol levels. Not surprisingly, the brain is the central player in terms feeling stress inside in the body. The brain first processes your thought patterns and then changes messages sent to various hormonal glands, the heart, the gut and elsewhere. (16)
The brain (specifically the hippocampus) determines which feelings or events in your life are threatening, possibly helpful or damaging, and then sends signals to the cardiovascular, immune, and digestive systems via neural and endocrine mechanisms.
Cortisol is the principle hormone (although not the only hormone) tied to our innate “flight-or-fight” response, which is how the body reacts to acute stress by either helping us run from the situation or stick around and fight our way through. When short spikes in cortisol/adrenaline happen over and over again nearly every day, they cause wear and tear on the body and speed up the aging process.
So should the goal be to avoid any and all sorts of stress? Of course not — remember that some types of stress are useful and considered “adaptive,” while others are “maladaptive.”
For example, exercise and perusing a goal very ambitiously are both types of stress, except they ultimately benefit the body. Areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex can pick up on positive stressful experiences and cause “stress-induced structural remodeling” of the brain, which means you experience alterations in behavioral and physiological responses to these positive events. The result is that in the future you’re better able to handle similar situations because you learn from them, associate them with a reward and stop perceiving them as threatening.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Everyone deals with it, and certain types of stress are even good for your health. However, chronic, negative stress than really impair your physical and mental well-being.
That’s why it’s so important to find the proper stress relievers to maintain a strong quality of life. The eight stress relievers above — exercise and yoga, meditation/healing prayer, acupuncture, a nutrient-dense diet, cognitive behavioral therapy, spending more time in nature and being social, keeping a journal and using adaptogen herbs and essential oils — can help you maintain a good mood, remain calm and better handle your day-to-day stress.
And when you do that, you’re entire body, along with you mind, benefits, leading you to an even better, more well-rounded life.