How can stress be managed?

Stress can be managed in many different ways. The most important thing is to identify stress as a possible contributor to how you are feeling. Identifying what the source of this stress is will be the next step. Once you have achieved this the next thing to do is make a plan as to how you will begin to manage your stress levels. Sometimes the stress will be temporary- for example waiting for a test result or the result of a scan. Then once the result is obtained the stress may naturally be relieved (especially if it is a good result or normal scan). For others stressful situations will be ongoing- for example financial worries or caring for a sick relative. And then there are people who are just predisposed to worrying about things and for some reason this worrying state is now beginning to take its toll.

Lifestyle factors play a huge role in the perception of stress- and by that I mean what your brain will perceive as stressful or not. People who are physically active, sleep well and eat well have inherently better coping skills. So if you feel stress is contributing to how you feel day-to-day, be it excessive fatigue or tension headaches or a constant feeling of anxiety, then examining your lifestyle and what you can change is worthwhile and may help relieve some of the stress you are experiencing.

  •     Tips to help reduce day-to-day stress:
  • Get physically active - exercise is a great way of reducing stress. There are many reasons for this. One such reason is that exercise increases the release of endorphins which are known as the “happy hormones”. However, exercise does a lot more than just this. Exercise will reduce the overall levels of stress hormones in your body. It also “primes” your autonomic nervous system. We have all heard of the athletes who have low resting heart rates. This is a manifestation of a strong autonomic nervous system. When you exercise and strengthen this part of your nervous system it sets you up to be better able to cope with the physical aspects of stress. Even further to that, exercise gives your mind a break from the worries of daily life. If you do not usually exercise and find the prospect daunting then knowing all the potential benefits it is worth giving it a try- start with something gradual and simple such as a daily 20 minute walk. The key is to find something that you both enjoy and can fit into your schedule.
  • Get consistent amounts of sleep even at weekends - Sleep has enormous benefits in terms of stress reduction. We all see this in our daily lives- when you have slept well the night before the tasks of the day are far less daunting- this is not in your imagination! Therefore, if sleep is an issue it should be addressed. If you find yourself anxious right before bedtime then take steps to reduce this. You can try meditation (see below) or other sleep hygiene tips such as not eating too late in the evening or try having a warm bath or shower before bed as this is quite calming (for more sleep hygiene tips see the successful ageing tips on the dementia page). Also don’t look at your phone in bed and go to bed at a fairly consistent hour.
  • Eat a healthy diet - Stress creates in us a greater physiological demand. When under stress we need a more nutritionally dense diet but often opt for comfort foods that are lacking in the necessary nutrients. The nutrients that are thought to be the most important in terms of stress reduction are vitamin C, the B vitamins, magnesium and selenium. Vitamin C is especially important because stress, especially when chronic, can weaken the immune system and the extra vitamin C will help prevent infection. It is also a powerful anti-oxidant. Anti-oxidants are substances that help prevent or stop cell damage in the body. The B vitamins are very important for the formation of special proteins called tryptophans which amongst other things will increase the natural levels of serotonin in the brain allowing you to cope better with stress. Magnesium can help muscles relax and reduce anxiety. Selenium also helps build proteins and fight the stress response. Sources of these nutrients would include all fruits but especially bananas and blueberries. People often avoid eating a lot of fruit because of the high sugar content. However, the sugars in fruit are natural sugars and they are combined with fibre. This means that you don’t get the usual insulin spike from fruit as you would from a bar of chocolate. Also the fibre in the fruit slows down the breakdown and absorption of the food so there is a much smoother absorption of the nutrients. Having said that if you have diabetes you should chat with your doctor but in general fruit is healthy for everyone. Green leafy vegetables, especially spinach and broccoli, are also very high in terms of nutrient content. In fact, spinach is the highest natural source of folic acid (one of the B vitamins). Nuts and grains also contain a lot of the necessary nutrients to maintain a smooth and healthy rate of food breakdown and absorption.
  • Cultivate social connections - Having a network of supportive relationships contributes to psychological well-being. Having a strong supportive network can lead to a sense of belonging, an increased sense of self-worth and a feeling of security.  Positive social support of high quality can enhance resilience to stress. Low social support has been shown to increase the physiological changes that are associated with the stress response including increased heart rate and blood pressure as well as exaggerating other physiological responses to stress. In short, good social support reduces stress induced cortisol release and also increases levels of oxytocin which is a hormone associated with feeling positive. There are several ways to cultivate social connections. Volunteering is one way to do this and will also improve sense of self-worth. Joining a gym or taking up new hobbies are other ways of doing this.
  • Practice meditation - There are several different types of meditation that one can practice. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that has been associated with reducing stress levels. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention. It cultivates “moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness” that involves purposely focusing on the experiences of the present moment. In some studies higher levels of mindfulness were associated with perceptions of better physical and psychological functioning. Individuals who are more mindful have reported better sleep quality and greater levels of physical activity. Mindfulness skills can be used in everyday life without the need to spend time in actual meditation- although if you have time for this I would say it is worthwhile. There are several ways of using mindfulness in simple day-to-day tasks. For example, when preparing a meal or washing up the dishes- focus all of your attention on the task in hand and you will be surprised how it gives your mind a break from the stresses of the day. How does mindfulness reduce stress? This is something that is currently being researched. Some studies that have used “mindfulness based stress reduction” programs have demonstrated reduced levels of the stress related hormone cortisol. It is thought also that mindfulness-based attention may increase body awareness and promote more adaptive behaviour and thereby lead to positive perceptions of health. Relaxation is another one of the ways in which mindfulness can reduce stress. There are lots of other types of meditation but mindfulness is the one with which I am most familiar. All forms of meditation will likely lead to reduced stress levels.

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