Why Your Doctor Wants You To Take Care of Your Stress: Five Simple Stress Remedies
When the word “stress” escapes a doctor’s lips, it may trigger a reflexive eye roll from a patient. “What! How on earth is stress management going to help me?”
The body is one system, comprising of both physical and mental health. And stress can affect the mind and the body. Even children as young as 5-6 years old have some understanding that stress may influence illness.
Stress triggers immune responses within the body. For instance, a study by Heidt et al. in 2014 observed that medical interns had a significant increase in neutrophils and monocytes during their demanding shifts in the intensive care unit (ICU), demonstrating the body reacting under stress. However, during their downtime, the leukocytes returned to normal levels.
This phenomenon happens with cortisol too. During short-term stress, an excess production of cortisol levels gives you the energy needed to help you perform your best for your test, interview or speech. But cortisol levels soon return to normal. However, if a person goes through chronic stress, the production of cortisol may not stop, affecting organs, the immune system and causing inflammation. As a result, prolonged excess of cortisol has been shown to slow down the healing of wounds, particularly after surgery.
So, short-term stress can help us deal with challenges, but chronic stress can harm our health in many ways. But all is not lost, there is something you can do.
When stressed, you feel like you have to make a quick decision -now – like you’re in front of a snapping alligator. Too much stress clouds your thinking, causing you to forget your wealth of experience and knowledge that can help you solve problems. If only you would take a moment to slow down.
Stress management is finding a way to manage your stress so it doesn’t have a negative impact on your health. Hospital systems understand the importance of stress as a contributor to poor health, which is why they have introduced programs promoting stress management such as Cleveland Clinic’s Stress-Free Now.
The first step to managing stress is being aware of your stress signals. By paying attention to your body’s stress signals, you can take action before the situation escalates. It’s like checking your car’s dashboard for warning lights and taking it to the mechanic before it breaks down. So, you have to do the opposite of what stress wants you to do – which is slow down instead of being rushed along with the tide.
How to notice your body’s subtle signals
Stress is unavoidable, but the key is to notice your signs, such as:
- Flare-up of skin issues (pimples or dry, itchy patches)
- Tension headaches
- Cold sores
- Jaw pain or jaw clenching
- Stomach upset
- Change in sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Difficulty getting to sleep
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Hair loss
This is not an exhaustive list because your stress signals will be different to the next person. But, when you notice your signs, it’s time to slow down, resist being drawn into the news cycle, and find a stress management technique that appeals to you. You may not be able to remove yourself from the stressful situation, but you can control how you react to it. Here are some tried and tested ways to reduce stress.
Researchers have observed positive physiological responses from exposure to nature and conclude that nature helps us to manage our emotions. Even the simple act of touching a plank of wood, such as untreated white oak, can produce the same physiological response from us (Ikei et al., 2017). So even if you cannot spend time in nature, you can surround yourself with, and appreciate things that are made of natural elements. If you can increase your engagement with nature, such as spending time in your garden or a local park or forest, the positive effects will lead to sustained wellbeing benefits that counteract stress.
Exercise is not only good for your body, but also for your mind. Making the news this week has been a study about how regular group running sessions can be just as effective as antidepressants in addressing depression and anxiety, with around 44% of participants in the study experiencing improvements. Research shows that exercise can change how your brain responds to stress and make you more resilient to different kinds of stressors, such as work, relationships, or health issues. Exercise can also improve your mood, self-esteem, and cognitive function.
No matter what your age or fitness level, you can benefit from exercising regularly and intentionally. You are likely to be much more sedentary than you realize with a recent study showing that the total daily sitting time for British adults is over 9 hours (Hamer et al., 2020).
Relaxation techniques and mindfulness
Research is mounting for relaxation techniques and mindfulness to counteract the harmful effects of stress. The relaxation response can be induced by deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness and can help to reduce blood pressure, blood glucose levels and stress hormones. Relaxation techniques are easily learned and can be as easy as slowing down your breath for a moment.
Over the past 35 years, researchers have studied the positive effects of social connections on stress levels. The stress-buffering hypothesis suggests that social interactions become more important as stress levels increase, as they can help buffer the effects of stress. Studies show that active social relationships can alleviate stress and improve mental and physical health. The CDC refers to this as social connectedness.
Self-expression through journaling
Expressive or therapeutic writing can be a helpful outlet for releasing stress, according to psychologists Dr. Michael Smith and Prof. Mark Wetherell at The University of Northumbria. Their innovative “Write to Wellbeing” program was designed to help people manage the stress of caregiving and improve overall wellbeing. The results of their study showed that caregivers who tried expressive writing were more likely to seek out social support and bring about improvements in wellbeing by expressing positive emotions.
Writing about your stress could have a positive effect, however, it should be noted that it doesn’t work for everyone. In a study of teachers, expressive writing did not show any observable positive effects on work-related burnout. Try out a combination of writing about stressful and negative experiences and also positive thoughts and experiences. Or perhaps a gratitude journal. Learn how to start one here.
Stress is often dismissed as a purely mental issue and irrelevant in the doctor’s office. But research has shown that psychological stressors can lead to physical changes, so it’s essential to consider stress management when you notice symptoms. Everyone is different, so it’s best to be self-aware enough to notice your own symptoms of stress.
You’re not expected to eliminate stress, because that’s impossible (and leads to a boring life). So how do you support yourself through a stressful time? One quick way, is to notice when you’re feeling rushed and overwhelmed … pause … and breathe slowly. This simple technique can help you feel more centered and calm, and is a great way to take care of yourself.
- Want to learn how to practice progressive muscle relaxation?
- Get medical advice from your doctor for new physical symptoms – even if you think it’s stress-related.
- Got three minutes? Try a centering meditation here.
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