Are you at the mercy of your stress?
Stress triggers an adaptational process in your body and has the potential to either make you stronger or weaker. Growth is impossible without stress. Stress is a natural biochemical response to stimuli from your external environment. We've adapted and evolved over years for certain triggers to enact responses that allow us to integrate as naturally as possible into our environment. The great news about our society is that we have the potential to control where our stress comes from. Stress used to come in the form of draughts, famine, predators, vikings and pirates if you were around in that era and so forth. The stressors that we are exposed to now are bosses, traffic, bills but our overall survival necessities in a first world country are pretty well covered. Living a life that we have created, therefore, we have the potential to craft how we will stress our bodies. We often live unconsciously, allowing more stressors into our lives, taking on more than we can cope with, until we are overwhelmed, stressed to the max and run down.
Some examples of stressors we choose and how they help us grow:
- Exercise is a stress that we choose to apply to our body. It stimulates the adaptational forces of the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular system which in turn strengthens these systems and improves their resilience. When the stress is larger than the adaptational force these systems will adapt at the expense of the overall health as seen in chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue.
- Study and work (depending on your work) are stressors that we apply to the brain. The brain reacts, adapting to this stress by developing neural circuits, fluctuating brain chemistry so that we can learn a new behaviour or store a memory of something we have learned. The enhanced learning environment is even triggered by the stress hormone noradrenaline. Again traumatic exposure to stress can have a negative affect on this brain chemistry and lead to problems like PTSD, insomnia, anxiety and depression
- Relationships are stressors that help you interact with other people and animals. Heightened stress in a relationship can help you learn something about yourself and how you interact with others so that you can become a better communicator or it can have the negative impact of distancing yourself from people, cutting you off so that you feel alone.
These are just a few examples of many of how you can choose what stressors you experience, how you experience them and how you can make them work for you. Financial stress could help you learn how to better manage your money, travel stress from traffic can help you learn that you want a quieter more fulfilling life, the stress of an illness could empower you to make better choices for your health.
How stress affects you depends on a few things.
- Type - where the stress is coming from will affect how strongly it affects you. Low level stress like getting to work on time will have less of an affect then getting a warning at work that threatens your job security.
- Number - the more stressors you are coping with at any one time the more you will be pulled in all directions the harder it will be to adapt to each individual stress in a positive way that supports your health and growth.
- Persistence of stressors - we haven't evolved to have these long term exposure to stressors. Stress is supposed to be seasonal (with regard to foraging for food) and quick (you either get away from danger or you don't) with ample recovery time. Often in our society we experience long term chronic exposure to stress such as a mortgage, caring for a sick family member, stuck in an unfulfilling job because we just need to cover the bills. Adaptational processes are short over the course of a couple days, weeks or maybe a month or so. If you cannot adapt to the stress in a way that supports you, you will adapt at the expense of your health to just survive rather than thrive.
- Nutrition - you burn through vitamins and minerals when stressed for a reason. Your bodies inherent coping and adaptational methods NEED them. In the face of these nutritional deficiencies your body makes do with what it has.
- Genes and constitution - stress and nutritional deficiencies "switch on" your genetic expressions. How you are affected by stress depends on your bodies inherent stress lines and weaknesses. You will experience periods of flare ups of your symptom picture during periods of acute and chronic stress. This could mean that while one person reacted to stress with eczema, the next would have digestive upset and the next may get a cold or flu.
- Relationships - Support, positivity and encouragement are so incredible important in your resilience to stress. Having a strong, supportive network of friends and family are super important to building resilience to stress.
- Learnt patterns of coping - From when we were first born we are reacting to our environment and creating our beliefs that help us integrate our experiences in a way that makes sense to us. What we learn through childhood shapes our beliefs and how we cope with stress and if we don't question these and relearn them as we mature we get stuck in these learning behaviours. For example if as a child you wanted to be really good at something, say drawing, and someone said to you, you are a bad drawer and you should just give up on trying and you believed them than that can stay with you through adulthood so that when you tried to do something as an adult you had an underlying belief that you would be bad at it and should just give up.
So the take home message is that you can either let stress rule you and weaken you. Or you can become empowered and responsible for your exposure to stress and use it to make you a stronger and better person.
Lifestyle tips for increasing resilience to stress.
- Light exercises such as yoga, pilates, dancing, bush walking, etc.
- Visualisation and positive thinking and affirmations
- Breathing techniques
- Spending quality time with friends and family
- Being able to say no. Take responsibility for all the times you've said yes and what's on your plate, know where your responsibilities are and prioritise them so that you know when you can confidently say yes. (Pro tip: MAKE YOUR HEALTH TOP OF THE LIST OF PRIORITIES so that you have the health, energy and ability to take on other responsibilities)
Nutrition for increasing resilience to stress.
- Vitamin C
- B complex vitamins
- Omega 3
- Certain amino acids
This part can become highly individualised. As we have said previously genes and constitution play a significant role in how you react to stress. That is what my job as a naturopath is. To read your symptom picture and know what you need nutritionally to support your body during periods of stress and sometimes to unwind the damage done by stress. As we spoke before the person who reacts to stress with eczema will need a different management plan to the person who reacts with digestive upset etc.
Not actually a herb but used in herbal medicine for their powerful effects in the body.
- Chaga - does a good job cleaning up the mess of stress. It provides vital minerals to the body during periods of stress, works as an anti-inflammatory bringing down inflammation during periods stress which can aggravate autoimmune and joint conditions and is an antioxidant reducing the damaging effects of stress on the body. Chaga helps the body cope with and alleviate stress
- Cordyceps - is an adaptogen and increases endurance. This makes it particularly useful during periods of physical stress and wear and tear. Cordyceps enhances athletic performance and reduces fatigue.
- Reishi - helps the body adapt to stressors. Reishi is most notable as an immune regulator. So if the source of the stress is viral or bacterial infection, allergies or asthma reishi is a good choice. Its action on the immune system is adaptogenic because it settles down an over immune system by quelling the action of histamine and also supports a rigorous response to infection by increasing the production and activity of white blood cells.
Adaptogens help regulate the body. As with how reishi regulates the immune system quelling over sensitivity and at the same time boosting the immune response to pathogens adaptogens hit that middle ground with stress reducing the negative affects of stress on the body and boosting the adaptation processes that strengthen the bodies resistance to strength
- Panax ginseng, one of my favourites! There are a few adaptogens under the ginseng label so check the botanical name because they all have slightly differing actions. Panax ginseng supports immune health, mental performance and healthy cell growth. This is incredibly important during periods of stress if you tend to catch a cold when you get run down or tend toward tumour growth.
- Ashwaganda - this adaptogen is great for recovering from illness and convalescence. It supports adrenal function during periods of chronic stress and helps to recovery your energy. It is both energising and calming so is a great option for when you are feeling fatigued, run down and lack lustre but also feeling anxious or depressed.
- Licorice - this adaptogen also helps treat stomach ulcers and inflammation and indigestion so this is a great one if stress gives you digestive upset and reflux or ulcers. As an adaptogen it also is supportive during periods of long term stress supporting health adrenals and energy production.
- Rhodiola - one thing that comes with high levels of stress is high levels of cortisol and rhodiola goes well in managing cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels lead to inflammation, weight gain, insulin resistance, estrogen dominance and just not being able to settle. Cortisol builds in body each time you are stressed and needs exercise and vitamin C to metabolise out of your body. Rhodiola is a great supportive measure for reducing the release of cortisol and increasing resilience to stress.
Quite often excess stress can also fry our nerves so deep nourishing herbs for the nervous system help reduce this stimulation, aid relaxation and reduce our sensitivity and anxiety to stressful situations.
- Lemon balm - a deeply soothing and relaxing herb it helps to calm the body and over stimulated muscles. It supports deep restorative sleep and sleep cycles. When stress is keeping you awake, irritable, with high levels of nervous tension lemon balm is good choice of tea. Have it before bed as part of your sleep hygiene routine.
- Oats - oats are a deeply nourishing meal to sooth your nervous system. Rich in minerals and B vitamins oats feed a healthy nervous system, improving mood, focus and energy levels. They also provide a healthy store of energy for the day.
- Chamomile - another soothing digestive. If stress is making you eat your meals too quickly and you're getting indigestion, you're not slowly down to rest and digest, chamomile is a beautiful herb. Acting on both the digestive system and the nervous system chamomile promotes healthy, relaxing digestion and calms you ready for bed.
So I can't talk about stress without talking about chocolate. In its raw form as cacao it has many benefits for support during periods of stress you can read about that in why we love cacao
Cocoa is the second refinement, chocolate the third, each time the cacao bean is refined it loses its nutritional density and therefore its benefit during periods of stress. Add then the milk and sugar to the mix for dairy milk chocolate and the reason you are craving it in the first place is longer there. At this stage you probably aren't even craving chocolate you are probably craving sugar and on a cortisol, insulin resistance roller coaster. Raw cacao is actually quite bitter and can take some adjusting of the palate to get used to but is definitely a good food to add to the meal plan during periods of stress.
Try my cacao and goji berry balls as a great snack during stressful times. This will help keep you from snacking on unhealthy carbs and takeaway foods. Goji berries are also adaptogens so in combination make a great treat that also supports your resilience to stress.
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