How to Manage Stress Naturally
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Stress. Let’s face it, we all have it. And the majority of us are not great at managing it. Which is exactly why an estimated 75% to 90% of doctor’s visits are for conditions related to stress. Stress has an enormous role in the development of the majority of chronic diseases (1). While short bouts of stress can actually make you more resilient and boost your immune system, constant, low-grade stress can have the complete opposite effect. Not only can it suppress your immune system and make you more susceptible to catching the latest circulating cold virus (check out some natural cold remedies that we shared in an earlier blog post), it can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity – to name a few. How exactly does it do this? By triggering the release of something called cortisol, aka our major stress hormone. While beneficial in the right amounts, cortisol can wreak havoc on our body when excessive quantities are constantly produced- as is the case when we are under constant stress from our job, a busy schedule, or an unhealthy relationship. Inflammation is the primary consequence in these circumstances and damages our blood vessels (hello heart disease), harms our brain cells (goodbye cognitive function), and promotes insulin resistance (bring on diabetes and obesity).
While I could go on and on about the detrimental health effects of chronic stress, I want to direct our focus onto what exactly we can do manage it and how we can combat the effects that is has on our health. On a personal note, I have been experiencing its effect on my own health over the last few months- think frequent IBS flare ups, poor quality sleep, and increasing anxiety levels. While none of this is serious on the continuum of disease, it is certainly disheartening and is affecting my quality of life. And while stress can’t be given ALL the credit, it certainly is a major player. Listen guys, just because I preach about the importance of self-care and stress reducing behaviors, it does not mean that I don’t struggle myself. The adage “Do what I say, not what I do” holds true all too often. As I sit here writing this blog post while on a much-needed (I would even say necessary) vacation with my husband, I am realizing how much I have let stress get the best of me- both mentally and physically. I am using this realization as motivation to think up ways that I can better manage my stress levels once my vacation is over and I delve back into “real life.” And what better way to reinforce these strategies than sitting down, writing them out, and sharing them with all of YOU!
So, what are some ways that we can better manage the inevitable stress that infiltrates our lives? Below is a list of 8 strategies that will help you better deal with the overwhelm and reduce the impact that stress is having on your health.
1. Get Your Sweat On. I think this one goes without saying. Working up a sweat releases powerful endorphins in the brain. These chemicals lift our mood and make us more pleasant to be around. Boxing and weight lifting are particularly good stress relievers (for obvious reasons), but lower impact activities like yoga are also powerful in combating the effects of stress. Refer to our recent blog post on the health benefits of yoga, as well our previous post on strength training, for more detailed explanations on the impact that exercise has on our mental health.
2. Find Your Om. Another obvious that is, nevertheless, worth mentioning. Meditation can help to lower blood pressure and heart rate through its effects on the sympathetic stimulation (our “fight or flight” response), thereby making it a great stress reducer. As alluded to in a past blog post, meditation can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms and has also been found to be helpful in reducing burnout in the workplace – something that is a very real issue in a culture like ours that values hustle and prioritizing work over everything else. Be sure and read the post to get some ideas on how you can incorporate meditation into a busy schedule.
3. Prioritize Sleep. Stress and sleep quality are intimately related. While chronic sleep deprivation has its own set of negative health impacts, insomnia and reduced sleep quality/quantity is also a direct result of chronic stress. Ironic considering that we NEED good quality sleep in order to deal with stress in the first place! We have devoted in an entire blog post to strategies that you can implement to improve sleep quality and I encouraged you to read it out if you haven’t already done so!
4. Focus on Nutrition. The food on the end of your fork has a powerful effect on your ability to deal with chronic stress. If your diet is plagued by processed foods and added sugars, you will be on a constant roller coaster of emotions. Not to mention your gut health will seriously suffer. The gut-brain axis is a rapidly growing focus in the medical community and we are quickly learning how much of a role our digestive health and the gut microbiota (the collection of microbes the reside in our G.I. tract) has on our emotional health and ability to handle stress. In addition to consuming a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods, you can implement some of the nutrition and supplement strategies discussed in our Gut Health Series (see Gut Healthy Foods & Drinks and Gut Healthy Supplements).
5. Spend Time in Nature. It is a well-known fact that being outside in nature in good for the body and soul. Even the sounds of nature can have a positive effect on stress levels (2). Making a point to spend time outdoors every day (even for 15 to 20 minutes) can do a lot for your mental health and stress resilience. I personally find going to the beach to be completely and utterly soul restoring- and necessary for my sanity. There are actually studies showing that exposure to surf and sand is particularly beneficial for your health (3).
6. Ask for Help. I think this is one area where us women struggle. We are constantly juggling about 12 balls in the air at all times and have the belief that we should be able to do it all for everyone. Well news flash: you can’t and shouldn’t have to. Not only is asking for help and delegating jobs necessary for our health, it’s necessary for our success in life. The most successful people ask for help. This could mean anything from establishing clear rules as to who does what around the house, to hiring a home cleaning service. While some forms of outsourcing are not in everyone’s budgets, I guarantee there are ways in which you can lighten your load by asking for those close to you to lend a helping hand. I personally struggle with this one. After all, no one can do the job as good as I can, right? What I don’t think about, however, is how inefficient and often ineffective I am at everything when I am trying to balance 20 things at once. Done is better than perfect. Remember that.
7. Just Say “No.” Along the same vein as asking for help, learning to saying “no” to things is necessary for reducing our overall stress load. Once again, us women often want to please everyone and have the expectation that we can handle it all. What eventually ends up happening is that we are spread so thin that we have nothing left to give anyone or anything. Learn to say “no” with grace and stop worrying about what people will think. Prioritize the things in your life that bring you joy rather than drain you. The world is not going to end if you say no to baking cookies for the school bake sale or skip out on late night dinner plans!
8. Infuse Self-Care. Last but certainly not least, start infusing moments of self-care into your daily routine. I truly believe that if you don’t first fill your cup, you will not have the emotional or physical energy to put towards anything else in your life- including your loved ones. And just to clarify, self-care does not have to mean spending the day at the spa or taking a one-hour bath (although both of those things are wonderful and necessary every once in a while!). It can mean something as simple as reading a good book for 10 minutes or putting on your favorite face mask. Take some time to jot down a list of activities or things that make you feel revitalized and bring you joy. Incorporate something from this “self-care” list into each day.
I hope this was helpful and gave you some ideas as to how you might be able to better manage stress. Stress is inevitable. But suffering from the negative impacts that it can have on our health is not. I know for myself that there are multiple areas in which I can improve and I am hopeful that I will be able to return from this vacation with a new mindset and a new stress management plan.
As always, continue to #followyourgut,