Stress is often classified as a negative emotion, but a certain amount of stress can make you more resilient to life’s challenges and obstacles.
“[T]he right amount of stress—whelmed but not overwhelmed—can be a great motivator,” says Susan David, Ph.D., in Emotional Agility, “As uncomfortable as it feels at times, it’s the stress that keeps us moving forward.” Stress kept us alive when a saber-tooth tiger wanted to eat us in the wild, and it keeps us alive today when someone swerves into our lane during rush hour traffic.
How Stress Affects the Body
Researchers define stress as something that disrupts your feeling of mental balance or wellbeing. Stress activates a series of hormones that ultimately bring your body and mind back into balance. At least, that’s what stress hormones should do. We call that acute stress, some of which can make you stronger.
Signs of Stress
When you experience stress, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. Your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. This keeps you alert and safe in the short term, but stress symptoms should subside and your body returns to normal after the stressful event. In other words, those stress hormones should do their job and then simmer down.
Chronic Stress, Perceived Stress, and Their Impact on Your Health
When stress lingers and these hormones go into overdrive — called chronic stress — every part of your body and brain suffer. Chronic stress can increase your risk for heart disease and many other problems.
People handle stress and stressful situations differently. Whereas one person might feel energized and empowered when thinking about a job interview, another person might feel distraught and panic about that same interview.
While life doles out stressful situations, we also create many stressful scenarios in our minds that never materialize. Interestingly, the body behaves similarly whether that stress is real or perceived. In other words, a stressful thought can impact your health whether that thought is real or imagined.
In one study, when those who perceived their lives as more stressful than their actual stress exposures justified, their bodies reacted accordingly. Perceived stress — worrying about something that may or may not happen — can also impact other health factors including sleep quality.
Stress can also influence your food choices. You’ve likely experienced this when you had a hectic day at the office and subsequently devoured two double-fudge brownies on your commute home. That sugar impact can crash your mood and increase chronic inflammation, a factor in nearly every disease. Researchers believe inflammation is a major driver for mood disorders including depression. One study found that work-related stress can increase blood glucose levels, putting you at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other problems.
Stress can also impact your immune system. One meta-analysis of more than 300 studies over 30 years found a direct impact between increased stress levels and weakened immunity.
Chronic stress negatively impacts every part of your body, and everyone reacts differently. Signs and symptoms vary but include low energy, insomnia, lack of focus, frequent colds, low sex drive, and negative self-feelings. Left unchecked, chronic stress can create depression and other mood disorders, digestive problems, weight gain, and many other problems.
You cannot completely avoid stress, but you can learn to more effectively manage it so chronic levels don’t impede your health, happiness, and overall well-being. “The effects of stress are shaped by our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in The Blood Sugar Solution, “We can change what we think and believe, and we can reduce the impact of daily stress on our lives as a result. You shouldn’t believe every stupid thought you have!”
16 Natural Stress Relief Strategies
How you live, the choices you make, and your mindset can significantly impact how you manage stress. These 16 strategies provide an effective foundation to relieve stress and prevent its sabotaging impact on your life.
1. Eat more nutrient-dense foods.
Natural stress relief starts with a healthy diet. Research shows the foods you eat affect your emotional state. Focusing on foods within our Core or Advanced Plans can support a healthy brain and body to optimize stress management. That includes plenty of nutrient-rich plant foods along with sufficient protein and anti-inflammatory fats. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as wild-caught salmon and freshly ground flaxseed, for instance, can support brain health and better manage stress levels.
2. Avoid foods that exacerbate stress.
You also want to avoid foods that trigger or exacerbate stress, including trans fats and foods high in sugar. When you eat sugary, processed foods, your blood sugar increases. Your adrenal glands secrete more cortisol (your stress hormone) to manage those blood sugar levels. When those blood sugar levels crash, you often feel lethargic, which further contributes to stress.
3. Be mindful.
Researchers show people who practice mindfulness manage emotions better, have better physical health, fewer symptoms including pain, and less anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is a skill you can learn and cultivate. For a few moments every day, practice being completely present in whatever task you do. Give it your full attention and you’ll likely find stressful thoughts fall away.
4. Visit your chiropractor.
5. Try these nutrients.
Supplements will impact everyone differently, and they can’t replace a healthy diet and lifestyle. That said, studies show a few can support stress management. Magnesium can help calm you to reduce anxiety and stress. L-theanine, an amino acid that gives green tea its calming effect, can also reduce stress. So can Rhodiola Rosea, an adaptogenic herb that can positively impact stress hormones and energy metabolism. Talk with your chiropractor or healthcare professional about specific nutrients that can help you better manage stress.
6. Figure out when stress hits hardest.
Stress management means finding ways to cope when it most sabotages your well-being. Pinpoint specific times of day you might feel the most stress and develop strategies to make that time less hectic. Let’s say mornings often start off crazily, setting the tone for the rest of your day. You might lay out things the night before, have your gym bag packed for a morning workout, have a healthy breakfast (such as our Omelet Muffins) in the fridge, and otherwise organize things to make that time of day less stressful.
7. Exercise consistently.
One of the best natural stress releases is exercise. Exercising consistently releases feel-good endorphins, but it also helps you become more resilient to stress and the other obstacles life regularly doles out. Time becomes an obstacle for fitting in fitness. Even the thought of finding an hour or more for the gym or a yoga class might feel stressful. That’s why we created MaxT3 —you can get a full-body workout in just 12 minutes a day.
8. Get quality sleep.
You feel more focused and resilient to coping with stress after a good sleep. Conversely, insufficient or poor-quality sleep makes you more prone to stressing out over simple things. A vicious cycle develops: sleep deprivation can increase stress levels, which can further impede quality sleep. Try our Sleep & Mood Formula if you have trouble falling or staying asleep.
9. Find gratitude.
You can’t eliminate stress, but you can learn ways to manage it. Shifting stressful thoughts to thoughts of gratitude for all the good things in your life becomes an excellent way to manage stress. That might include a gratitude journal or an app on your smartphone. Or it might entail writing a thank you letter or making a phone call to someone for whom you feel grateful.
10. Be patient with yourself.
We live in a fast-paced society that oftentimes pushes stress management to the back burner. Most of us didn’t learn to manage stress growing up. In fact, we were often encouraged to take on more responsibilities or push stressful feelings aside. Acknowledge that stress management, deep breathing, and slowing down are skills that take time to develop, but will repay dividends on your health and happiness.
11. Practice forgiveness.
Holding resentment towards a family member or colleague can impact your life in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Studies show forgiveness can lower stress levels and positively impact your health. How you forgive could involve journaling, prayer or meditation, or writing a letter to that person (you don’t have to send it right away). Notice the feeling you have when you forgive: it positively impacts your mindset as much as the person you forgive.
Research shows a wide variety of meditation styles can impact your mind, body, and emotions to relieve stress levels. What matters is the style that works for you. That might mean a morning meditation practice, incorporating mindfulness throughout your day, or yoga (which is meditation in motion).
13. Put everything into perspective.
Many imagined stressors never materialize, and even those that do happen don’t create the impact we imagine. Ask yourself whether this situation will impact your life in a specific duration of time (such as one year or even one week). Most stressors don’t pass that test.
14. Designate responsibilities.
Taking on too much leaves us feeling overwhelmed, which amplifies stress levels. People like to help. When you kindly ask for assistance when you’re cooking, cleaning, or juggling numerous duties at your office, you allow someone else to feel needed and relieve your burden. Ask your kids, coworkers, and significant others to help you juggle tasks to help relieve stress symptoms.
15. Find the silver lining.
Within many obstacles lie opportunities. Look back at your life: while stressful at the time, losing a job or suffering a breakup might have created a better situation down the road. Many problems only become stressful when we see them as stressful. Cognitive reappraisal, or reframing an event to change your emotional response to that situation, can help buffer even high-stress situations and subsequent emotions like depression.
16. Do something fun and active.
Laughter and joy can dissolve stress. Stress management is a necessity, not a luxury. Schedule it on your calendar if you have to. Sometimes that might involve a funny movie or enjoying a nice dinner with your best friend. You can also incorporate active relaxation, which might entail a vigorous walk with friends, playing frisbee with your kids, or trying that vinyasa flow class at your gym.
While stress impacts everyone’s lives, you can minimize its impact by how you eat, think, and live. You don’t have to settle for the vast detrimental consequences that chronic stress can create on your health and happiness.
Please don’t hesitate to ask for professional help if you believe stress overpowers you and sabotages your wellbeing. Left unchecked, stress can create massive havoc on your health and overall wellbeing.