What can we do to help us cope with chronic stress, so that it doesn’t lead to health issues?
Why does stress matter?
Chronic stress disrupts the body’s natural rhythm. The Mayo Clinic advises that persistent stress can cause headaches, weight gain, upset stomach, difficulties sleeping – and sometimes more serious effects, such as increased risk of depression and heart disease. So what can we do to cope with stress?
Do we need to change our lifestyle?
Lifestyle changes aren’t always easy but can offer some serious health benefits, including where stress is concerned.
The impact of smoking on our physical health is well-known. However, stopping smoking altogether also appears to help reduce depression, anxiety and stress and improve mental health. That’s the verdict of a review of the evidence published in the BMJ in 2014.
If you’ve replaced traditional smoking with e-cigarettes, hoping that it is a healthier option - think again! Cardiologists are in agreement that people who use e-cigarettes “face higher risks of having a heart attack, experiencing emotional distress, and developing coronary artery disease”.
Eat a Healthy Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is often recommended to improve our physical health. However, it seems it may also reduce stress.
Certain nutrients found in this type of diet seem to help relieve stress. Foods that contain tryptophan (essential amino acid) can help the body produce more serotonin (so called “happiness hormone”). Chicken, turkey, brown rice, fish, milk, eggs, nuts, peas, corn, bananas, spinach and potatoes. These foods need to be eaten with complex carbohydrates (pulses, pasta, oats etc.) as they drive the tryptophan across the brain/blood barrier. Research shows that the body has a lower cortisol response to stress when it has higher levels of tryptophan.
Black Tea also seems to help reduce stress. A trial of people who drank 4 cups a day for 6 weeks showed significantly lower levels of cortisol and they were calmer and less stressed. However, too much caffeine can prove counterproductive, so avoid more than four cups of tea or coffee a day and limit energy drink consumption.
Being more active will help you combat stress.
- Thirty minutes a day, be it walking the dog, dancing, running etc. will help release excess energy your body has stored up during a stressful day.
- Exercising also releases endorphins, a chemical which makes you feel relaxed and increases the feeling of well-being.
Should we get in touch with our creative side?
Creative pursuits, such as writing, music, art and dance are all thought to help decrease anxiety and stress. Unfortunately, there is limited high quality research in this area. However:
- Art Therapy appears to help reduce stress, pain and anxiety in hospital patients, according to research reported in The Wall Street Journal
- Listening to music appeared to help reduce blood pressure in patients with high blood pressure. That was the finding of a review of published research in 2016 - although the reviewer noted that a cause and effect relationship hadn’t been established.
- And if you want to join in - singing appears to have a positive effect on the stress hormones of cancer patients and their carers, seen in small scale research with participants in five choirs in South Wales.
What about Meditation, Tai Chi and Yoga?
Meditation, Tai Chi and Yoga are also thought to be helpful in combating stress. Again, more high quality research is needed. However, initial studies suggest that:
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction, which uses meditation techniques, may ‘have broad spectrum antidepressant and antianxiety effects and decrease general psychological distress.’
- Tai Chi, the Chinese exercise system, ‘appears to be associated with improvements in psychological well-being, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance.’
- Yoga also appears to help reduce stress. 29 out of 35 trials reviewed ‘noted that yoga had a significant decrease in stress and/or anxiety symptoms, but evidence for GAD, PD, and PTSD remain inconclusive.’
It is important to mention that the popularity of specially designed apps which can help you start practicing yoga or meditation is increasing.
Living with stress
It isn’t possible to avoid stress completely. In fact short bursts of stress are actually good for us. That’s because of the way our bodies respond to stress. The blood vessels dilate, our pulse quickens and blood flows to the brain, muscles and limbs. As soon as the situation is over, the body returns to normal. This can help make us more resilient and can improve our immune system.
However, long term, chronic stress means that the body does not return to its normal function and that’s when health issues can start to develop.
A bit of stress can be good for us. However, if you’re suffering from too much and persistent stress, the following could help you cope:
• A healthy lifestyle – eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise and don’t smoke (not even e-cigarettes!)
• Art, music, dancing and other creative activities
• Meditation, mindfulness based stress reduction, Tai Chi and yoga
Reviewed and updated by Sara Radenovic on 12 September 2019. Next Review August 2023