Coping with Chronic Stress

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. 

Quit Smoking! 

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. 

Exercise 

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: 

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: 

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.

Conclusion 

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 

Coping with Stress

Reducing Stress

NHS 

Stress Management booklet

Stress Management Society

Coping with Stress