A stress response can be caused by all manner of things from everyday anxiety to a life-altering event such as bereavement. A 'fight or flight' response is triggered by the release of adrenalin from the adrenal glands, which stimulates our body's responses and enables us to confront or escape danger. The problem occurs when the hormone remains in the body or is not eliminated properly, and the body remains in a state of sustained tension. Eventually this will weaken the adrenal system.
The insidious nature of stress means that it can creep up on us seemingly without warning and gradually wears down our general well-being. The first step is to identify the symptoms, which range from the psychological (irritability, anxiety, low moods, anger, mood swings, hopelessness) to the physical (aches and pains, susceptibility to illness, fatigue, migraines, tension, etc.) to the mental (poor concentration, indecisiveness). If left untreated or unchecked, stress can lead to much more serious complaints such as high blood pressure, even a stroke.
So if you want to continue getting the most out of life and find the strength to deal with the very things that made you stressed in the first place, here are some useful recommendations:
1. Time-management. Quite often a stressed person will continue to work until literal exhaustion, feeling the need to 'get it all done'. Then there's striking the balance between work and family, seeing friends, doing the household chores – we are expected to give equal priority to everything. So try to organise your weekly timetable in advance; work out where you're spending all your time and try to re-arrange if necessary. Delegate, perhaps. Make sure you fit in some time to eat properly, preferably away from your desk (see 4). Try to list where you can make changes in your lifestyle, and tackle them one by one – without putting too much pressure on yourself.
2. Exercise. Those little feel-good chemicals, endorphins, are what help us relax. After a hard day's work, exercise can often seem the last thing your body can cope with, but going for a quick run or even doing some aerobics in the bedroom may actually help to energise you. The endorphins will enhance your immune system, making you less susceptible to illness.
3. Choose a complimentary therapy. For example, the different fragrances used in aromatherapy massage (also a good way to release endorphins) are thought to energise, soothe, relax or stimulate as required. Other reputedly beneficial activities are yoga, which focuses on correcting posture, increasing muscle strength and relaxing the mind.
4. Eat well and chew slowly. Additive filled fatty snacks or sweet treats may feel good at the time, but it could be an emotional response to your low mood or stressed mind. Stress-induced tiredness may make it tempting to make it through the day with caffeine, but this will only cause an energy crash later. Simply replace your tea or coffee with calming herbal infusions or water. Essentially, poor nutritional choices make the blood-sugar level fluctuate, producing increased insulin, which then has a knock-on effect on hormones. Good foods for stress relief are: foods rich in B vitamins to keep the brain and nervous system functioning properly (such as wholegrains, dark leafy vegetables and liver), foods containing the serotonin-booster tryptophan, such as turkey, eggs or cheese, and other sustaining snacks such as almonds (full of protein, which won't send your blood sugar soaring), seeds (packed with zinc, calcium, B vitamins), broccoli (folic acid) and oily fish to enable the essential fatty acids to help your brain.
5. Relax. It's important to take time for yourself, whether that's by taking a 20-minute walk, reading or singing. Spending time with loved ones can be a real tonic for mind and soul.
6. Laugh. Not only does it improve our mental and emotional well-being, it has also been proven to increase the body's oxygen levels in the blood by the increased air entering our lungs. This enhances the body's main systems, among them hormonal and immune by increasing the amount of immunoglobin in the blood.
7. Avoid alcohol, drugs and smoking as these will burden your system. Enough said!
8. Enjoy some chocolate! While refined milk chocolate is often accompanied by feelings of guilt or anxiety, dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (for example, over 70%) is highly nutritious. It is a source of iron, magnesium, protein and B vitamins and is a good way to get a natural kick.