Chronic stress is a problem for millions of Americans. Yet when most health publications talk about the issues plaguing this country, very few spend enough time focusing on how to combat this deadly condition.
The Problem & Prevalence of Chronic Stress
Running late for an important meeting? Have an unfinished project with a looming deadline? See a massive spider in the corner of your kitchen?
Any time you experience a threat to your health, wealth, or comfort, your brain’s control tower (hypothalamus) sends a flood of hormones into the body. These hormones trigger what’s known as a “fight or flight” response. Your heart rate picks up, breathing increases, and muscles tense up and prepare for action.
In many cases, this natural stress reaction keeps you out of danger. But in other situations, excess stress could actually put your body at serious risk – particularly when this stress response continues to fire over and over again with no relief.
Chronic stress causes a long list of negative health effects, including headaches, heartburn, rapid breathing, pounding heart, insomnia, weakened immune system, high blood pressure, stomach aches, tense muscles, and even fertility problems. If not addressed, these isolated issues can become serious and potentially life-threatening.
Research shows that more than 75 percent of American adults report regular symptoms of stress. Roughly half of all Americans say stress has negatively affected their behavior and health. And when you look at it on a global scale, the United States is the seventh-most stressed country (despite having more wealth and better living conditions than the six countries ahead of it on the list).
Fighting Back Against Stress
While our country is stressed on a collective basis, this doesn’t mean you have to be stressed on an individual basis. Knowing that the problem exists is the first step. Fighting back is the second phase. Here are some useful techniques for doing just that.
Exercise. Stress constricts blood flow and causes your body to tense up. This can lead to a host of health issues and chronic pain. Exercise and movement improve circulation, loosen tight muscles, and send pain-killing endorphins into the body. Exercise also improves your overall health, which helps to neutralize and reverse the negative impact that chronic stress has had on your body.
Any form of exercise will do. However, if you want to get the best results, try an activity that (a) you like, (b) gets your heart rate up, and (c) doesn’t totally destroy your joints. Good options include swimming, walking, dancing, yoga, and cycling.
Nutrition. You can exercise all you want, but unless you’re eating well you’re not going to fully tackle your chronic stress problem. Your body needs the proper balance of essential vitamins and nutrients in order to function properly.
For starters, make sure you’re eating regularly throughout the day. Your brain requires glucose to perform well. Stable blood sugar levels help you concentrate and focus. As far as specific foods go, make sure you’re getting omega-3 fatty acids, and plenty of copper, zinc, vitamin C, A, and E. Avoid refined sugar, trans fats, additives, and caffeine when possible.
VNS. The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in your entire body. It runs from the base of your brain all the way down to your colon (and traces through virtually every major organ along the way). In addition to regulating different physical functions of your body, the vagus nerve acts as your “chill out” machine – signaling the timely release of calming neurotransmitters like serotonin.
The neatest part about the vagus nerve is that it can be stimulated. And while vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) was once only able to be performed through surgical procedures, it’s now possible to do it at home with nothing more than a pair of VNS headphones.
Therapy. Without question, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective methods of reducing stress and rediscovering healthy mental and emotional balance. You can think of it as neural recalibration.
The goal of CBT is to identify the source of the stress, restructure your priorities, and then provide actionable steps you can use to manage stress and change your response to factors that can’t be controlled.
CBT is something that should be performed by a licensed therapist. If you have a general practitioner, schedule an appointment and get a referral. Otherwise, you can find and refer yourself directly to a local therapist that offers counseling.
Calendar Management. You can reduce stress on a very practical level by simplifying your schedule and reducing the number of commitments on your calendar. You need regular time throughout the week where there’s nothing scheduled. (This should include at least two evenings per week.) This time helps you relax, unwind, and process what’s happening in your life.
Searching for a Healthier Future
You’ll never totally defeat stress. In fact, you wouldn’t even want to. Some stress is a good thing, as it helps keep you away from situations that could potentially be dangerous or life-threatening. Having said that, you never want isolated stress to snowball into chronic stress. By implementing the tips outlined in this article, you can steer clear of the negative health risks and byproducts that stem from chronic stress and finally enjoy your best life.