Chronic stress can leave us feeling depleted and irritable, and it can cause health problems that range from weight gain to depression. Tools such as yoga and mindfulness meditation can help with stress relief.
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Stress is an almost inescapable aspect of modern living.
A little stress can be good. It gets you fired up and sharpens your reflexes, preparing you for challenges ahead. But chronic stress can take a devastating toll on your physical and mental health.
That’s why stress relief is so important in today’s world. If you allow stress to run rampant and unchecked, your wellness will suffer. But if you’re mindful of stress and take the steps to employ proper stress relief strategies when you feel it building, it will be easier for you to remain productive and peaceful, even in challenging circumstances.
For the sake of our health, let’s take a closer look at stress and stress relief techniques.
In this article, we will:
- Define stress, and explain what causes it
- Explain some of the ways stress can negatively impact your health
- Discuss the benefits of effective stress relief
- Explain the telltale signs of stress
- Share tips that can help you achieve stress relief
What is stress?
Essentially, stress is the response that takes place when your body has to tackle a challenge or demand.
It often occurs in situations that are traumatic. For example, if you’re getting a divorce or coping with the death of a loved one, these events can trigger a stress response.
Stress can also occur in situations where you feel pressure to meet certain expectations. For example, a student may feel stress when taking an important test at school. And giving a presentation at the office may cause your stress level to rise.
It’s important to know that you can feel stress even when dealing with events that are positive and joyful. For example, having a baby can be stressful. And you may find yourself in need of stress relief when planning a happy event such as a wedding.
Stress response 101
So, what happens when your body has to cope with a stressful situation?
The hypothalamus is a part of your brain that’s found at the base of this organ. When you’re faced with a stressor of any sort, your hypothalamus puts your physical body on high alert. This prompts your adrenal glands — which are found just above your kidneys — to release two stress-related hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
What does adrenaline do? This hormone makes your heart beat faster. It also raises your blood pressure and boosts your body’s energy supplies.
And what about cortisol? Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. Glucose (blood sugar) provides the body with energy. To give you more energy, cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream when stress kicks in. It ramps up the way your brain utilizes glucose so you can think more quickly. And cortisol also makes the natural substances that your body uses to repair tissues more readily available.
All this is known as the fight-or-flight response. It can be a life-saver in a true life-and-death situation. For example, if you face a physical attack, the body’s response gives you the heightened reflexes and extra energy you need to either defend yourself or run for cover.
But if you’re faced with constant stressors day in and day out, the fight-or-flight response can easily become a chronic, ongoing occurrence. When this happens, it can place a great deal of strain on your body and your mental health.
In cases such as this, effective stress relief is necessary if you want to live a happy and productive life.
How does chronic stress affect your health?
Your body’s stress response system shuts itself down when the perceived threat has passed. The rush of adrenaline and cortisol diminishes. Your heart and your blood pressure levels return to normal.
But if events in daily life leave you with a stress level that’s always high, your stress response system never shuts down. The fight-or-flight state becomes a way of life.
When this happens, the body is constantly flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones. Having high levels of these hormones in your body on an ongoing basis can tax your system and disrupt normal function.
Over time, the effects of chronic stress can put you at risk for a slew of health problems, such as:
- Weight gain
- Trouble sleeping
- Heart disease
- Digestive issues
- Memory impairment
- Difficulty concentrating
If stress is a familiar presence in your life and you want to avoid the health challenges discussed above, you’ll need to diligently employ stress relief strategies on an ongoing basis.
Benefits of effective stress relief
Taking the time to integrate effective stress relief strategies into your daily life could produce these benefits:
1. Improved mood
Stress can often leave you feeling worried, angry, irritable or depressed. Proper stress relief can improve your mood. It can put you in a happier, more peaceful state of mind, and this can positively affect every area of your life.
2. Improved productivity
When we become overwhelmed by chronic stress, it can slow us down and cloud our mind. Stress relief tools can help clear the fog. Ultimately, relieving your stress in this way may be able to help you function more productively.
3. Reduced muscle tension
Stress causes our muscles to become tense and rigid. Over the long run, this muscle tension can trigger a host of aches and pains.
This is especially evident in back pain, which is the second most common cause of disability in the U.S. Harvard Medical School reports that stress and psychological distress can worsen back pain. Research shows that certain stress relief techniques have been used to successfully treat this issue.
4. Better weight management
Many of us eat to cope with stress, and this will eventually cause weight gain. If you use stress relief techniques to address the things that are causing you anxiety in your life, you’ll be better able to maintain a healthy weight.
5. Fewer sick days
Chronic stress can take a toll on the body’s immune system, and this can cause us to become more susceptible to viruses and pathogens. Stress relief can help free up the body’s resources so you have the tools you need to fight off illness.
6. Better sleep
Your body needs enough sleep to repair and rejuvenate itself. If you’re feeling the effects of chronic stress, it can literally keep you up at night. With effective stress management and stress relief, your body will be more able to get the sleep it needs to function at its best.
What are the signs of stress?
Sometimes, chronic stress becomes such a constant part of daily life that it starts to feel normal. When this happens, it can become all too easy to ignore it. If we ignore it, it will build and worsen over time, causing dangerous health consequences.
That’s why it’s important to know the signs of stress. If you can identify that you’re in a stress state as it’s happening, you’ll be equipped to take the steps necessary to achieve stress relief.
Here are some signs that indicate you may be under stress:
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
- Binge eating
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Lack of energy
Stress relief tips
Here are some stress relief tips you can use to help you cope more effectively with life’s pressures and demands:
1. Get regular exercise
Stress can cause your body to become overwhelmed by stress hormones. Regular exercise has the effect of lowering the level of stress hormones present in your body. And studies show that regular exercise also has the general effect of reducing anxiety and depression.
Certain types of aerobic exercise — such as jogging — can release endorphins that improve our mood. This is what is referred to as the “runner’s high” — a deeply euphoric state that can set in shortly after an intense physical workout.
2. Take up yoga
One type of exercise merits special consideration: yoga. Rooted in ancient Eastern traditions, yoga is a physical activity that focuses on making sure that the body and mind function in harmony.
There are many different styles of yoga. But they all share a similar mind/body connection.
Research shows that yoga can decrease cortisol levels in the body. It can also lower your blood sugar levels and your heart rate. As such, it’s an invaluable tool for stress relief.
If you want to realize these health benefits, learn about all the different yoga poses, and make yoga a regular part of your stress reduction routine.
3. Practice deep breathing
One quick stress relief technique involves taking deep breaths. Deep breathing can help make sure your body has all the oxygen it needs to function well, and it can calm the nervous system. Deep breathing activates your body’s relaxation system, and it’s impossible to feel stressed and relaxed at the same time.
Here’s a quick breathing exercise you can use:
- Focus on your breath.
- Take a deep breath in, filling your lungs. This will cause your lungs to expand and your belly to rise.
- Exhale slowly. Set a conscious intention to release all stress and anxiety with your exhaled breath.
- Repeat as needed.
4. Use progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can help provide stress relief. This approach is specifically geared toward easing muscle tension.
To use progressive muscle relaxation, start by tensing a muscle group — for example, the muscles found on your forearm or your thigh. Then release the tension and allow the muscle group to completely relax. Move from one muscle group to the next until you’ve used this technique all over your body.
5. Monitor negative thought patterns
Negative thoughts can place us in a cycle of despair and victimhood. Many times, they’re so pervasive and consuming that we simply accept them as reality. Once this happens, each negative thought can become a source of stress and pain.
To achieve stress relief, train yourself to monitor negative thought patterns. Over time, when they crop up, you’ll be able to quickly identify them, and they will lose their toxic hold.
6. Practice mindfulness
Stress typically happens because we’re either worried about something that happened in the past or concerned about something that may happen in the future. Mindfulness encourages us to remain focused on the present. Guided meditation or mindfulness meditation can help you build your skills in this area. This type of meditation eases tension and serves a great stress reliever. It trains the mind to shift its attention to the here and now.
7. Eat healthy foods
Many people seek to relieve stress by turning to alcohol or unhealthy junk foods. But over the long term, these crutches can cause problems that can worsen our health and ramp up our stress level.
One stress relief tip that can make a world of difference is to pay close attention to your eating habits. A healthy diet can give your body the resources it needs to cope with stress. Avoid lots of added sugar and salt, and make whole foods the main part of your eating plan.
8. Use a stress ball
A stress ball is a small egg-shaped object that’s filled with a malleable gel. It fits in the palm of your hand. Squeezing and releasing this ball during times of high anxiety can help bring your stress level down.
A stress ball works in a way that’s similar to that of progressive muscle relaxation. It forces you to tense a muscle group (the one found in your hand) then relax it. Doing this activates the body’s relaxation system,
Another benefit of using a stress ball is that it can help with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.
9. Drink green tea
Green tea leaves contain theanine, an amino acid that can help ease stress. Research shows quite conclusively that green tea works to reduce stress and anxiety. As such, this beverage can serve as a powerful ally in your stress relief effort.
10. Take natural supplements
Certain natural supplements can be helpful for stress relief. Here are some supplements to consider:
1. Kava kava
A member of the pepper family, kava kava is a plant that’s used to treat mild stress and anxiety.
This root is used to treat anxiety and insomnia.
Studies show this herb– which has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine — is an effective treatment for anxiety.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids
Your brain and nervous system need sufficient omega-3 fatty acids to function at their best. Studies show omega-3 supplementation can reduce anxiety.
11. Free up your schedule
If you’re feeling stressed, you may simply have too much on your plate. Take a look at your schedule. Make an effort to eliminate or delegate tasks that take up lots of your time and add little real value.
For example, one thing you could do to free up your schedule is subscribe to a meal delivery service. These services deliver your meals, which means you don’t have to spend time on cooking or grocery shopping. Meal delivery could open up your schedule and give you more time to do things you truly love.
Now you have a full arsenal of stress relief strategies and relaxation techniques you can tap to help you ease tense muscles, soothe an anxious mind and lead a more relaxed life. Whether it’s yoga or a simple deep breathing exercise, use these tools to help you function at your best.
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