Stress happens when external stimuli challenges our body; pain, heat, electric current, somebody coming in front of your car while driving, or an office deadline for instance – it can truly be anything. What do you do for stress management? Pull yourself away from a painful stimulus, hit the brakes to save the person in front of your car, and work tirelessly to meet your deadline. This type of stress is acute. It happens suddenly, calls for a reaction, and subsides.
Acute stress is generally a blessing in disguise. You can save yourself or others from getting hurt or achieve your targets. However there is another type of stress – the chronic one. It happens when the stress stimulus is persistent and lasts for a long time. Many factors contribute to chronic stress: troubled relationships, financial hardships or a stressful job for instance.
Chronic stress is harmful. If not addressed, what may begin as emotional worry can subsequently develop into physical signs and symptoms, and vice versa. From skin rash to high blood pressure and heart ailments, all kinds of health problems can arise. For example, many research links link chronic stress with an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Overlooking stress management contributes to anxiety, which is a state which prevails even after the stressor disappears. Stress is an unavoidable element of our fast-paced lifestyles. So what can we do to prevent acute stress from progressing into a chronic one?
5 Stress Management Techniques
Our body is equipped with a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Upon encountering stress, the axis activates. It causes the release of hormones such as cortisol. The hormone plays a vital role in the fight or flight mechanism, helping us react appropriately to a stressor.
In chronic stress, the HPA axis is in overdrive. This results in increased cortisol levels which have a damaging effect on our bodily systems. Weight gain, obesity, disturbed sleep, fatigue, impaired brain performance and poor memory, compromised immune system, to name a few.
Exercising puts your body in a state of acute but controlled stress. However, the intensity of exercise is important. Intense exercise increases the cortisol levels temporarily, but the levels come down after a while. A moderate-intensity exercise has a dampening effect on cortisol levels. The increased cortisol levels help in the growth and repair of body tissues, cognition, memory, mood and stress management. Research also suggests that continuing with exercise helps regulate the cortisol response in the long run.
Sleep debt has detrimental effects on cortisol levels. It includes sleep quality, quantity and the timings of sleep. Research suggests that people who sleep during the day, have a night, or rotating shifts at work suffer from high cortisol levels.
Adopting healthy sleep patterns is important for stress management. Both limiting distractions near bedtime and avoiding caffeinated drinks help in better sleep patterns. Remaining physically active during waking hours contributes to good night sleep.
3. Mindful Techniques
Mindfulness is an approach that applies to almost all aspects of our lives. It is an intentional, non-judgmental focusing of one’s mind on a present moment. The techniques make use of awareness, focus, observation, and acceptance of present moments. Stress and mindfulness generally go hand in hand. By becoming more self-aware, the stress-provoking thoughts are replaced by focusing on acknowledging them then finding remedies. A study observed the effects of mindful techniques in 43 women. It was seen that the ability to describe stress decreased the cortisol response.
Mindful techniques for stress management include:
- Mindful eating and breathing
- Body scan
- Mindful movement
- Loving-kindness meditation
One can listen to meditations, follow a program, join group therapy, or try breathwork. or download different mobile apps (For example, Headspace or Calm).
4. Relaxation techniques
Mindfulness works best with relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques are observed to lower the cortisol levels. These are not one-size-fits-all, of course. Free downloadable audios and apps are available which can help you relax. The techniques include:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Body scan meditation
- Rhythmic movement and mindful exercise
- Mindful meditation
A study on stress management involving 38 university students revealed that regular deep breathing training reduced cortisol levels by nearly 50%. Similarly, a study observed positive effects of mindfulness-based stretching and deep breathing in twenty-nine nurses suffering from subclinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A review of several studies stated that massage therapy reduced cortisol levels by 30% and increased serotonin and dopamine (the happy hormones). Similarly, yoga and tai-chi have also been confirmed by many studies to reduce cortisol levels and help manage stress. The same is the case with listening to music.
Ashwagandha is a traditional herbal remedy used for more than 3000 years in Ayurveda for management of many ailments, including stress. It is an adaptogen that complies with our body’s requirements.
A daily dose of 125mg to 5 grams for about three months have shown in studies to cut back the cortisol levels by 11-32% in the participants. The herb is also linked with improving insomnia and symptoms related to anxiety in doses of 500-600mg daily. The management of stress is important, because management of stress can prevent it from turning into a chronic condition that is even more difficult to manage.
Managing stress is important. It helps you gear up for everyday life activities as well as prevents the initiation of chronic disease process in the body.