Stress & Relaxation
Stress is registered by the brain and triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response, whereby the adrenal glands – two small glands located at the top of the kidneys – secrete the hormone adrenaline. This hormone triggers an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, various metabolic changes and the secretion of another hormone, cortisol, which depresses immune function.
In times gone by, the ‘fight or flight’ response was mainly triggered by situations of physical danger, such as attack by wild animals or invaders, and the energy expended in running away from, or fighting, the danger helped to ‘use up’ and get rid of the stress hormones in the body. Nowadays this response is triggered by a multitude of situations, from traffic jams to office politics, from overwork and late nights to dietary factors.
Caffeine, sugar and nicotine are all adrenal stimulants and can trigger a stress response in the body even when no major external stress is present. Also, because much stress is now psychological or emotional, there’s nothing obvious to run away from or fight and so the stress hormones build up in the body with damaging effects.
Not all stress is bad, as has been demonstrated by the pioneering work of Professor Hans Selye. He showed that a reasonable level of stress provides challenge and creative stimulus and motivates us to action. However, when stress levels increase and become prolonged, feelings of exhaustion, debilitation and inadequacy begin to set in along with various physical side effects.
Typical symptoms of stress include fatigue, insomnia and early morning waking, tooth grinding at night, headaches, depression, anxiety, palpitations, panic attacks, low immunity, irritability and aggressive behaviour.
Long periods of stress are thought to contribute to more serious conditions, including high blood pressure, heart attack, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, menstrual problems and adrenal exhaustion.
To alleviate stress, many people resort to food, alcohol or smoking, although these rarely help in the long run. Making small lifestyle changes and using relevant complementary approaches, however, can help to break the stress cycle and lead to the restoration of good health and humour.
Try these tips to ease and prevent stress:
* Overhaul your diet. Cut down on caffeine, fizzy drinks and sugary foods, which overstimulate the adrenal glands. Cut down on junk foods, which deprive the body of good nutrition. Instead, eat plenty of wholegrains, fresh vegetables and fruit, and other wholesome, nutritious foods.
* Good nutrition helps your body cope better with stress. Vitamins B and C and minerals magnesium and zinc are especially important as they support the adrenals and boost immunity. Get these from food or take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement when under stress.
* Reduce alcohol and nicotine, which interfere with nutrient absorption. Use relaxing herbal teas such as chamomile.
* Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, which places added strain on the kidneys and can impair mental function.
* Take regular meals. Don’t miss breakfast and run on empty all day. A good protein breakfast such as porridge or muesli will maintain blood sugar levels, boost energy, improve concentration and help you deal with stress. Healthy snacks such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds and fruit will keep you going.
* Take regular exercise. This relieves stress and produces endorphins in the brain which make you feel relaxed and happy.
* Re-evaluate your work and home schedules. Learn to delegate and say “No” and practise time management.
* Use aromatherapy to help you relax. A few drops of lavender oil on a tissue, in a room burner or in bathwater has a relaxing effect on the body and mind. Rose, german chamomile, geranium and frankincense are also calming and soothing.
* Use herbal remedies. Valerian and passionflower aid relaxation and sleep, oats have a calming effect , ginseng supports the adrenals (but shouldn’t be used during pregnancy or if you have high blood pressure) and echinacea boosts immune function. Consult a herbalist for advice.
* Practise self-massage or have a professional massage or bodywork treatment to relieve stress and muscle tension. Shiatsu, reflexology and cranial osteopathy can also help to relieve stress and stress-related aches and pains, while the Alexander technique may help to improve stress-related postural problems.
* Use acupressure or have a professional acupuncture treatment to relieve stress and stress-related conditions such as insomnia and headaches.
* Certain homeopathic remedies may be helpful. For example, aconite is sometimes used to relieve stress-induced palpitations and anxiety, while sepia is given for tearfulness and inability to cope. Consult a practitioner for advice.
* Flotation therapy can make cares and worries float away, leaving you tranquil and relaxed.
* Meditation, visualisation, hypnotherapy, self-hypnosis and autogenic training have all been said to aid relaxation and relieve stress.
* Counselling, psychotherapy and talking to a friend all help release bottled-up stress and can help you find solutions. Keeping a stress log can help you identify triggers and stress patterns.
* Flower remedies help many people through periods of stress. A good remedy to have at hand is Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, a combination for relieving stress and trauma. Add five drops to a glass of water and sip throughout the day when needed.
* Chinese, Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine all have effective remedies for dealing with stress. Shirodara, an Ayurvedic purification technique in which warm sesame oil is poured over the forehead continuously for an hour, is particularly effective.
* T’ai chi, qigong and yoga are effective antidotes to stress when practised regularly.
* Deep, slow, relaxed breathing and relaxation exercises relieve stress, as does laughing. Make time for rest, relaxation and laughter every day.
Sufficient good-quality sleep is one of the best natural health remedies. Irregular sleeping habits, late nights, over-stimulation in the evenings (for example, through work or TV) and regular use of stimulants such as caffeine and sugar, all play havoc with sleep quality and contribute to stress and tiredness in daily life.
Different people require different amounts of sleep, but seven or eight hours is considered the average amount of time necessary for rest and regeneration. Early to bed and early to rise is generally considered healthiest.
Creating a relaxing bedtime routine, avoiding stimulants before sleeping and maintaining regular hours all help improve the quality of your sleep so you wake up rested and ready to start the day. See insomnia for details of complementary therapies and self-help measures to aid sleep.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.