THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO STRESS MANAGEMENT
Today, I have an in-depth guide for you about stress and stress management. Too often underrated topic considering our health. First, I’ll explain what stress is and how our body responds to it – physically and cognitively. You’ll learn about the »fight or flight« response, cortisol, and how stress impacts our daily health and well being.
Stress can be both – beneficial and harmful – so understanding it is essential when we want to manage it effectively. This means changing your diet, daily movement and exercise, sleep quality, honoring the circadian rhythms, »unplugging« from the modern world, and incorporating mindfulness practices.
In today’s Ultimate Guide To Stress Management, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to manage and reduce your stress levels with different lifestyle habits. As a Health Coach, I emphasize stress management and prevention of chronic stress exposure. You’ll learn simple and effective ways how to manage and reduce your stress so that you can take your health and well-being to the next level.
Okay, let’s get started.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s and brain’s response to different changes that happen to you – let that be physical, mental, or emotional changes. It’s not something that has to be avoided at all costs – it’s impossible and unnecessary. You also need some of it to become stronger and more resilient. Your body is evolutionarily designed to deal, react, and respond to it. So the big difference between »good« and »bad« stress are:
Short bursts of stress can be beneficial, such as cold exposure, sauna, intermittent fasting, exercise, etc. There are also a bit more negative types, such as aggression, anxiety, poor concentration, mood swings, and so on, and we can divide them into harmful and beneficial as well. But still, we are built and adapted to handle this type of stress much better than the one that lasts longer periods. In this blog post, I’ll lean more towards beneficial types, and how we can use them to become better, stronger, and healthier.
This type of stress is called Acute Stress.
On the other hand, stress that lasts long and can even become chronic is harmful to your health. The problem with this is that you can get used to it and don’t even realize it. Most common states of stress like this are unhealthy diet, too much exercise with too little rest, having a job you hate, being in a relationship that’s making you unhappy, having problems with money,…
This type of stress is called Chronic Stress.
Different physiological and psychological changes happen in your body during stressful situations. I don’t think it’s that easy to explain it because there is one thing for sure – your nervous system responds to stress differently than everyone else’s. It’s also your perception of it and how you respond to it. If you stress over stress, it’s probably even more stressful and harmful for you, right? This interesting study, concludes:
»High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health is each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.«
This is huge, in my opinion, so working on our perception of stress may influence the end-result of our well-being and overall health.
Now think about your reactions to some life-threatening situations – you don’t think about and then decide to be careful when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, or consciously deciding to jump away from a speeding car driving towards you – you just DO IT. When it’s over, then you think about what happened. That’s your deeply rooted survival mechanism.
A quick and simplified explanation of how this response works:
All this happens in the part of your brain called »lizard brain« more specifically in the amygdala.
Amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus that regulates your endocrine system (among many other functions).
The hypothalamus then signals the specific part in the center of your adrenal gland to produce adrenaline. The pituitary gland produces adrenocorticotropic hormone – which signals the adrenals to produce the well-known stress hormone cortisol. This is a totally subconscious response that keeps you alive in many life-threatening situations.
CHANGING THE PERCEPTION OF STRESS
As I mentioned before, your perception can help you reduce the amount of stress you’re exposed to. Changing how you think about it and changing your response to it is a huge benefit and an effective way of managing it. This part of stress management starts with your mind, so be very mindful of these practices I’m about to give you.
Let’s take the everyday situations and apply them in the context:
Don’t stress about situations you can’t control.
If you’re stuck in traffic, what can you do? Not much, right? I understand you’re in a hurry or late for work, but still, what can you do about it? You can get angry and nervous, you can yell or honk as much as you want – you’re still stuck in traffic, and there is nothing you can do. And you know what? You’re not alone in this s*it; everyone else waiting in their car is in the same situation as you are.
Why not use the moment to calm down, take a few deep breaths, put a smile on your face – that smile is connected to your brain, and it makes a big difference in your perception of the current situation; you can also turn on your radio and enjoy the music. Use this time for being present at the moment, not thinking about the past or future (which is very rare in today’s hectic lifestyle). Try to get as much as you can out of every stressful situation.
Evaluate your response.
I’ll use the same situation with standing in traffic. What will be the impact of your response on your health and well being? Short and long term? How are your nervousness and anger going to help you move through the traffic? How is your current accelerated heartbeat going to change anything? How is your hyperventilation doing you any good in this situation? Can you think clearly?
Learn to evaluate. Just use your logic. You will instantly realize that all of your doing makes no sense. No matter how much you stress about the situation, you won’t make it go away any faster. Once you use logic in a situation like this, your stress will go away. This is also a perfect technique that will help you respond to other and different types of stress in your life.
Changing perception doesn’t always work – you have to do the work.
Some things might be stressing you out, and you can’t just make them go away or change the way you see them. You just have to do something about it. Suppose you owe money to someone you will have to give it back eventually. This thought is in the back of your mind even if you don’t think about it, and when you remember that, you don’t feel good about it. You know you owe the money.
If you can’t give it back all in one piece, start doing something so you can eventually give it back one day. At least you know you are doing something so you can give the money back to the person you owe. You can’t change the perception of owing money to someone. An approach like this will definitely reduce your stress around this kind of situation.
Oh, and by the way, these techniques don’t apply to the stress caused by an unhealthy diet, excessive training, or insufficient sleep – it works more with psychological stress management.
ACUTE VS CHRONICLE STRESS
I shortly explained the difference between ACUTE and CHRONIC stress. Now, I’ll define both of them so you’ll see the bigger picture around both types of stress.
ACUTE stress is short-term, and our body is well designed to cope with it. CHRONIC stress is long-term, and our body doesn’t function well in a state like this. Even more, CHRONIC stress makes our body more prone to many diseases, weight gain, obesity, and even depression.
ACUTE stress can be beneficial. If we take the example of fasting or lifting weights, your body will respond by becoming better, stronger, healthier, and more resilient. Another type of ACUTE stress is running late for work, which can motivate you to start organizing your time better – but, if you’re running late for work day by day, this ACUTE stress can become CHRONIC. Also, if you find yourself exposed to ACUTE stress too often, it’s not beneficial. It’s not like the better, as with many things in life, you have to find the balance. If you’re exposed to a lot of stress day by day, then you have to take some time to relax and unplug from everything that stresses you out – short term and long term.
CHRONIC stress is something you need to avoid. If you’re exposed to chronic stress too often, you adopt that same mindset of CHRONIC stress. Once that happens, you don’t even realize the amount of stress you’re coping with. This can result in many undesirable ways like:
- High blood pressure
- Poor immune system
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Heart disease
- Depression or anxiety
- Skin problems like acne and eczema
- Menstrual problems
- Hormonal imbalances
It’s hard not to be exposed to too much stress in today’s modern lifestyle – both ACUTE and CHRONIC. You may realize you’re under too much stress before you start to feel the symptoms, or you just can’t find the reason for your poor health and different emotional problems. So here are a few signs that might be indicating too much stress in your life:
- Frequent diarrhea or constipation
- Random aches and pains
- Headaches and migraines
- Lack of focus and energy
- Problems with weight management
- Use of alcohol and other drugs
- Stiff jaw and neck
- Lack of sleep or feeling tired after waking up
- Sexual problems
- Stomach problems
As you can see, too much stress can express both physical and psychological symptoms. And if you already have any medical condition or diagnosis, stress can make everything even worse. But I have a few very effective ways to manage and reduce your stress. Stay with me.
Fight-or-flight is a physiological reaction that happens as a response to a perceived attack or life-threatening situation. It’s a reaction to a threat that influences our Autonomic Nervous System – more specifically Sympathetic Nervous System – putting you in a state of fighting or running for your life.
Everything starts in the Adrenal Medulla, which produces a hormonal chain reaction that results in epinephrine and norepinephrine secretion. Other hormones like cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen, including some neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine – all affect your reaction to a stressful situation.
Autonomic nervous system – ANS
The ANS is a control system that works mostly unconsciously. It regulates different functions of our body, such as the heart rate, breathing, sexual arousal, blinking of the eyes, and digestion. This working system is the primary mechanism of the fight-or-flight response.
There are three parts of the ANS:
- The Sympathetic Nervous System; SNS
- The Parasympathetic Nervous system; PNS
- The Enteric Nervous System; ENS
The Sympathetic Nervous System; SNS
The main function of the SNS is the activation of the physiological changes that occur during the »Fight-or-Flight« response. It also corresponds with arousal, energy generation, and inhibiting digestion.
Release of norepinephrine is a result of activation of the SNS.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System; PNS
The main function of the PNS is the activation of the »rest and digest« mode in the body. This response returns the body to homeostasis after the »fight-or-flight« response with activating and releasing the primary neurotransmitter in the PNS – acetylcholine. Its activation promotes relaxation and calming response and returns your nerves to regular function and digestion; »rest and digest. «
The Enteric Nervous System; ENS
The main function of the ENS is regulating the functions of our gastrointestinal tract. It can also work independently of the SNS and ANS. You probably heard this one before, but the ENS is also called The Second Brain.
The ENS is usually not talked about much since it’s not considered part of the ANS system.
Living organisms strive towards achieving homeostasis – it’s a state of optimal functioning, stability, and balance. It’s like a self-regulatory system that is always trying to adapt to environmental changes, and it’s crucial for maintaining life.
For example, when it’s cold outside, your Homeostatic Control Mechanism activates and regulates your body’s temperature to survive.
You can also look at it from a »what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger« point of view; when you lift heavy weights, your body must adapt and become better and stronger to achieve the state of homeostasis.
This is a perfect adapting and surviving mechanism that developed over the years of our human evolution.
HOW STRESS AFFECTS YOUR HEALTH
Stress can exert different actions in your body – can be alterations in homeostasis to life-threatening situations or even death. In many cases, people living a stressful life – like working and living in stressful environments – are more likely to suffer from many diseases and disorders. Stress can work as a trigger or even aggravating factor for different pathological conditions. We’ll go through the most common conditions I mentioned above – in which stress plays a major role that affects our modern society.
Stress – Weight Gain and Obesity
Chronic stress leads to comfort eating in many people. Foods used for comfort are usually always the worst blend of macronutrients – high in fat and high in sugar. This is the worst choice that creates even more stress to your body. It’s hard to understand or even feel that these high fat and sugar foods impact a specific rewarding dopaminergic pathway in the brain. That’s the reason why people use these foods because they make you feel better. But only for a short period of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who eats eggs or salad when feeling down…
Stress can make you gain weight. It can happen with build-up body fat due to stress’s effect on your hormones and physiological consequences. High cortisol rushes the glucose tissues – including breaking down your muscles to make glucose through the process of Gluconeogenesis – this drives a rise in your blood glucose levels. As a response, your insulin also rises. When this cycle goes on and on, day after day, insulin resistance starts knocking on your door. And while cortisol is high, it signals your body to store fat, especially in the area of your abdomen and around your organs, since these areas have more cortisol receptors.
Stress And Brain Health
If you take everything you’ve learned by now about stress, you can say that stress is a chain reaction. When you experience a stressful event, the amygdala – part of your brain that regulates emotional processing – sends a signal to the hypothalamus. Hypothalamus works as a command center that communicates with your body through the CNS, which reacts with the »fight-or-flight« response – setting you up to fight or flee.
While stress is not always harmful and can also be beneficial, too much cortisol in the brain can cause long-term effects.
Cortisol is present in your body every day, and it plays a different role in keeping you healthy. Cortisol is the reason you get up in the morning. Ironically, his role is also restoring the balance in your body after a stressful event.
But when you’re exposed to chronic stress, your body makes more cortisol than it can handle, which is an unwanted situation. Too much cortisol affects your brain function and enables it to work properly. Too much stress can have detrimental effects on your brain, such as reducing size and weight. Chronic stress can also shrink the prefrontal cortex – part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Shrinking the prefrontal cortex can make the brain even more susceptible to stress and becoming predisposed to a constant »fight-or-flight« state.
Stress And Immune Function
If you’re under too much stress, you’re much more likely to have an impaired immune system and, as a result, suffer from more frequent illness. Stress can affect your immune system by influencing the processes in your CNS.
Your immune system consists of billions of different cells flowing through your bloodstream. They move around your body, defending it from so-called antigens (bacteria, viruses, and even cancerous cells).
The main types of immune cells are white blood cells. We know two types of white blood cells – Lymphocytes and Phagocytes.
When you’re under stress, a hormone corticosteroid suppresses your immune system’s effectiveness by lowering the number of lymphocytes. In addition to coping with stress, many people use unhealthy behaviors like alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes that even further worsen your body’s capability of coping with stress.
*short term stress and suppression of immune function is not dangerous in contrast with long term, chronic stress
Stress And Cardiovascular Disease
The most important health issue and the leading cause of mortality worldwide in the 21st Century are CVD (Cardiovascular Disease). The most common is coronary heart disease, which includes myocardial infarction and sudden cardiac death. Even though age and genetic factors account for in most cases, poor lifestyle behaviors and unhealthy habits contribute to increased risk at an early age. When we consider stress and CVD, there’s a relationship between psychological stress like anxiety and depression, with increased risk of developing CVD. A meta-analysis from 2018 showed a 46% increased risk of coronary artery disease after adjusting for depression. There is also evidence for a high prevalence of mental health disorders in patients with a history of cardiovascular events.
Stress And Gastrointestinal Health
If you dig in your memory a little bit, you’ll remember I’ve mentioned the Enteric Nervous System working independently of the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System. The Enteric Nervous System forms a so-called Brain-Gut Axis and is known as The Second Brain. From here, many people suggest that the gut is your second brain. There are strong associations between stress and various GI (gastrointestinal) diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer disease, gastroesophageal reflux, and different digestive conditions.
In your gut, there are hundreds of millions of neurons constantly functioning and communicating with your brain. For example, from here, you can explain,» butterflies in your stomach.«
Your gut is also populated by millions of bacteria that influence your general health, your immune system, and your brain’s health. Stress is associated with changes in these gut bacteria, which respond by influencing your mood. So the gut strongly influences your brain and vice versa.
When you’re stressed, you tend to eat or drink the stuff you otherwise wouldn’t in a normal state – from junk food to alcohol. This can result in bloating and digestive discomfort.
The bowel is especially vulnerable to stress. Stress affects your digestion and the rate of nutrient absorption. In this case, stress is strongly associated with the Leaky Gut.
Because of the strong Brain-Gut connection, people with IBD and IBS suffer the effects of stress the most. Stress management, in this case, is crucial for improving your health.
4 MOST EFFECTIVE TIPS FOR STRESS MANAGEMENT
Now you’re about to find out what are – from my experience – the most effective stress management techniques. These techniques are easy to do, and you can include them as your new daily habits, or even better, you can replace them with the old ones.
I will explain every habit and following technique in detail to try them out on your own and get closer to your true human nature.
1. CHANGING YOUR DIET
Yep, you can already start with changing your diet. The three most detrimental foods that keep your body under stress are SUGAR, REFINED GRAINS, and INDUSTRIAL SEED OILS. All of these ultra-processed and chemically altered foods are everything but good for you. These three foods are the major cause of insulin resistance, obesity, and chronic disease. The main driver of stress in your diet is chronically elevated blood glucose and insulin levels.
A high carbohydrate, high-insulin producing diet composed of processed carbs is pro-inflammatory, and it causes systemic inflammation. Because of the systemic inflammation, your cells retain fluid – making you bloated and puffy. With dietary changes, you can achieve a better inflammatory balance.
6 most common foods that cause inflammation:
– Fried Food/Fast Food – fries, cheese sticks, onion rings, nuggets, doughnuts,… These are high in trans-fats, which have been linked with many harmful side effects your health and are associated with increased levels of markers of inflammation.
– Alcohol is also pro-inflammatory, and it’s been linked with leaky gut. Here I must say that an occasional glass of red wine won’t be detrimental to you, so it’s really about moderation.
– Refined carbohydrates – especially sugars and flours – like white bread, pasta, cookies… Refined carbs have a high glycemic index, promoting inflammation even in a healthy person. More than just negatively affecting your blood glucose and insulin production, refined carbs can cause your joints’ inflammation.
– Processed meats – these are all types of processed meat in any way to preserve its taste, flavor, and shelf life. The most common processed meats are salami, bacon, ham, sausage, pate, etc. Processed meats are linked with higher inflammation markers, especially CRP (c-reactive protein).
– Industrial seed and vegetable oils are highly processed, refined, and even hydrogenated oils that are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Still, there are essential omega-6 fatty acids and are an important component of a healthy diet, but the problem is the overall ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
– Sweeteners – such as high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. High-fructose corn syrup is found in most processed foods, including sweetened beverages. Eliminating them takes care of two problems at the same time – sweeteners and processed foods. It’s also associated with a high risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. For artificial sweeteners, there should be more studies done about their effects on our health. For now, it’s suggested that artificial sweeteners disrupt the healthy microbiome – which plays a role in the regulation of inflammation in the body. If nothing else, they’re not natural, so it’s a good enough reason not to eat or drink them.
Instead of these inflammatory foods, you can start swapping them with more Primal and natural foods that are anti-inflammatory, such as:
– Healthy fats – unpasteurized butter, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado
– Healthy protein – fatty fish (wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel), free-range eggs, pasture-raised meat and poultry, bone broths
– Vegetables – zucchini, squash, broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, garlic,… (preferably organic for higher nutrient intake)
– Fruit – berries, grapefruit, oranges, apples, pears, plums, peaches, mangoes,… It happens these are mostly low glycemic fruits, which make it even better.
– Nuts and Seeds – macadamia nuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds – although they are considered healthy and anti-inflammatory foods, they have to be prepared correctly before eating them. That means thoroughly washed and soaked, and if possible, sprouted. With these processes, we make nuts and seeds easier to digest, boost their nutrient content, improve absorption, and increase enzyme activity. For some individuals, improperly prepared nuts and seeds can cause digestive problems and disorders due to phytic acid’s high content. Soaking and sprouting make everything better.
– Herbs and Spices – rosemary, oregano, thyme, dill, basil, parsley, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger – among adding flavor, taste, and being high in antioxidants, herbs and spices are some of the most nutrient-rich foods.
The upper foods are also a part of my Primal Lifestyle Way Of Eating. I believe humans can enjoy a wide variety of whole, unprocessed foods, adjusted to their preferences, tolerances, seasons, and availability. Anti-inflammatory foods lower your overall stress and your stress response, which is critical not just in the context of today’s blog.
2. DAILY MOVEMENT AND EXERCISES
Let’s look at »working out« a bit differently for a moment. Our ancestors didn’t go to the gym or ran marathons; they had enough daily movement throughout the day hunting, gathering, wandering, exploring, building, playing,… And they were much healthier, leaner, and stronger than we are today. Modern exercise regimens are mostly not appropriate for most individuals, at least from the evolutionary perspective.
We’re not designed to go to the gym every day and make the same movement patterns for as many sets and repetitions as we’re told, as well as spending hours on cardio machines or running half marathons every other day. These workouts are meant for professional athletes who devoted their lives to the sport, and it became their way of life. And workouts like these present major stress to your body. If working out and training is what you do for a living, you can find yourself enough rest and regeneration time. But if you have a full-time job and maybe some kids, spending hours working out every day is only adding extra stress to your life. Instead of managing and reducing your stress load, you increase it. I’m not saying going to the gym or for a run is bad for you, not at all, but pursuing that mentality of »no pain no gain« and training till exhaustion is just a bad idea. Use workouts and exercises that will reduce your stress load, and improve your health, make you stronger and fitter at the same time.
Don’t aim for 60 minutes of exercising. It’s better to aim for 20 minutes and make them count. Go hard for those 20 minutes with a bodyweight HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and your body will be thankful. The hormonal cascade of events after your workout will work in your favor. After your training, you’ll feel energized and ready for the day ahead, not exhausted, ready to and chill after a vigorous 60 minute or more training session. With overtraining, we usually compensate by being lazy and eating more than we need to. All that hard work and training doesn’t pay off in the end—a bad investment of your health, time, and energy.
The best ways to be active are low-intensity movement throughout the day and looking for options to increase your daily movement. With that, I mean more walking, carrying, picking up, and putting down. Let that be taking stairs instead of the elevator, long morning or evening walks, carrying your grocery bags to your car that you parked as far away from the market entrance as possible, lifting your kids (or dog) and putting them down, and playing with them.
Today’s over sedentary lifestyle is a huge problem in the modern world. People get stiff, they don’t spend enough time outside, they don’t get enough sunlight, and they are overexposed to artificial light and digital stimulation—that one more factor contributing to even more stress. So finding ways how to increase your daily movement is the key to reducing your stress load. Aim for activities you can do outside for greater stress reduction and improving your overall health.
Don’t get me wrong on the workout and exercise part; I advocate lifting heavy weights (your own body is more than enough), going for a long run, or demanding a hike. It’s just I think we have to adust these types of workouts to our current physical and psychological condition. For every one of us, every other day of 20 minutes of HIIT, and every other day low to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like jogging, running, hiking, biking, or any other way of aerobic exercise is more than enough for health and longevity purposes. Remember, we can always trade intensity for duration. But overall, daily low-intensity movement is what you need to achieve first. After that, you are ready to start building the exercising regimen customized to your lifestyle and fitness level.
For reducing stress, the best exercises are:
– Walking – in nature at any time of the day, woods are the best place (in my opinion), you can even go a step faster than your comfortable pace for improving and better fat burning
– Tai Chi, Yoga, Qi-Gong – these types of movements are best for relaxation, stress relief, calming down, as well as increasing muscle tone, bone density, and mobility
– Primal Movements – movement patterns for increasing functional fitness, coordination, stability, and mobility. Using your body weight and brain for different movement patterns. This is my favorite way of exercising, so you can see more about it on my Instagram and Facebook (Link Do mojih social omrežij).
– Biking – a nice ride through the woods can be very stress-relieving and at the same time improving your aerobic capacity.
– Hiking – another one from my repertoire; hiking is probably my favorite. You can always adjust it to your needs and/or limits. You can use hiking as a low-intensity workout, a short high-intensity session like fast walking uphill or even sprinting, or just a moderate-intensity training session. It all depends on how you feel and what were your previous training sessions like in the past days.
Exercise, workout, training, you can call it however you like, is more than just a stress relief tool. It gets you outside in nature; it floods your bloodstream with endorphins (hormones that fight off stress and makes you feel good), it gets your mind off your problems. As long as you’re not huffing and grinding your teeth from going over your limits, you are reducing your stress load as well as improving many other aspects of your health.
3. BREATHING TECHNIQUES
We don’t think about breathing very often, even though it supplies all our body’s cells with energy oxygen, allowing them to work and keeping us alive. Did you know that some brain cells start to die off after less than 5 minutes without oxygen supply?
In the modern world, we don’t pay enough attention to the present moment, and we spend too much time turning back in the past or looking forward to the future. Since breathing is happening in the present moment, it’s obvious that our breathing’s quality and effectiveness are poor. Once the modern world’s hectic nature starts to affect our lives, breathing becomes shallow, and we stop breathing properly – that’s belly breathing or, more specifically, diaphragmatic breathing.
Now we mostly breathe with our chest, which can expand and contract to minimal capacities, making our breathing ineffective and insufficient. Once this kind of breathing takes over, we start to see the consequences like lack of energy, poor immune function, anxiety and feeling stressed most of the time. It also affects our skeletal muscles, making them tight and stiff. Usually, these muscles are around our chest cavity, diaphragm, shoulders, neck – and if we don’t change the way we breathe, these long-lasting symptoms can result in poor posture, limited movement capabilities, and ineffective breathing.
Effective and proper breathing can help you with many different symptoms such as hypertension, migraines, sleep apnea, snoring, chronic pains in the lower back, neck, and shoulders.
I suggest you observe your breathing in different situations to understand how intimately connected is your breathing with your nervous system. For example, when you’re late for work, just take a second and observe your breathing. You’ll notice that your breathing is fast and shallow because you’re stressed and disconnected from the present moment. Instead of thinking about the last sip of your coffee is the reason you’re late or maybe the response of your client or superiors for your late arrival, calm down and take a few deep breaths. You can’t change the fact that you’re late, but you can change your response to it. By calming down, you will probably find the right way to explain and apologize, but most importantly, you will free yourself from the unwanted stress – why bother and stress about the situation you can’t affect and change? Remember the part where I talk about changing the perception of stress – by practicing deep breathing, you can reprogram your brain chemistry, and with that, you will change the way you respond to stress, which is the key part of stress management.
Deep breathing is a built-in mechanism we were born with to manage our stress anytime and anywhere we want. Breathing is the fastest and most effective way to affect our autonomic nervous system. With a few slow and deep breaths through our nose, we can shift from a sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest) state in a matter of minutes. Slow and stable breathing helps you to think better and be more focused. It calms the heart and regulates your blood pressure.
This study from 2011 shows how one day of breathing exercise relieves emotional exhaustion and depersonalization induced by job burnout.
There are many breathing techniques you can use for stress reduction. The easiest and simplest one is just slow deep diaphragmatic breathing – that’s the one you should learn first, so all future breathing exercises and techniques are done properly and effectively.
Deep Breathing – A Short Step by Step Guide
- Find a comfortable position. You can sit or lay down. If you’re doing this for the first time, I suggest you lay down. Once you feel comfortable put your hands on your stomach.
- For effective breathing, you need to learn how to use your diaphragm. Use your hands to make sure you inhale and exhale with your belly instead of your chest. Try to perform your breathing using only your belly – you give your diaphragm enough space to expand. You should feel more movement of your belly than chest or even shoulders if you’re breathing correctly.
- Perform slow and controlled inhales and exhales through your nose, breathing into and out of your belly. Yours inhales and exhales should be as silent as possible – this will automatically make you breathe slow. Expand your belly as much as you can, but keep it easy, and don’t force the inhales and exhales. Breathing should feel nice and relaxing without putting extra energy into it. Don’t think about anything else. Just focus on your breathing.
To start, spend some time breathing like this, and once you feel you got it, move on with one of the breathing patterns – Box Breathing.
Okay, you officially know how to do Belly Breathing. Now I want to show you how to do my favorite breathing exercise – Box Breathing. Did you know that Navy SEALS use this breathing exercise to keep them calm and focused during stressful events? But for us, this breathing technique can be used as an effective tool to keep the stress levels low.
How To Do Box Breathing – Five-minute Destress Technique
- Relax your whole body, find a good position, and get comfortable. Sit if possible.
- While performing inhales and exhales, use the belly breathing, you just learned.
- Inhale for 4 seconds (through your nose and into your belly).
- Hold the air in your lungs for 4 seconds (make sure you’re not letting out the air through your nose and/or mouth).
- Exhale for 4 seconds (through your nose and emptying all the air).
- Hold empty of the air for 4 seconds.
- Repeat the cycle for at least 5 minutes or more if needed to feel calm, relaxed, and focused.
Work on improving the way you breathe. It’s effortless, and with a bit of consistency, you’ll notice the improvement in your breathing throughout the day as well as the quality of your sleep. That’s because you’ll regain effective breathing while awake and while asleep.
4. GET QUALITY SLEEP
Stress influences the quality of our sleep, which directly impacts the quality of our life. If you’re already stressed out, you’re probably having troubles with getting quality sleep – and that puts even more stress on you, making everything even worse.
Sleep reduces our stress levels very effectively. It regulates mood, focus, helps us think and solve problems, improves concentration, and helps us make the right decisions. Everything is so much better when you’re well-rested. On the other hand, lack of sleep causes us to be more emotionally reactive, aggressive, and more sensitive to different negative stimuli. Not getting quality sleep also decreases our energy levels, makes us insulin resistant, and negatively affects our mental performance.
How Stress Affects Your Sleep
Having too much stress enables you to fall into a deep sleep. A state of deep sleep restores and renews your body. Chronically high cortisol levels can also regularly wake up during the night and have trouble falling back to sleep. As I’ve mentioned before, cortisol is the main stress hormone that stimulates alertness, raises heart rate and blood pressure. If you consider yourself a person under a lot of stress or find yourself in any part of this blog post, you should reduce stress in evening hours, your number one priority.
In the evening, your cortisol levels diminish naturally, and melatonin levels rise correspondingly. This process helps you to transition into a calming and relaxed state, ready to fall asleep. But the problem in the modern world is this natural hormonal process is disrupted by evening exposure to artificial light and digital stimulation.
Optimal sleep habits exclude artificial light and digital stimulation in the evening hours, a cold, quiet, dark bedroom, and a natural alarm clock integrated into your body. Habits like this will make you feel energized and refreshed after you wake up; they will help achieve your optimal body composition and support your general health. Sleep is one of the most important ways to deal with stress, especially when you let your body optimally cycle through all sleep phases.
Staying aligned with the circadian rhythm’s natural cycles also helps regulate different hormones that affect metabolism, satiety, and hunger, such as insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, and CCK (cholecystokinin). If you lack sleep, you probably have difficulty losing weight or getting yourself to start exercising. By now, you’ve recognized that all these lifestyle habits, from the diet, exercise, and sleep, are closely connected, and you can’t cover the poor quality of the one with doing right the other.
As I’ve mentioned before, eating a carbohydrate-rich and high insulin-producing diet results in higher stress levels. The worst you can do for your sleep is to have another meal like this in the evening or even worse – before bedtime. A high carb meal provides a quick energy (glucose) spike, followed by insulin release. Insulin suppresses melatonin and causes the release of other stress hormones. While these repetitive crash cycles are unpleasant already during the day, it’s even worse for your hormonal balance before bedtime. When stress hormones are elevated before bedtime, you have difficulties falling asleep because of the suppressed melatonin. This can also lead to suppressed other adaptive hormones responsible for optimal restoration and regeneration from stress and impaired immune function.
Habits For A Quality Sleep
Let me give you 4 habits for getting quality sleep. They are simple and effective, so you can start practicing them right away, with no excuses. You’ll thank me later.
Minimize Digital Stimulation In The Evening – TV, smartphone, iPad, PC, and all artificial lights emit blue light. Everything artificial is unknown to our physiology. Besides messing up your biological clock and hormonal function, blue light can cause degenerative eye disease. So honor your circadian rhythm and have evenings more aligned to the setting of the sun. Once it gets dark outside, it’s time to slow down and finish with your activities – work, food, artificial light,…
Minimize artificial light exposure and use some candles or at least low-temperature light (red-orange-yellow spectrum). Instead of spending evenings on social media or watching TV, rather read a book, talk with your partner or go for a light evening stroll before bedtime.
If your job or lifestyle doesn’t allow you to put away your phone or get off the computer, make sure you take regular breaks from screen time to rest your eyes and brain. I suggest you use blue light blocking glasses; they are affordable and easy to get nowadays. You should also use the setting of »night mode. «
Smooth Transitions – minimize any kind of stimulation before bed. Create relaxing and calming habits, like strengthening your relationships by talking with your partner, reading an » easily digestible« book with minimal red light or candle, go for a 20-minute relaxing evening walk (get a dog if you need a reason), or just simply lay down in your bed and do some breathing exercises and meditation. Waking up should be as easy and relaxing as going to sleep. Don’t rush out of your bed when the alarm clock hits in – it’s possible that when you adjust your evening habits and go to sleep at an appropriate time, you will wake up naturally in the morning, without the alarm clock ringing. If you need the alarm clock, make sure it’s an easy melody that wakes you up, not the old school annoying ringing. It’s not normal the get thrown out of sleep with a loud and annoying alarm sound. When you wake up, stay in bed for a minute, stretch yourself a bit, make a few deep inhales and exhales, and take a shower where you start with warm water and gradually switch to cold – this will transition you nice and slow to more energized mood and readiness.
Your Bedroom Is Your Temple – the room you sleep in should be as little outfitted and decorated as possible. It’s a place where you sleep, so you don’t need any stimulation or unnecessary distraction. All you need is maximum relaxation. Remove all electronic devices from your bedroom, desks, chairs, and everything you don’t need for optimal sleep. If you have any materials like books, magazines, papers, bags, make sure your room is nice, tidy, and clean. Okay, you can have a nice indoor plant in your bedroom for the sake of purifying the air and filtering toxins, but that’s it.
Make sure to have a cold bedroom, not more than 20 degrees celsius. You can try sleeping by the open window. The flow of fresh air and a completely dark room is also recommended for an optimal sleeping environment. Melatonin requires complete darkness to work optimally, so make your bedroom as dark as possible. If nothing else, you can use a sleeping mask if you can’t avoid the lights during the night. Complete darkness is essential for optimal sleep, and it’s just how our genes evolved to work optimally through our human evolution. If you align your sleeping habits with your circadian rhythm, you will naturally wake up around sunrise, even if you’re sleeping in a completely dark room, and that means that you’ve got it!
No Food Or Drink Before Bedtime – consuming foods, especially high carbohydrate foods, will cause an insulin response in the evening, which will compromise healthy sleep. If you must eat, then have a bit of easily digestible low carbohydrate food that will minimize your digestive system’s activity and won’t result in an excessive insulin spike. Allowed foods to eat later in the day are eggs, nuts, meat, and raw cheese, but if you can go without any foods, it’s even better. You should also minimize the intake of alcohol in the evening since it compromises your sleep hormones’ functioning. This study explains in detail how alcohol negatively affects our sleep. So I suggest you eat and drink at least 3 hours before going to bed.
All right, you came to the end of The Ultimate Guide To Stress Management. Now it’s time for you to start making changes if you want to manage your stress effectively and get closer to your true human nature.
Now I would like to hear from you.
Are you interested in trying any of these stress relief techniques?
Do you think I missed something?
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