It's been a heavy year and things are not letting up. You feel as if you're on a treadmill and just cannot get ahead. Here's how to get to the end of the year without falling apart.
Don't panic. A bit of stress is not always a bad thing. Without any stress, your life would be dull, monotonous, lacking change and excitement.
However, prolong that stress for weeks or months and your body will soon start to show the consequences. We are put together to deal with sudden shocks, such as a lion spotting a predator stalking us, or finding a snake underneath a rock. Our adrenaline levels become instantly elevated, gearing the body for fast thinking and quick action, fighting or running away.
But live with the threat of retrenchment or divorce or bankruptcy for months, and stress hormones wreak havoc on your body. Your body will produce more cortisol, retain sodium in the bloodstream, produce excess glucose, produce excess amino acids and raise cholesterol and blood lipid levels. Symptoms of prolonged stress can include:
- An increased heartbeat
- Higher blood pressure
- Blood sugar fluctuations
- Feelings of aggression and irritability
- Sleep disturbances
- Compromised immunity
- Appetite changes
- Weight fluctuations
First things first: do what you can to deal with the cause of your stress. All the relaxation techniques in the world will have little long-term effect if you continue to find yourself in a highly stressful situation.
Exercise is your first weapon in any move to reduce stress levels. Sports psychologist D R Brown, writing on "Exercise, Fitness and Mental Health", summarised it as follows:
- Increased core temperature during exercise may lead to reduced muscle tension or alterations to neurotransmitters (brain chemicals).
- Mood improvements may occur due to the increased secretion of endogenous (internal) opiates like endorphins.
- Psychological changes may occur due to alterations in norepinephrine, dopamine, or serotonin, which are all neurotransmitters, which can affect mood and level of anxiety.
- Exercise may act as a temporary diversion from daily stresses.
- Exercise provides an opportunity for social interaction that may otherwise be lacking.
- Exercise provides an opportunity for self-mastery. Increasing fitness or improving body composition and other health parameters may improve an individual’s self-esteem.
It is less trouble to go for that walk or that run get it together to exercise, than it is to cope with the effects of long-term stress. Other things you can do include:
Face the dragon. Avoiding a problem or agonising about it in silence will cause adrenalin levels to climb. Dr Jan van Leeuwen, clinical and counselling psychologist, recommends that one redefines the problem. According to him, the solution to a problem lies in its meaning, its perception and its definition. On your own things could appear insoluble. A friend, or a counsellor could give you a different perspective.
Limit your caffeine intake. Your body takes five hours to process caffeine, so if you have your first cup at 6am and the last at 11pm, your body is basically never caffeine-free. Caffeine, which is also present in tea, chocolate and some soda drinks, heightens your blood pressure and stops your adrenal glands from functioning at their best. In short, caffeine increases, not decreases, your stress levels.
Eat healthy foods regularly. Don't skip meals, as this will cause your blood sugar to drop, worsening the effect of the blood glucose fluctuations you experience when stressed. Many people also resort to eating high-energy junk food or sweets in an attempt to counteract the sluggishness brought on by low blood sugar levels. Yoghurt, fruit, fruit juice, vegetables, cottage cheese and high-fibre cereal are good things to eat. This will help to regulate your blood glucose levels.
Avoid excessive alcohol use. Many people resort to alcohol as a stress reliever. And often the first glass will relax you, but it's downhill from there. Alcohol is actually a nervous system depressant, and in the long run, can actually cause depression, not relieve it. When you are stressed, it's probably a good idea to stay away from alcohol altogether, especially since it's so much easier to fall into the pattern of drinking more and more when you are stressed, adding to your existing stress levels.
Get enough sleep. Anyone who has ever been subjected to stress, knows that a good night's sleep is often the first thing to go. Adults need eight hours of sleep a night – few get more than seven. When we are sleeping deeply, our breathing, our heart rate and blood pressure reach their lowest levels of the day. Our bodies need sleep to recharge and to aid the healing processes. Health24's CyberShrink, Professor Michael Simpson, recommends avoiding alcohol, large meals at night and daytime napping. Drink a glass of warm milk before you go to bed, as milk contains an amino acid that is converted into a sleep-enhancing compound in the brain.
Learn relaxation techniques. Learn to do yoga or tai chi, which will help to reduce the effects of stress on your body. When you relax, your body will stop producing cortisol in excess, which in turn will increase the effective functioning of your immune system, lowering your chances of infection.
Cut down your salt intake. When sodium levels are raised for too long in your body, it disrupts the natural passage of nutrients to the body's cells. Too much sodium over a prolonged period of time can raise your blood pressure and damage your heart muscle. If your blood pressure is too high, it can lead to your feeling constantly tired. And if you're constantly feeling wiped out, you cannot cope with the stress in your life.
Stop smoking. Nicotine causes a slight increase of the serotonin levels in your brain. But in the long run, smoking, and all its attendant ills, becomes a stressor in itself. The threat of cancer, insomnia, erectile dysfunction, acne, heart disease, wrinkles and lung diseases cancels out any small, stress-relieving properties nicotine may have. And also, smoking harms any tissue in your body that needs a reliable supply of oxygen – that is every single one. Smoking really puts stress on your body, greatly limiting its ability to cope with outside stressors.
Develop multiple coping strategies. Lean on your support system. Sharing your problems with others certainly puts them in perspective. But also do something physical. Men tend to go for the physical stress-buster, women for the support system of friends and family. Amy Flowers, a psychologist from Macon, Georgia, says that the most successful people are the ones who have a variety of stress-busting options. Having only one coping style, could get you into trouble if you can't use it, or it doesn't work.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated November 2011)