When thoughts or occurrences yield feelings of anger, frustration, and/or nervousness, hormones are released to ensure the brain is more alert, muscles are tense, and pulse is faster than usual,1,2 as if the body is preparing for flight or battle and working to protect itself from the enemy. Simply put, it’s the body’s instinctual reaction to daily or long-term demands or challenges.
Unfortunately, the battle against daily stress isn’t as easy as shielding yourself from a rapidly approaching combatant. Battling with stress tends to be more unruly, tedious, and overwhelming, as life is full of situations that can result in physical or emotional tension. It’s not surprising that 75 percent of adults experience moderate to high levels of stress, and that one out of 75 people will experience a panic disorder due to stress.3 But adults aren’t the only ones who fall prey to stress. According to the American Psychological Association, stress is the top concern for teens in Grades 9 to 12 in the United States.3
TYPES AND SYMPTOMS
Depending on the circumstances, the body’s stress response can be either acute or chronic. Acute stress is short-term and tends to dissipate quickly; it’s a reaction that takes place in the moment and plays an important role in our survival. The acute stress response can help us avoid or overcome a dangerous situation or power through an important task or deadline. Once the dangerous or stressful event has passed, the brain signals the rest of the body to return to normal. Conversely, a chronic stress response sticks around for weeks, months, or even years. Unrelenting demands at school or work or ongoing relationship or money problems, for example, can all lead to chronic stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, the stress response involves the nervous, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems of the body.4 If left untreated, chronic stress causes the body to remain in that heightened state of mental alertness and physical tension, putting undue strain on the body and its various systems. This chronically heightened state can lead to physical and/or mental health problems, such as heart disease, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, obesity, skin and menstrual disorders, and worsened pre-existing conditions—no part of the body is exempt. Common symptoms of stress include stomach problems, such as diarrhea or constipation, forgetfulness, muscle pain and aches, low energy, inability to focus, weight fluctuation, and/or changes in appetite and sleep patterns.Even though infinite factors can cause stress, there are healthy ways to help manage chronic stress and reduce or prevent its causes, including meditation, diet, physical activity, leisurely activity, and cognitive therapy.
The elements of meditation are designed to relax the mind and body through controlled breathing and mindfulness, and can be effective even if practiced for only a few minutes a day. Meditation can calm worried and anxious thoughts, racing heart rate, and muscle tension due to stress.5,6 Because equipment and regimentation aren’t required, meditation can be performed anywhere and at any time. Though there are various types of meditation, they all involve the following techniques:
- Focused attention is regarded as one of the most important elements of meditation routine. Channeling your attention to specific objects, images, mantras, or breathing patterns and away from what is stressful can ease the mind.
- Relaxed breathing, another important element of meditation, involves deep, even-paced breathing that is achieved using the diaphragm to expand the lungs. This slows breathing, allowing the lungs to take in more oxygen and remove tension from the shoulders, neck, and chest muscles. Though you can meditate whenever necessary, a quiet setting and comfortable position are ideal for beginners, as distractions and poor posture tend to interfere with the breathing and focusing portions of meditation. Focused attention and relaxed breathing can allow the mind to explore different perspectives on a stressful situation, reduce negative emotions, enhance patience and tolerance, and keep the body and mind in the present moment.5,6 Practicing meditation can delay or even prevent the worsening of stress symptoms—studies have found that meditation can help manage anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep problems, and tension headaches.5,6
- Meditative practices can be incorporated anywhere and at any time throughout the day. The easiest techniques are deep breathing and scanning the body, which can be done at work or school. These techniques involve inhaling and exhaling slowly while mindfully scanning the body and relaxing any areas of tension. Focusing your attention on breathing patterns and sensations of the body, such as pain, tension, or warmth, can help calm the mind and relax the body.
- Repeating a mantra is another effective meditative technique. A mantra can be a word or a set of words that can be used to ground your body and focus your attention. Repeat the word(s) to yourself for as long as you need, focusing just on the word(s).
- Mindful walking is a meditation technique that allows you to shift your focus away from stressful thoughts by concentrating on your leg and feet movements, keeping the mind present and focused just on the movement of your body.
EAT STRESS-FIGHTING FOODS
Stress has a tendency to influence metabolism, which is why changes in appetite and weight fluctuations are common symptoms of stress.7 Those of us who turn to food when stressed opt for hyperpalatable dietary choices that possess addictive qualities, such as foods high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fat.7 Reaching for comfort food at the first sign of stress might calm stress in the short-term, but can lead to obesity and metabolic- and/or cardiovascular-related diseases.7 Conversely, some individuals might use food avoidance/undereating as a method of coping with stress; however, this prevents the body from obtaining required nutrients to function, causing chronic fatigue, weakness, and cognitive and physical disorders related to malnutrition.
It’s integral to nourish your body with nutritious, stress-fighting foods, even when faced with a waning appetite or demanding cravings.8 Below are some food suggestions to consume when feeling stressed:
- Dark, leafy greens – they contain folate, which produces dopamine and helps calm the brain.9
- Beets – another great source of folate (30% of daily value).9
- Oatmeal – complex carbohydrates assist in the production of serotonin, the hormone responsible for mood regulation.10
- Turmeric – curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, is thought to stimulate serotonin and dopamine hormone production.11
- Blueberries – the phytonutrients and antioxidants in berries improve the body’s stress response and reduce inflammation.12
- Dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) – a piece of chocolate can reduce stress hormones, such as cortisol. Antioxidants found in cocoa can relax the walls of your blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation.13
- Seeds – Pumpkin, flax, and sunflower seeds contain magnesium, a mineral that helps alleviate depression and fight fatigue and irritability.
- Cashews – cashews are high in
zinc, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and anxiety-related symptoms.14
- Oranges – the vitamin C in oranges can combat stress hormones and promote relaxation.15
- Seaweed – Fatigue and depression have been linked to low iodine intake. Luckily, a cup of seaweed contains over 275 percent of your recommended daily value.16
Relief from stress can also be achieved by engaging in physical activity, which has been shown to boost endorphin production, improve mood, and provide a distraction from daily stressors.17,18 The types of physical activity for stress management are wide and varied, from high-intensity aerobic exercise to calming yoga. To prevent injury or overexertion, begin slowly and gradually build up your fitness level. To reap the optimal physical and mental benefits of exercise, aim for 75 minutes per week of high-intensity exercise (e.g., running, dancing, jumping rope, hiking, biking, Zumba, or swimming) or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (e.g., as brisk walking, gardening/yard work, moderate- paced biking). Regardless of what activity you choose, integrating exercise into your daily routine and sticking with it is key.17,18
For maintenance, engage in activities you enjoy—any form of movement can reduce stress and improve your fitness level. If your schedule does not permit long bouts of physical activity, perform them in increments. Brief bouts of movement can still provide distraction and a better mood, while benefiting the body. For example, instead of going on one 30-minute walk a day, take three 10-minute walks throughout the day.17,18
MAKE TIME FOR LEISURELY ACTIVITIES
People who devote some time to hobbies are less likely to suffer the ill effects of chronic stress. A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found participants who made time for new or pre-existing hobbies and personal interests experienced more positive moods, less stress, and a lower heart rate while engaging in a leisurely activity. Researchers concluded leisure time was effective in improving health and overall wellbeing.19 Hobbies and interests can be of the creative, athletic, or academic variety. Finding meaning and enjoyment in leisure activities can help keep the stress at bay.
This form of psychotherapy helps to transform negative thinking into positive thinking. The therapist guides an individual through mindful thinking about negative mindsets and thought patterns, especially when dealing with stressful situations, and transforms those negative thoughts into optimistic thinking.20–22 The core concept of cognitive therapy is that thoughts, emotions, and actions are connected; thinking and feeling can affect how one acts and responds.
Cognitive therapy informs an individual how stress can formulate inaccurate or negative perceptions, which generate emotional distress and mental health problems. Thoughts borne from stress tend to be unhelpful, harmful, and, eventually, form negative habits and patterns. With the right tools to address and alter these patterns, unmitigated stress can be prevented.20–22 Cognitive therapy is often used to help an individual manage stress and related symptoms of anxiety and depression. Techniques used in cognitive therapy include the following:20–22
- Setting SMART goals during distressing times. These goals are designed to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited.
- Journaling. This involves logging negative thoughts and feelings and figuring out ways to make them more positive.
- Guided discovery and questioning. When discussing assumptions and viewpoints about yourself, a therapist can teach the individual how to challenge and improve the presumptions.
- Self-talk. This technique encourages speaking to yourself compassionately, rather than self-critically or negatively.
- Positive activities. Scheduling a rewarding activity can boost mood and inspire a positive mindset. Some examples include watching a favorite movie, buying a treat, and having lunch with a friend.
- Cognitive reconstructing. An individual will work with a therapist to dissect any cognitive distortions that are impacting thoughts.
- Situation exposure. An individual will express situations or things that illicit distress or negative thinking, and the therapist will help the individual to overcome fear of these situations or thinking through gradual exposure to them. The therapist will provide relaxation techniques to help the individual cope with the distress during exposure.
- Hull M. Stress Facts and Statistics. April 7, 2020. The Recovery Village site. https://www.therecoveryvillage. com/mental-health/stress/related/stress-statistics/. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- Godoy LD, Rossignoli MT, Delfino-Pereira P, et al. A comprehensive overview on stress neurobiology: basic concepts and clinical implications. Front Behav Neurosci. 2018;12:127.
- Global Organization for Stress site. Stress Related Facts and Statistics. http://www.gostress.com/stress-facts/. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- The American Institue of Stress site. Stress Effects. https://www.stress.org/stress-effects. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357–368.
- Mayo Clinic staff. Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress. April 22, 2020. Mayo Clinic site. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- Yau YH, Potenza MN. Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013;38(3):255–267.
- Huang Q, Liu H, Suzuki K, Ma S, Liu C. Linking what we eat to our mood: a review of diet, dietary antioxidants, and depression. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(9):376.
- Reynolds EH. Folic acid, ageing, depression, and dementia. BMJ. 2002;324(7352):1512–1515.
- Sawchuk CN. Coping with anxiety: Can diet make a difference? Mayo Clinic Site. https://www. mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized- anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/coping-with- anxiety/faq-20057987. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- Jurenka JS. Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research. Altern Med Rev. 2009;14(2):141–153.
- Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) site. Blueberries may offer benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. April 5, 2016. Science Daily. www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/2016/04/160405175653. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- Moskowitz C. Chocolate Reduces Stress, Study Finds. November 11, 2009. Science Daily. https://www. livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress- study-finds.html. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements site. Zinc. Updated July 15, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc- HealthProfessional/. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- Marik PE. Vitamin C: an essential “stress hormone” during sepsis. J Thorac Dis. 2020;12(Suppl 1): S84–S88.
- Medrano-Macías J, Leija-Martínez P, González- Morales S, et al. Use of iodine to biofortify and promote growth and stress tolerance in crops. Front Plant Sci. 2016;7:1146.
- Mayo Clinic staff. Exercise and stress: Get moving
to manage stress. March 8, 2018. Mayo Clinic site. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/ stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/ art-20044469. Accessed July 20, 2020.
- Harvard Health Publishing site. Exercising to relax. Updated July 7, 2020. https://www.health.harvard. edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax. Accessed July 20, 2020.
- Zawadzki MJ, Smyth JM, Costigan HJ. Real-time associations between engaging in leisure and daily health and well-being. Ann Behav Med. 2015;49(4):605–615
- Chand SP, Kuckel DP, Huecker MR. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing; 2020.
- Hofmann SG, Asmundson GJ, Beck AT. The science of cognitive therapy. Behav Ther. 2013;44(2): 199–212.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Updated September 8, 2016.