Throughout life, everyone experiences feelings of stress and, in short bursts, this experience can be not only good for you but incredibly useful. According to experts, short term stress boosts performance as well as firing up our immune system.
Experiencing stress is an excellent sign that your natural responses are working as they should be. But, what happens when stress becomes prolonged?
Why do we feel stress?
When we feel anxious, the body releases stress hormones, including cortisol that triggers the fight-or-flight response, the body's automatic response to danger.
Designed to help us react quickly to life-threatening situations; the fight-or-flight response unlocks a chemical chain reaction in our body, enabling us to respond quicker, run faster, and fight harder.
And this response hasn't changed much since our caveman days, so even though, today we're unlikely to be running from a wild animal, and more likely to be intensely overloaded at work, our body will still dish out enough stress hormones to fight a bear!
What happens to the body during a fight-or-flight response?
Whenever we sense danger, the emotional processing part of our brain called the amygdala is alerted. The amygdala then sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which communicates with the body via the nervous system.
As the adrenal glands respond to this communication, they produce hormones which include adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream, so that your body can sharpen its senses and better defend itself from danger.
The problem with too much stress
You may notice that during an adrenaline rush, you develop a faster heart rate, an increase in blood pressure, a faster breathing rate, excess sweating and a boost in energy. Although an adrenaline boost and extra power are super useful for a short-term getaway or emergency, if the body is under stress for too long, it's easy to see how this can both physically and mentally exhaust.
When left unmanaged over time, chronic stress can lead to the development of other serious problems, such as stomach ulcers, stroke, asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Chronic stress weakens the immune system and is a considerable risk factor for cancer, heart attacks and depression too.
Short term you may notice an increase in muscle tension, tension headaches, an increase in colds and viruses, and disruptions to your digestive system and gut health such as nausea, pain vomiting, heartburn, constipation, acid reflux, or diarrhea.
So, importantly, how do we manage and reduce stress?
Alleviating stress and maintaining stress management will not only improve your overall quality of life, but it will help to extend your life too.
There are two main areas to focus on: your body and your mind. You can't always control the situations around you, but you can control how healthy your body is and how your mind reacts to these situations.
A relaxed mind
The ability to clear and relax your mind is an essential part of combating stress. How you think and feel has a ripple effect throughout your body and governs the stress and tension you hold within it.
Giving yourself enough time to rest and reflect is hugely beneficial to your health, and your mind is powerful enough to slow your heart rate and allow your body to recover.
Meditation and breathing exercises are one of the best methods to reduce stress. Breathing slowly and deeply sends a message to your brain's vagus nerve, telling it to calm down and relax. Try breathing from your belly instead of your chest and focus on the depth of your breath. Breathe into the count of four, hold for the count of two and out for the count of six. With practice, these breathing techniques will help to clear your mind.
Organizing your priorities is another excellent way to reduce the stress in your mind. When you make your to-do list, only focus on one thing at a time - completing your tasks systematically. Feeling overwhelmed in your mind will quickly overwhelm your body, so try to focus on one step at a time.
Sleep, although physical, is vital for your health and wellbeing. Clearing your mind before bedtime is one of the best ways to ensure you sleep well and deeply. Try to avoid the blue light of your devices at least 30 minutes before bed, and where possible strive for 7-8 hours sleep a night.
A healthy body
Stress strips your body of vital vitamins and energy and diminishes its ability to perform essential processes. So it's crucial to keep your body as healthy as possible so that it can recuperate, regenerate and recover.
Make sure you are eating a healthy diet that is easy to digest, an anti-inflammatory diet or a vegan diet is much easier on digestion and, if done well, much richer in nutrients and natural fiber supplements. You are much better off sticking to anti-inflammatory foods when experiencing stress.
Some vegan foods bestow extra benefits to the body and can help to reduce inflammation and balance out hormones. A mushroom rich diet is particularly useful as mushrooms are one of the natural immune system boosters.
Mushroom benefits are myriad and can quickly become a part of your diet in the form of capsules. The magical Maitake is ideal for supporting immunity, or Reishi mushrooms - revered throughout Chinese history - promote relaxation and come in the form of tasty granola. Edible mushrooms can even help hormone management with supplements with Chaga.
Mushroom nutrition can support many areas and systems within the body that can become easily damaged or weakened by stress. Take good care of your body.