Stress is widely known to cause many health issues – from physical ailments, including headaches, digestive discomfort, and chest and muscle pain. It can also cause mental upsets, including anxiety, depression, restlessness, irritability, and anger.
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Certain studies suggest that many sufferers will go through countless medical tests only to find out that stressors in their life were causing all the symptoms. I can rightly put myself in this category as, earlier on in my life, I was experiencing debilitating cramps only to find out that it was all caused by the stressful life situation I was in.
How many of us understand the mechanism of this natural body instinct or even how to identify stress versus an urgent medical condition?
First off, it’s important to note that stress is a natural reaction to change. Yet, oftentimes, stress is difficult to manage because it manifests in a variety of ways including “physically, mentally, or emotionally.”
Simply put, stress is the “body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.” When we say any change, that’s exactly what we mean. Stress can be caused by your environment, your body, positive or negative life changes — such as a promotion or a firing, the birth of a child or the separation of a partnership, etc. Stress can even be stirred up by your thoughts.
This makes stress nearly impossible to escape and, therefore must be confronted and dealt with.
Positive Stress Versus Negative Stress
The second important thing to understand about stress is that there are positive and negative forms.
Our bodies are “designed to experience stress and react to it.” Therefore, stress is a positive reaction when it’s acting to keep us safe and combat true stressful situations by “keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger.” Most likely, you’ve heard this referred to as the “fight or flight response,” which encompasses a set of physiological changes spurred by the autonomic nervous system. This type of stress aims is built in to help you avoid danger or help others who are in danger.
On the other hand, “stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between stressors.” In our modern society, there are many non-urgent things — stressful work or home environment, physical stressors, lack of sleep — that may cause our bodies to undertake those same physiological changes on a reoccurring basis. This leads to an overworked and tension-riddled body. Every so often, this isn’t such a bad thing. Yet, “this response can become chronically activated during prolonged periods of stress,” and “prolonged activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body — both physical and emotional.”
Stress and Your Body
What happens when the human body is chronically stressed out? You get worn out in all the wrong ways.
Most notably, stress “can wear down the body’s natural defenses, leading to a variety of physical symptoms,” including general aches and pains, headaches, heartburn, digestion issues (upset stomach and nausea, especially), muscle tension (especially in the neck, face, and shoulders), racing heart, trouble sleeping, weight gain or weight loss, and even exhaustion, just to mention a few.
Beyond these symptoms, unrelieved stress “leads to a condition called distress — a negative stress reaction.” What does this mean? The internal balance of your body has been disturbed. When this happens, you may experience a new set of more serious symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and sexual dysfunction. On top of that, many people suffer emotional symptoms as well, including “depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.”
How to Alleviate Stress
While stress is incredibly prevalent in our lives, it doesn’t mean we can’t find healthy and effective ways to manage it. Here are a few proven methods that have been shown to alleviate stress.
Exercise naturally physically stresses our bodies. When we stress our bodies, this gives our mental stress a bit of a break. It’s been shown that “people who exercise regularly are less likely to experience anxiety than those who don’t exercise.” With that said, the strongest benefits come from regular exercise. Therefore, the one-time run, gym workout, or yoga class won’t completely cut it for reducing overall stress.
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Three factors make exercise a great stress-reducing remedy: stress hormones, sleep, and confidence. First off, “exercise lowers your body’s stress hormones … in the long run,” and “it also helps release endorphins, which are chemicals that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers.” Sleep is necessary for all bodily functions because it gives your brain a rest. Exercise has been shown to “improve your sleep quality, which can be negatively affected by stress and anxiety.” Lastly, exercise has been linked to a feeling of both competence and confidence, which can lead to overall mental wellbeing.
Healthy Eating Habits
For those new exercise habits to be effective, you’ll also need to make sure you’re getting the appropriate nutrition to fuel your body, protect your joints, and restore your muscles.
Plus, incorporating a balanced diet into your life “may also help control your moods” and will “help you feel better in general.” Make sure to focus on balance by eating a variety of “vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein,” all of which will regulate digestion, provide energy, and even boost your immune system. On top of that, try not to skip out on meals, which can “actually increase your stress.”
Reducing Caffeine Intake
It’s hard to hear, but reducing the amount of caffeine you drink every day can help reduce your stress levels. This isn’t relegating just to coffee, either. Caffeine is found in “coffee, tea, chocolate and energy drinks.” Caffeine consumed in high doses has been linked to an increase in anxiety symptoms. With that said, proper caffeine consumption is dependent on how you feel. While, in general, “five or fewer cups per day is considered a moderate amount,” that may change depending on your reaction.
Smile and Laugh
Smile more! Laugh more!
You read that right. Smiling and laughing more often have been proven to help reduce stress by “relieving your stress response” and by “relieving tension by relaxing your muscles.” Plus, laughter can also “help improve your immune system and mood.” A study among people with “cancer found that people in the laughter intervention group experienced more stress relief than those who were simply distracted.”
Reduce Stress Triggers
In short, try to avoid or reduce the number of stressors that are currently in your life. Unfortunately, this may be more difficult than any other stress-reducing technique, but it also may be one of the most effective.
If you can identify the large stressors in your life — “your job, your commute, your schoolwork,” your relationship, etc. — try to either confront, reduce, balance, or eliminate them from your life. With that said, many people are unable to identify the triggers that cause their stress. In that case, “try keeping a stress journal” and “make note of when you become most anxious.” This will help you find a pattern that may identify those stressors.
Recent studies have illuminated how plant-based foods can improve overall mental health. Per NutritionFacts.org, in a series of cross-sectional and interventional studies, vegetarians “showed fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and mood disturbance than omnivores.” This may be attributed to the “higher levels of antioxidants in the blood from plant sources,” which “have been associated with a significantly lower risk of depression, and lower suicide rates have been tied to higher consumption of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and soy and lower intake of dairy, meat, and fish.”
However, it’s always important to consult a medical professional before starting a new diet. Once you’ve got a doctor’s thumbs-up, here are a few select plant-based foods that can help reduce stress symptoms!
Brazil nuts are large and very much in charge in the nut scene. They happen to be high in selenium. Selenium is an “essential mineral, meaning that it must be obtained through your diet,” and these nuts are a great source! On top of that, selenium “may improve mood by reducing inflammation … [is] also an antioxidant, which helps prevent cell damage,” and it’s an “anti-carcinogenic, which helps to prevent cancer from developing.”
Plus, brazil nuts are very oily, which makes them great for creating those yummy kinds of nut butter, spreads, vegan cheeses, and delicious desserts. Here are a few brazil nut recipes: Brazil Nut Fudge, Brazil Nut Vegan Parmesan, Raw Coconut and Brazil Nut Truffles, or these Apricot, Goji, and Brazil Nut Bars.
As if you needed another reason to include more leafy green veggies in your diet! It turns out spinach may help alleviate stress symptoms on top of its many other health benefits. How does spinach relieve stress? It’s all about the magnesium. It’s been shown that “people with low magnesium levels (most of us, actually) are more likely to have elevated C-reactive protein levels — and research shows people with high CRP levels are more stressed and at a greater risk for depression.” Plus, stress flushes magnesium from your body, therefore, resupplying a proper source is incredibly important!
Spinach is also a wonderful and diverse ingredient. Get a good helping of spinach every day with these recipes: Spinach Rice, Portabella Mushroom Gyro, Pistachio Cake, or these Spinach Blender Pancakes.
Warm, comforting, and incredibly tasty, oatmeal shouldn’t be too difficult to incorporate into your stress-reducing diet plant! It turns out that, along with other health benefits, oatmeal “helps your brain generate the destressing neurotransmitter serotonin.” This complex carbohydrate is “digested more slowly and [doesn’t] spike blood sugar,” keeping you calm, cool, and collected!
Including oatmeal in your diet may be one of the easiest steps to a healthier, reduced stress life. Oatmeal can be prepped beforehand, whipped up quickly, and you can add as many of your favorite plant-based toppings as you like! Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started: Apple Parsnip Oatmeal with Cranberry Sauce, Pumpkin Pie Overnight Oats, Banana Split Oatmeal with Roasted Almonds, or this fruity Pineapple Raspberry Crisp.
For a host of more stress-reducing recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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