The Importance of Stress Management
You will hear us share a lot about how making lifestyle changes for weight loss, chronic illness and autoimmune disease prevention/reversal/management, burn-out recovery, and more is rooted in quality nutrition. But we also promote the fact that you cannot attain true health and wellness without also addressing the other areas of lifestyle change, which include stress management. This is an area that many people struggle with for various reasons. For me, I am a busy mom with 2 kids, and one of those amazing little kiddos has 3 rare forms of epilepsy and hydrocephalus. I have never experienced stress that compares to what we have gone through, and will continue to go through, with her medical and developmental journey. I also own 2 businesses, volunteer on the board of the Rare Epilepsy Education Foundation, and sit on an equity committee at my children's’ school. I say all this as I want you to know that I get it – life can be crazy and unpredictable, and it can put incredible stress on us physically, emotionally and mentally. Yet, it IS possible to manage all of this in a healthy way.
How does stress effect our health?
Stress increases the risk for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and autoimmunity. It affects blood sugar control, promotes weight gain, increases inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, affects the onset and severity of asthma and allergies, impairs cognitive function and mental health, and triggers or worsens autoimmune diseases such as MS, Crohn’s, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. And this is just a partial list! Most, if not all, chronic diseases that we know of are associated with stress and either triggered or exacerbated by stress. When I was in the throws of transitioning into life as a special needs mom, I went down that rabbit hole and let the stress take me over. That is when my rheumatoid arthritis was triggered (it runs in my family) and I am certain it was because of the incredible stress I was under every day, as we traversed hospital stay after hospital stay with our daughter. Even now, with my RA well-managed on an AIP diet, I still find that stress and lack of sleep can be triggers for my symptoms to flare, so I know first-hand how stress affects the body.
Yes, stress can also serve us, helping us adapt to our environment and overcome challenges. Our basic fight-or-flight response helps protect us in a dangerous situation. Also, exercise is a positive form of stress on the body, as we adapt and respond to the challenges of changing our bodies. This is a motivating stress that can help us focus and thrive.
But it is the harmful stress that is negatively impacting our mental, physical and emotional health, and for many people this stress is chronic and throws us out of balance, contributing to the disease states mentioned above. But equally as important, it also deeply alters how we interact with the people we love, as we are not showing up as our best selves when we are not managing our stress effectively.
How do we perceive stress?
Negative stress is caused by something important that exceeds our capacity to cope, which is subjective of course. We cannot always control what stressors are around us, but we can strengthen our internal resources and work on consciously changing our perspective. There are 4 key factors to how we perceive stress embodied in the acronym NUTS:
Novelty of the event - maybe this is the first time this stressor has occurred
Unpredictable nature of the event - did it take you by surprise?
Threat perception – to our body or ego
Sense of loss of control - that feeling that you cannot stay calm
We cannot always control each of these factors, although being able to stay calm and in control is something we can cultivate. We can definitely work on a stress management protocol that reduces the effects of stress and gives us healthy tools to manage how we respond.
Benefits of stress management
Some people seem to handle stress better than others, but regardless of where you think you fall on the spectrum of coping with stress, stress management is a conscious choice. Like any other skill, it takes practice to create new habits and to alter the way we respond to stressors. If you can improve your ability to manage stress, the benefits you could experience include, but are not limited to:
Improves mood and energy
Boosts immune function
Increases productivity and focus
Reduces the risk of chronic disease
Helps maintain a healthy body weight
Effects how we interact with our loved ones, promoting healthier relationships
Allows us to enjoy the good things in life
How do we manage stress?
First of all, it is important to note that self-care is not selfish, but rather it allows us to be our best self so that we can be more present in our lives and happier overall. This will in fact mean we are better parents, partners, friends, siblings, employees, and more, positively impacting those around us. Also, if a healthier lifestyle is the goal, even the best nutrition and exercise regimen will be sabotaged by poor stress management, which often means sleep issues as well. So having a robust and diverse approach to managing stress is ideal, as different sources of stress require different approaches.
Below are a few ideas, and I encourage you to try experimenting with whatever speaks to you.
First and foremost, try to remove unnecessary stressors in your life, for example:
Watch less news and social media – for some people, these outlets only heighten stress levels, and less device time is always a good thing
If possible, avoid the people who cause you more stress. Sometimes you simply cannot avoid certain people, but when you are able to reduce interactions, this could be beneficial.
Reduce commitments and embrace the power of saying no – you can’t do it all, and don’t need to! If you are saying yes out of some obligation you feel, that would be a good time to evaluate the importance of what you are being asked to do. Could someone else do it?
Make sure each day that your to do list is manageable. This could mean picking a few priority items that need to be done. If you can complete all your key tasks, rather than having a huge list you cannot possibly get to, then stress may be reduced. Set yourself up to experience success!
Create a gratitude journal – this is where you can take the time to reflect on what you are grateful for by writing down 2-3 things each day. It really is amazing to me how this simple task can change how I walk into the day and the attitude I approach things with.
Practice acceptance in regard to the things you cannot change - focusing energy on things we cannot change and control is a waste of time and will only increase perceived stress. The areas where we can bring about change are a healthier focus for our attention and can actually yield positive results.
Schedule down time into your calendar – I mean literally schedule it on your calendar and treat it like you would any appointment or event. This is YOUR time to do whatever helps you relax and disconnect. Examples include reading, napping, going for a walk, journaling, engaging in a hobby or craft you enjoy, playing with your kids, and even exercise. Personally, I love to puzzle, go for walks/hikes, and sit outside with a cup of hot tea.
Create a mindfulness practice – whether you are new to mindfulness or have lots of experience, a consistent practice is key. This could mean a mix of different elements: seated meditation, guided meditation, walking meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises. If you do not know where to begin, there are some great apps, including Ten Percent Happier and Calm. Schedule this in your calendar, just like you do your down time.
Get plenty of sleep – being well rested is key for stress management, and the average American does not get sufficient sleep. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours a night. There are some great suggestions around sleep in this prior blog we posted.
Spend time outdoors – nature has a powerful effect on stress. Plan to get outside as much as you can, without a device that will distract you. Just enjoy being outdoors, whether you are exercising or relaxing on the porch.
Play often – we live in a culture where work is often overvalued, and people even take pride in how much they prove their dedication by working TOO much. Finding time to play, whatever that means to you, is a huge part of how we see the world and how we perceive stress. Research suggests that more play can affect how we adapt to our changing environment, and it may even contribute to living a longer, healthier life. Make a list of activities you enjoy, even if they are things you have not done in many years. How can you incorporate quality time with your kids, partner, dog, etc, into this play time?
Get your body moving – keep your activity level in line with your abilities and make sure to get movement in on a regular basis. Not only will this help with stress, but it can also help with sleep.
Eat a quality whole-foods diet – our bodies require nutrient-dense quality foods to function at optimal levels. Stress perception and management are affected by our physical health. There are various aspects of our physical health that then affect our mental health. Then there is also the simple fact that if we feel crappy, how we perceive things is seen through that crappy lens. When you feel good, your perception changes!
Whatever you choose to try, really give it the effort it deserves. How could your day-to-day stress levels improve if you incorporated just 3 of the suggestions above? You won’t know until you try, but I feel certain that if you really want to make these changes that you can, and that you will see benefits!
If you need support making nutrition and lifestyle changes that are based on a whole foods approach, combined with understanding your ”why” and how to harness it, then reach out for a free consultation: email@example.com.
Our work is fully virtual and we support clients all over the US!
#virtualcoaching #healthcoaching #healthcoach #functionalhealthcoaching #cleaneating #ancestraleating #nutritioncoach #nutrition #clinicalnutrition #paleo #lifestylechange #eatingforweightloss #Weightloss #nutrientdense #aip #stressmanagement #balance