The concept of stress has become so ubiquitous that it’s become a weary competition of who has more on their plate, who is more tired, and who leads the busiest life. I’m sure I’m not surprising anyone when I say that a highly stressful lifestyles isn’t sustainable for our bodies.
I ask each of my patients to rate their stress level on a scale from 1-10. Most people rate their stress between 7 and 9, and then shrug and say “Well, this is life, right?”. You’re not wrong. However, it’s the next question I ask that’s infinitely more important: “What do you do to cope with your stress?”. This is almost always followed by an awkward shift in a chair, nervous laugh, and something to the tune of, “Nothing, I guess. I just push through”.
Let’s take a step back – why does it matter if we’re living in a constant state of stress?
When we experience a stressful event, our bodies respond by releasing a cocktail of hormones, including cortisol. This signals a cascade of changes in the body, all intended to help us cope with said stressor. You’ve heard this before; it’s called “fight or flight”.
The problem is that our bodies can’t tell the difference between being chased by a lion and our boss’ phone number showing up on our caller ID. In both circumstances, we release hormones that increase our blood pressure, increase blood sugar, divert blood flow from critical-thinking and memory areas of the brain, and suppress normal digestion. Great for running from a lion. Not so great for your fifth stressful call of the day.
This well-intended stress response is why the long-term impacts of high stress may include anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, weak immune function, weight gain, menstrual irregularities, heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Good to know, but I can’t quit life and live on a beach. How do I avoid the long-term implications of living a stressful life?
I like to think of it like having a cup of stress that is overflowing. If we can mitigate some of the controllable factors, we can reduce the amount of stress in our cup so that we’re not in a constant state of overflow. Here are my top six ways to drain your cup of stress.
1. Prioritize sleep – When we’re tired, we do not cope well with stress. Here’s my crash course on sleep: Decide what time you need to wake up, minus the number of hours you need to sleep (if your partner is male, it’s usually more hours than he needs), and set a strict bedtime. Turn off all electronics 30 minutes before bed. Wear a sleep mask every night.
2. Don’t over exercise – Over-training can raise cortisol levels, adding to the stress in our cup instead of doing the opposite. My rule is that if someone were to watch your workout, would they think a lion is chasing you? Try heavier weights with fewer reps, yoga (not hot yoga), or shorter/fewer workouts per week.
3. Keep blood sugar levels balanced – The rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows adds to our stress, as does digesting processed foods. Focus on having fat + fibre + protein with every meal and snack. Snacking on nuts and seeds, protein bars with low sugar (Simply Protein is great, not affiliated!), hummus, dried chickpeas, natural peanut butter, edamame, or guacamole will keep blood sugar balanced and your energy levels high.
4. Set the intention to ‘actively cope’- I love this one. Recognize passive coping strategies and turn them into active strategies. We all have passive coping strategies: things we do to unwind without realizing it. Examples include watching Netflix, having a glass of wine, calling a friend, or getting your nails done. Instead of passively engaging in that activity, set the intention that this is a coping strategy, and boom, you are actively lowering cortisol.
5. Set boundaries – This takes practice and commitment. I would suggest starting with recognizing when you feel stressed and then asking yourself if there should have been a boundary in place. For example, feeling stressed about responding to an email before bed versus setting a boundary about leaving work at the office. Sometimes boundary setting requires us to have difficult conversations, and other times it can be a private line you draw in the sand.
6. Take a deep breath – Our bodies have two settings: “fight or flight” (sympathetic nervous system) and “rest and digest” (parasympathetic nervous system). We cannot be in both settings at the same time, so we can trick our bodies into getting out of fight or flight. Take a slow, controlled breath in, hold for a second or two, and exhale slowly. Repeat a few times. You are now out of fight or flight and into rest and digest just like that. This one is my favourite tricks for stressful meetings, traffic jams, and spilled milk situations.
**BONUS TIP** 7. See your Naturopathic Doctor – I often run lab testing to get an idea of your morning cortisol (stress hormone) level. This allows us to use herbs and/or supplements to support and adjust your cortisol levels in a targeted way. Your ND can also provide you with a complete health plan to take the guess work and stress of “what should I eat” or “when can I find time to exercise” off of your plate.
Book an appointment with Dr. Chambers to assess and help you overcome your stressors.
In the meantime, we know that stress impacts our health. I encourage you to think about your cup of stress and what is filling it up. If there are changes you can make to empty your cup, now is the time to start. For the things that can’t be changed, take a deep breath and know that with less in your cup you’ll be able to overcome stress with a smile.