Susan, a recent divorcee, is the 48-year-old mother of two college students. She works full-time as a legal secretary and after work she helps her mother, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. On weekends Susan catches up on her errands and shops for her mom. During the week she falls into bed exhausted at 9 p.m. . . . if her mom doesn’t require extra help. But Susan can’t sleep. She’s too worried about everything she has to do, and she is worried about her mom. Susan develops an ulcer and is diagnosed with hypertension. Unfortunately, Susan is a composite of the more than 16 million caregivers in the United States who spend 18 billion hours of unpaid time each year caring for a loved one with dementia.
Every day, one million Americans are absent from work because of stress-related disorders. Experts agree that stress is a factor in most diseases, and a major factor in disorders such as anxiety, insomnia, depression, ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, headache, hypoglycemia, asthma, herpes, hypertension and heart disease.
Yet, stress is a fact of life. Even a positive experience like a new job, marriage or house can be a stress-provoking event—because stress is defined as a reaction to any stimulus that upsets our normal functioning. The bad news is we all have to face stress. The good news is, it’s easier than ever to neutralize stress before it takes its toll. The key is to maintain a balance, both mentally and physically, so stress doesn’t upset your equilibrium.
The Chemistry of Stress
First, let’s look at what happens to your body as a result of stress.
Once upon a time, stress was episodic. For instance, if a tiger approached you, your body released stress hormones to help you fight or flee. By the time the encounter was over, the entire stress response had been fully utilized and the body returned to normal.
The Fight-or-Flight Response looks something like this:
- Pupils dilate to sharpen vision.
- Heart rate and blood pressure increase to accelerate the delivery of oxygen to fuel the muscles and critical organs.
- Blood flow is diverted from non-critical areas such as the gastrointestinal tract to the critical areas such as the heart, skeletal muscles and liver.
- Liver releases glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. Glucose is for immediate energy; fat is needed when the fight-or-flight response lasts longer than expected.
- Bronchial tubes dilate to maximize the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Today, however, you may be sitting at a desk or driving your car when the stress mechanism is triggered. The modern response is not to fight or flee, but to gnash your teeth, grip the steering wheel, scream, yell or “stuff it.” Our bodies are in a constant state of “emergency alert,’ and the results can be devastating:
- Blood pressure rises. Depending on how many stressful situations you encounter, it may stay elevated, damaging the sensitive tubules of your kidneys. Ultimately, kidney function is compromised, which raises your blood pressure even more, which contributes to further kidney damage, which raises blood pressure…
- Glucose that is dumped into your bloodstream goes unused, so your body has to produce an enormous amount of insulin to handle it. Eventually, this may result in hypoglycemia or diabetes.
- Fat that is dumped into your blood also goes unused, so it clogs your arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease.
- If you drink caffeine, the stress hormone cortisol becomes elevated, which can set you up for countless health problems including: poor quality of sleep, impaired immunity and age-related deterioration.
- The adrenal glands produce or contribute to the production of about 150 hormones—all vital to your health. When they are stressed, they become exhausted. Once the adrenal buffer is gone, you become a prime candidate for asthma, allergy, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and other autoimmune disorders.
Devise a Plan that Works for You
So, how do your live in the 21st century and not let stress affect your health?
First of all, you need a plan to help you deal with tough issues, so you can think more clearly and act from a calm, centered position. That plan should include a good diet, and excellent nutritional support with nutrients that enhance relaxation. Establish a daily routine that includes plenty of quality sleep, exercise and a stress-reducing or relaxation technique. Just keep in mind that even though it’s impossible not to have some stress in your life, you can strengthen and nourish yourself on a daily basis, so that you’re better prepared to deal with the next challenge life has to offer.
16 Stress-busters to nourish your body, mind and soul
1) Get proper nutritional support to help stop free radical damage, and eat a balanced diet.
2) Exercise! It lowers stress hormones and gives you more energy. Choose an activity that you enjoy and is appropriate for your age and condition. And do it regularly!
3) Learn a relaxation technique such as meditation or yoga. Research has shown they both lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, enhance overall health, accelerate weight loss, improve sleep and increase blood levels of DHEA. It also restores your sense of clarity and purpose.
4) Laughter is real medicine. It’s a tension tamer and your body produces endorphins (“feel good”chemicals) when you laugh. Rent a funny movie or play charades.
5) Learn to “let go.” Next time you’re in a traffic jam, instead of getting worked up about something you have no control over, use the time to visualize something you want to happen … or listen to a new book-on-tape.
6) Avoid stimulants such as tobacco, caffeine, sugar or coping-solutions that involve alcohol or drugs. Using a chemical means of reducing your stress leads to addiction and increases your problems.
7) Get outside! A little sunlight every day will enhance your body’s natural rhythms and provide you with vitamin D.
8) Take regular breaks at work. Get up and stretch, roll your neck and make sure you drink at least 8-10 glasses of water a day.
9) Wind down earlier in the evening. It’s difficult to fall asleep after working late or watching a suspenseful movie. Relax instead with an inspirational book, soft music and a cup of herbal tea or warm milk.
10) A warm bath helps increase circulation to the skin and relax the muscles. Add a few drops of pine needle essence, oil of eucalyptus, mustard powder or lavender oil for a soothing effect.
11) Take five minutes at the end of each day to prepare for the next. Don’t make long lists. Rather, prioritize. It will help you feel more in control.
12) Go to bed earlier. Research shows that the hours of sleep before 2 a.m. are more rejuvenating than the hours after 2 a.m. Sleeping from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. will do you more good than sleeping from midnight to 7 a.m.
13) Don’t eat right before bed. Your digestive system won’t get the break it needs, and you won’t feel completely rested in the morning.
14) Cut back on caffeine. If you do consume caffeine, be moderate and try not to consume any after 2pm.
16) Put a sachet filled with lavender flowers under your pillow for sweet dreams.