What is Stress and Ten Ways to Help Manage It

By Monica van de Weerd

Over the past few months, one thing that’s exponentially increased, along with the use of the phrase ‘unprecedented times’, is our global experience of stress.  

So, in a nutshell, what is stress?

Well, your adrenal system performs various functions, including producing the stress hormone cortisol. While cortisol has a terrible reputation, it’s needed it to keep us alive. Without cortisol, people from the paleolithic times wouldn’t run from tigers, and hipsters in Bondi wouldn’t run from dairy (sorry not sorry).

Cortisol is essential for regulating blood sugar, metabolism and cognitive function; cortisol keeps you going. The problem with cortisol, like most things, is when you have too much of it. Chronic cortisol can send your body into overdrive, weakening your ability to function daily, impacting your immune and digestive system, as well as your hormones. Stress can also negatively impact your mental health.

So, what’s the best way to deal with stress? Don’t worry; it’s not time to book yourself into a 10-day silent fasting retreat, perform organic ceremonial grade cacao ceremonies under the new moon or wake up at ridiculous-o’clock to go to a yoga class (though those things can be lovely and therapeutic in their own right).

I genuinely believe that relieving stress is a daily practice. While there are so many things out of our control, empower yourself to control what you can #thingsvirgossay. We can be present, go slow and do something every day to manage our stress.

Let’s chat through some of my favourite ways to manage stress.

Mindfulness Activities

I believe walking is one of the most therapeutic exercises you can do for your mind and body. I try to start every single day with a walk. If I’m walking alone, I’ll try point out something that I can hear, smell, feel and see. I can listen to the wind rustle the trees, smell my neighbour’s new banana bread, feel the ground beneath my feet and see leaves on the floor. This exercise awakens your senses and keeps you in the present. If you’re in a moment of stress while at your desk, doing this activity sitting down will only take a few moments and is a great way to bring you back down to earth.  

It’s easy to hold tension in lots of different places in the body, including the shoulders, neck, jaw and abdomen. If I’m feeling overwhelmed and like my body is stiffening because of it, I love doing a body scan meditation.

While there are beautiful body scan meditations on various apps, let’s just run through a basic version right now. With your eyes closed, think about your feet; each toe, the back of the foot and then your ankle. Slowly focus on each area, moving up the body until you reach the top of your head. If you feel the tension in a specific body part, visualise that tension and then let it go. This activity can take a few moments and is excellent for tuning in to your physical body.  

If my stomach ties itself up in knots, I’ll do a simple tummy massage, which is excellent for relieving stress and anxiety and muscle aches and pains. You can read all about self-stomach massage here. Using oil in the Ayurvedic practice of “abhyunga” can also help to get deep into the muscles and promote relaxation.

Based on your personal Ayurvedic constitution or dosha, you can read more about Ayurveda here in my book Eat Right for Your Shape, various oils can be used to balance the body. 

  • Vata Dosha: sesame, avocado or almond oil
  • Pitta Dosha: olive, coconut or ghee
  • Kapha Dosha: flaxseed or sesame 
  • Tridoshic Oil: Jojoba oil

Try the self-care tummy massage for anxiety here.

2-minute stress less activities 

When you’re in a rush and need some calming down stat, the following are great to bring you back to the present and calm down the stressors:

  • Box breathing: Exhale completely through your mouth. Then close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Exhale completely through your mouth, for a count of 4. Hold for 4 seconds at the bottom, and then repeat. 
  • Tense and release: tense all of your muscles for a count of 5, and then release.
  • Visualisation: picture a place where you can be relaxed. With your eyes closed, visualise this place. Use all of your senses to help bring the feelings that arise when you’re in this place. Make it a mini-vacation!

Useful Apps

While there are a gazillion apps available for meditation, these are some of my favourites:

  • Headspace: promotes a consistent mindfulness practice with targeted meditations led by a former monk. 
  • Insight Timer: an app featuring guided meditation by a variety of practitioners, calming music and expert talks. 
  • Calm: full of sleep, calming and relaxation meditations. 
  • Smiling minds: a meditation app developed by a team of psychologists to boost calmness and clarity. 

Lifestyle Tips

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but over consuming caffeine can wreak havoc on our cortisol levels. If you do drink coffee, I recommend having one coffee a day before midday. Great alternatives to coffee are home-made chai teas, dandelion tea and herbal teas. 

Another tip I encourage you to do is switch off your social media a few hours while you rise in the morning and before bed to help you wind down. If I feel like I’m getting into the habit of checking my phone too often, I’ll limit my screen time on my phone, so it locks me out of the apps once I’ve hit my designated time limit. It’s a powerful tool in self-control! 

To regulate blood sugar levels, and monitor your stress, nourish yourself throughout the day. Are you looking for foods to elevate your mood? I think you’ll like this blog here

I recommend seeking guidance from a health care professional, and getting support from trusted friends, family or loved ones, too.

Lee Holmes : naturopath

Founder: Supercharged Food

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