For many, stress is a common theme within lives. Interestingly, low-grade, acute stress (like exercise) can benefit long term health, but prolonged or chronic stress achieves the exact opposite.
Thus, stress management, or natural stress relief in other words, is vital for living a long, healthy, vibrant life. So, read on to learn how to relieve stress in simple and effective ways.
Impact of Stress on the Body
Before learning how to reduce stress, let’s first further explore how stress can impact the body.
Stress can majorly influence mood, sense of well-being, behavior, and health. As mentioned, short-term, periodic stress can be healthfully adaptive, but persistent stress damages health.
As a result of acute stress, the body responds adaptively, releasing specific hormones and diverting energy to necessary organs like the skeletal muscles and brain and shuts off unnecessary functions like digestion. At the moment, this is helpful because the human body and mind perceive stress as the need to survive and these organs and their systemic mechanisms help achieve this feat.
However, if this stress response never ceases, the nervous system and cardiovascular system become overworked and negative health problems like chronic high blood pressure and heart rate can ensue. Most research in this area revolves around chronic stress and its side effects on the cardiovascular, nervous, and immune systems.
For example, chronic stimulation of the nervous system due to stress frequently leads to increased blood pressure. In turn, chronically elevated blood pressure forces the heart to work harder, which can then lead to plaque build-up and hardened arteries.
Furthermore, elevated levels of stress hormones suppress the immune system due to the dysregulation of cytokine profiles. Cytokines are molecules produced by immune cells that help modulate and mediate the entire immune response. When dysregulated, immunity is compromised and research shows this is associated with:
• Lower wound healing and recovery from surgery
• Poor antibody responses to vaccination and sickness
• Antiviral deficits that increase vulnerability to viral infections
Emerging research also suggests chronic proinflammatory cytokine production may also negatively affect mental health. The cytokine response can produce symptoms of fatigue, malaise, decreased appetite, and listlessness.
In times of acute sickness, these symptoms are adaptive, allowing the body time to rest and rebuild. However, when prolonged, this "sick behavior” can begin to mimic depression and anxiety amongst a slew of other poor mental health responses.
Natural Stress Management
While many deal with stress and anxiety in their own personal way, below details five natural relief techniques to counter negative thoughts, feelings of overwhelm, etc. These include:
1. Identifying and understanding stress
2. Practicing mindfulness or meditation
4. Using aromatherapy
5. Expressing gratitude
1. Identify and Understand Stress
First, it’s important to recognize and grasp stressful triggers and the response to stress. Without knowing what factors lead to stress, it’s difficult to manage the reaction.
Most people can identify their biggest stressors, but it can be helpful to explore them further to gain an even better understanding of how to handle them in the moment and long term.
Here are some questions or journal exercises to prompt further thought:
• What major and minor life events cause stress in your life?
• Why do you perceive the above to be stressful?
• How do you currently handle stress?
• Are your current coping mechanisms adaptive and helpful or unhealthy?
• What does being stressed feel like in your body?
After pondering the answers to some of the above questions, consider the effectiveness of your current coping mechanisms. If current methods are falling short, the following stress management techniques are backed by scientific and anecdotal evidence so they’re sure to help!
2. Practice Mindfulness or Meditate
In today’s go, go, go society, people rarely have time (or make time) to slow down and actually process their feelings. As a result, people turn to mindless, maladaptive coping mechanisms like addiction, eating disorders, gambling problems, and so forth.
Conversely, taking time to be present in the moment, while mentally and emotionally scanning the body, can help one choose their reaction better. One way to enhance mindfulness is through the practice of meditation. Quite the buzzword these days, ample research boasts the transformational effects of meditation in many areas of life, but stress responses especially.
One study concluded that a meditation practice successfully reduced stress, decreased anxious rumination thoughts, and enhanced ability to forgive - a full trifecta! While participants in this study attended a 90-minute session a week for 8 weeks, other research shows meditating for just 5 minutes a day produces positive results towards stress management.
While meditation is frequently regarded as a way to completely quiet the mind, there are many different versions of meditation and personal preference can take precedence when deciding which one to try. Furthermore, many apps offer guided meditations, and YouTube includes thousands of guided, musical, and other types of meditations. The options are endless!
Physical activity is frequently promoted as one of the best stress management techniques and for good reason. Exercise improves the body’s ability to use oxygen and increases blood flow, ironically, eliciting a calming effect within.
In addition, movement increases the brain’s production of endorphins which leads to a sense of well-being and euphoria. Sounds like the perfect antidote for stress!
Physical activity is also a stress management tool related to its ability to help reduce ruminating worry. Interestingly, the repetitive motions of exercise elicit a focus on the body rather than the mind, allowing the latter to quiet and rest. Concentrating on the rhythmic movements allows one to experience some of the same benefits of meditation such as improved calmness and clarity.
So if meditation is not foolproof, exercise is another great option and any kind will do the trick.
Aromatherapy is considered a holistic healing treatment that utilizes plant extracts to promote health and well-being and is also referred to as essential oil therapy. Used for thousands of years in many different cultures, aromatherapy has been shown to medicinally improve the health of the body, mind, and spirit.
Many different ways to use essential oils are available such as through a diffuser or rubbing on the skin. Plus, hundreds of thousands of oils and oil blends exist for specific purposes. In terms of stress relief, the following are some of the most potent and helpful:
• Ylang Ylang
When choosing essential oils, purchase from a reliable, organic source to ensure the highest quality.
5. Express Gratitude
No stress management guide can be fully complete without mentioning gratitude. Gratitude is the practice of mindfully expressing gratefulness or thinking about all the good parts of life (2). It can also help remind you of the resources available to cope with stress such as family, friends, and even animals.
In fact, research shows that gratitude positively affects perceived stress and mental health while also improving quality of life. The exact mechanisms warrant further research but one proposed mechanism is that our minds are extremely powerful and that positive thinking positively affects how we respond to stressful situations.
Moreover, there are many different ways to express gratitude. Some of the most popular include:
• Denoting affirmations
• Practicing guided meditations
• Discussing thankfulness at the dinner table
No matter the method, though, making it a regular habit will surely help reduce stress!
Cronkleton E. www.healthline.com/health/what-is-aromatherapy.
Scott E. 17 Highly Effective Stress Relievers. Verywell Mind. http://www.verywellmind.com/tips-to-reduce-stress-3145195.
Exercise as Stress Relief - Healthline. www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/exercise-stress-relief.
Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607-628. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141
Wong C. How to Use Aromatherapy Oils for Stress Relief. Verywell Mind. http://www.verywellmind.com/essential-oils-to-help-ease-stress-89636.