Solutions to Chronic Stress
Chronic Stress: Practical Solutions to a Modern Day Epidemic
Before we talk about solutions to help manage chronic stress, we must first identify if stress is even a problem. The effects of chronic stress on multiple health conditions is often under-recognized and under appreciated. If you haven't already, take a look at our blog on The Effects of Chronic Stress on our Body (link to this blog) and it will become apparent that most of us are feeling the effects stress on our health even if we haven't made the connection.
Once we realize the far reaching effects on our health, the next step is finding a way to modulate our stress response. The goal is to create more resilience and flexibility in our nervous systems so we are better equipped to handle the inevitable challenges that come our way.
In order to work towards a more robust nervous system that can respond and recover from chronic stress, it can be helpful to consider the foundations of a healthy lifestyle and healthy stress response. The foundations consist of a healthy eating program (nutrition), sufficient quantity and quality of sleep, movement/exercise, and any of several stress reduction modalities. So, to summarize the foundations, we are talking about: food, sleep, exercise, and stress reduction.
Food, sleep and exercise: A review of the Basics:
When we are talking about food, there are several different versions of a "healthy" diet but they all consistently include and exclude certain foods. Research has shown that a diet higher in foods like fruits, vegetables and nuts is associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress, and diets higher in sugar and processed foods have been associated with higher levels of anxiety. A whole foods diet that includes a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, clean proteins, healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates would be a great start. It is also important to limit added sugars in the diet and minimize fast food/processed foods. We want to stick with foods that are on the perimeter of the grocery store, and avoid packaged foods with long lists of ingredients.
When we talk about sleep, most of us need between 7-9 hours of sleep, and the CDC recommends a minimum of 7 hours for adults. Some tips to help get a good night's sleep are: minimizing caffeine and using caffeine only in the morning hours, avoiding alcohol especially before bed, and avoiding screens and electronics for at least an hour before bedtime. For a deeper dive into sleep and why it's so important, check out Professor Matthew Walker's book Why We Sleep.
Next is exercise and movement. It is well recognized that exercise can help modulate our stress response and improve our overall health through multiple mechanisms. A general recommendation is 150 minutes of activity a week that includes both aerobic activity (walking, swimming, gardening, biking, etc.) as well as strength training at least 2 days a week. Some movement is better than none. Starting slow, engaging a friend with whom to exercise, and working with a personal trainer are all great ways to get started and stay motivated.
Stress Modulating Activities:
Now, let's talk about what is often the most challenging foundation of a healthy lifestyle: engaging in a regular practice that reduces the impact of stress on our bodies and minds. The good news is that there are a myriad of options here and the key is to find something that resonates with you and stick with it.
Mindfulness and meditation practices come in many different forms stemming from practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong and buddhist meditation. There are also programs such as MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction), based on the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, that have drawn from these ancient traditions. MBSR programs incorporate techniques such as the body scan, gentle yoga postures, and sitting meditations.
While the number of mindfulness and meditation programs continues to grow, a common theme in many of them is the incorporation of breathing techniques that help us to modulate our nervous system response. Often called belly breathing, deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, this technique is a way to help activate the calming part of our nervous system. This form of breathing can help create many positive physiologic shifts in the body including lowering heart rate and blood pressure, decreasing muscle tension, and reducing stress. A good description of this type of breathing can be found here.
Here’s a summary of some resources to consider to modulate the stress response, let’s start with some that you can do on your own and implement at home:
Physiological Sighs explained by Dr. Huberman
Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback [link to our resources on HRV biofeedback/app when available]
Here’s some other options that are more involved and may involve finding a practitioner:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): you can search for a practitioner that offers CBT through this directory
Yoga, tai chi
So, remember, the first step is seeing the connection between chronic stress and our health, and then starting with the foundations we discussed to build a more resilient nervous system.