Stress, Anxiety, & The Holiday Season
It's hard to believe that we are in the home stretch of 2017. With chilly weather, the holidays, family gatherings, work deadlines, final exams, and the prospect of a new year approaching, it's easy to feel a little overwhelmed. The last three months of the year tend to be stressful and bring with them cold and flu season, SAD (seasonal affective disorder), and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety go hand in hand, and issues that wouldn't normally bother us begin to accumulate until we feel overwhelmed. It's a human tendency to reach for things that make us feel better when we feel yucky, so we have an extra glass of wine, we exercise less in favor of binging our favorite shows on Netflix, go to bed later, and order a little too much takeout. The problem with these "comfort activities" is that they also drive the stress response in the body, albeit not in ways that are necessarily obvious to us.
External stressors like long hours at work, childcare, and relationship tension are what people normally think about when asked, "What is stress?" However, stress also comes in another flavor which I refer to as "internal" or "physiological." The medical definition of stress is any event that causes the body to enter a "sympathetic state," also known as "fight or flight." The body perceives an event as dangerous (such as an angry boss) and releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to give us the energy to cope with the threat. The way we then perceive this hormone dump is through symptoms like shortness of breath, racing heart, irritability, excessive feelings of worry or impending doom, sweating, shakiness, lightheadedness, and GI distress. A major symptom of anxiety is ruminating or "looping" thoughts, which you feel unable to shut off. Looping thoughts are very difficult to stop once they get started, and often negatively affect sleep.
The response to physiological or internal stress manifests similarly to exposure to external stressors. Let's say you ate an entire package of oreos and then spent all night staring at your phone rather than sleeping because you had a long, hard day at work. Your body responds to these physiological stressors very similarly to the way it responded earlier to external stressors at work. This response sets up a vicious cycle of inflammation, adrenal maladaptation, and often feeds into mental health issues like anxiety and depression. The way you cope with your stress dictates how resistant your body is to it. People with healthy coping mechanisms can greatly reduce or eliminate the symptoms that come from high stress. Unhealthy ways of dealing with it lead to (you guessed it) more stress and more symptoms.
Environmental or external stress is difficult to change. After all, most of us can't quit our jobs! However, we can change the way we handle stress, and in doing so, we can reduce or eliminate many of the physiological stressors that are driving the vicious cycle of chronic stress hormone release.
In the next article, I'll talk about some botanical interventions for stress and anxiety. For now, I want to emphasize the three tenets of stress reduction.
For anxiety, the number one recommendation I make to my clients is a consistent exercise plan. It's a human tendency to try to ignore or distract ourselves from feelings of restlessness, irritability, and worry. During the day, anxiety has to take a back seat so we can accomplish all the things we need to get done. However, this can cause stress to accumulate. Like steam, these feelings need some kind of release valve. By far the best way to "blow off some steam" when you feel overwhelmed is to take it to the gym.
I like to set my intentions before my workout routine by mentally telling myself, "I am here to let go of X, Y, & Z." I then put my headphones on, crank my favorite tunes, and do resistance training or weight lifting for 30 minutes followed by 10-15 minutes of yoga and stretching or aerobic exercise.
If you're unable to get to the gym, that's okay! One of the most important recommendations I make to clients at their second office visit is daily walks (weather permitting, or bundle up!) A daily walk outside (especially in the morning) for 20 minutes can change your outlook on the rest of the day as well as decrease inflammation, normalize cortisol levels, and improve energy and mental clarity.
Nutrition is as important as exercise for stress and anxiety reduction. White foods like refined sugar and flour, alcohol, and caffeine all contribute to the stress response and negatively affect adrenal function. Making dietary adjustments during the holidays can be difficult, however, if you eat a whole foods diet based in vegetables, fruit, lean meat, and healthy fat, a little overindulgence won't hurt.
Inflammatory foods like gluten, refined sugar, and dairy are often linked to mental health conditions like anxiety and if inflammation is part of what is "driving" your stress on a physiological level, it's important to eliminate the foods that cause it!
Remember to ALWAYS eat a good breakfast. Below is a smoothie recipe that I give to all my clients. Eating breakfast will help stabilize your cortisol and blood sugar levels for the rest of the day.
3. Talk therapy
One of the most essential pieces to managing stress and anxiety is talk therapy and validation. Have you ever shared your problems with someone and had them respond, "Wow, that sounds rough! I'm here for you." It's a great feeling, isn't it? Sometimes just getting our thoughts and concerns out of our heads and into the universe can be therapeutic.
Professional counseling is a great tool that can benefit just about everyone! In lieu of counseling, consider sharing with a close friend or family member. Having someone else's shoulder to lean on and feeling like you aren't "going it alone" is very helpful. A creative outlet for stress is a great idea as well. Consider writing, drawing, singing, composing, or anything else that forces you to tackle your problems head on. Spacing out at Netflix or Facebook doesn't count!
Guided meditation can be very cathartic. Download the app "Head Space" on your phone and do one ten minute guided meditation before bed. Meditation is a practice that can literally rewire the way your brain copes with stressful situations. Remember the "looping" or rumination we discussed earlier? Think of those thoughts as trains following a set track. In order to change the trains route, we have to pull up the old track and set down a new one. One of the easiest way to do this is through consistent, daily meditation.
Stay tuned for next week's blog post on herbs and nutrients that support the adrenal glands and help combat stress and anxiety.