Come on, admit it – you’re a stress head and you love it. Firing off emails in a heady mix of dopamine and adrenaline feels good. You love being on the go, with a double shot coffee in hand, frantic, busy, hustling, on to the next. But as we know at DOSE, it’s essential to find a balance between these more stressful happy hormones such as dopamine that drive us and motivate us towards our goals, and rest and recovery hormones like serotonin. You can learn more about this in our podcast with Psychologist Cornelia Lucey on the Power of Happy Hormones. To save yourself from a cortisol crash, and help you to get some yin to balance out the yang, here are some tips from medical nutritionist Dr. Naomi Newman-Beinart…
Before we get into why we’re stressed and ways to counteract it, let’s look at stress hormone cortisol in more detail.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone made by the adrenal glands in the kidneys. It is linked with our “fight or flight” survival instinct. When people talk about suffering “adrenal fatigue” this is due to too much stress or a cortisol crash that can leave us feeling fatigued with a poor stress response and mood regulation.
What does cortisol do during stress?
When we are on high alert, cortisol shuts down functions that get in the way such as our digestive or reproductive systems, immune system, or even growth processes. After the pressure or danger has passed, e.g. in caveman times, the saber-toothed tiger that was chasing us has left, our cortisol level should return to normal. Our heart, blood pressure, and other body systems should get back to normal. But the problem occurs when we are under constant micro-stresses the entire time from our phones, emails etc and so the alarm button stays on. This can derail our body’s most important functions and can also lead to a number of health problems.
Some stress is good for us, as it motivates us towards our goals but there is no doubt that too much stress is bad for us. “When you combine it with the day-to-day fatigue, irritability and poor sleep, long-term or severe stress has been linked to everything from headaches to irritable bowel syndrome, and depression to autoimmune disease”, Dr. Naomi says.
Why stress can feel good
But many of us seem to chase stress: we drink coffee to cope with a busy schedule, pack in another exercise class to ‘burn it out’, and when our brain needs a break from work, we log on to social media. By going from one buzz to another, we’re simply adding more stimulation – in other words, more stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, the feeling of stress may even be as addictive as drugs. “In addition to the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress also releases dopamine, a “feel good” chemical. Dopamine encourages repeat behaviours by activating the reward centre in our brain and may be at the heart of many addictive behaviours and substance abuse issues”.
So, what can we do to break the stress cycle? Try following these tips from Dr. Naomi Newman-Beinart to reduce stress in just seven days, and see if you can rediscover your calm.
7 tips for a stress head on how to stress less
1. Laugh it off
There’s truth to the saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Research has shown that laughter can lower levels of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, and release feel good endorphins in their place. If you feel inclined, you can even pay for ‘laughter therapy’ or do ‘laughter yoga’. But why not start by watching a few episodes of your favourite comedy show or a funny film … and feel the stress start to melt away.
2. Go easy on the coffee
What do most of us do when we’re stressed and overworked? Take another trip to the coffee machine, of course. But beware: caffeine actually hikes up your stress levels even more, meaning you’re just feeding into that stress cycle. So, if you’re a caffeine junkie, try swapping some of your cups for green tea. You’ll get a mini hit of caffeine, but also a soothing dose of theanine, a natural amino acid that has a calming effect on the mind and can aid focus and concentration. Hello, tranquillity.
3. Dip into your herbal toolkit
Look to natural plants and herbs to help rediscover your serenity. Ashwagandha is a herb traditionally used to help balance the effects of stress, calming the nerves and relieving anxiety while also supporting energy. Chamomile is known for its calming and soothing effects too, and fennel can help counteract the effects of anxiety and stress on the gut. Try them together in Pukka’s Relax 7-Day Wellbeing Kit, which contains seven days’ supply of Pukka’s Relax herbal tea and Wholistic Ashwagandha herbal capsules. The perfect accompaniment to your 7-day programme.
4. Don’t sacrifice your sleep
It can be tempting, if you are a stress head, to forgo a couple of hours’ slumber to meet that deadline or finish the housework. You can sleep when you’re dead, right? But sleep is the time when our stress hormones go down and hormones involved with building and repair are released, allowing the body to recover. This recovery time is vital to maintain your energy, immunity, strength and – perhaps most importantly – your ability to handle more stress the next day. Maybe it’s time to set an alarm to remind you when to go to bed rather than when to get up. Read more about how to create a sleep hygiene routine.
This might seem like the tip you hear most often, while also being the most difficult to achieve. But meditation is effective: studies have repeatedly found that mindfulness meditation can decrease anxiety and stress levels. And it doesn’t need to be hard: a regular commitment of just ten minutes a day can be enough to make a difference. Guided meditations can be a great introduction, so download a meditation app today and get started.
6. Get into nature
When was the last time you walked in woodland, or strolled through a leafy park? Research has found that spending time in nature can reduce stress levels and protect against its negative effects. And yet, the only forest most of us walk through in a typical week is one made out of concrete and tall buildings. If you’re a stress head, schedule at least two 1-hour visits to a forest or your favourite park this week to help break your stress cycle. Read more about the benefits of forest bathing.
7. A weighty issue
Exercise can be great for reducing stress. But the type of exercise can make a difference. If you’re a stress head, an addiction to HIIT classes or spending hours a week trudging on a treadmill could just make things worse. Both endurance and high-intensity exercise give us a buzz of adrenaline and endorphins, but for the same reason, they also feed into that addictive stress cycle and, like caffeine, can have a longer-term draining effect. Instead, try swapping some of your workouts for weight training: it can actually help lower stress hormones… and you’ll get extra metabolism-boosting benefits too. Read about the rise of LIIT – the low intensity interval training workout.
Liked this article on ‘Are You A Stress Head? How To Prevent The Cortisol Crash’? Read 10 Foods That Reduce Stress.
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Hettie is the editor and co-founder of DOSE. A keen runner, she’s also partial to a blast of high-intensity and hot yoga. A country girl at heart, she divides her time between London and the lush rolling hills of North Devon. When she’s not jetting off on her next adventure, Hettie can be found in a candle-lit alcove with a laptop, a spaniel and a full bodied Malbec.