How To Beat Stress

It’s a cruel twist of nature that stress saved our lives during caveman times, but in the modern age it’s wreaking havoc on our bodies and minds. We’re overexposed to stress. If you’re ending each week emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, you’re probably headed towards a burnout, and it’s not going to be pretty.

The problem is all down to a couple of hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, which are produced by the body in response to stressful situations. “Biologically, when our fight-or-flight response is activated, adrenaline and cortisol enter the bloodstream, which was very helpful when we were fighting off sabre-toothed tigers,” explains Melissa Podmore, psychologist and yoga teacher. “But in modern-day life, long-term exposure to these hormones is harmful.” Think heart disease, high blood pressure and panic attacks.

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The solution? It’s all about being aware of the day-to-day signals that we too often ignore, and then working in a few lifestyle adjustments for a happier and more productive life.

Red flag

You can't stop shopping
In times of stress, habitual behaviour becomes a way to derive a sense of pleasure and relief from relentless pressure. Under normal circumstances, a spot of retail therapy is a harmless enjoyment. It becomes a concern when it’s used to avoid a problem and you’re spending money you don’t have.

“Behaviours like shopping and gambling offer respite from anxiety and can lead to a vicious loop of wanting to engage in the addictive behaviour again and again,” says Podmore. Trans-cendental meditation is an effective way to slow down impulsive behaviour and helps you make more insightful decisions on a daily basis. Dr Tim Carr, who specialises in consciousness-based health care, says: “The body experiences deep rest while the mind remains active yet clear. The stress reduces and your brain starts to function like it should.”

Red flag

You’re making snap decisions
Feeling so frustrated you want to end your relationship or tell your boss to go to hell? It could be the worst decision you ever make. “stress changes the way the brain functions,” notes Dr Carr. “There is a reduction in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, which looks after planning, motivation and judgement, and more activity in the back of the brain, which is more primal and reactionary.” So when you’re stressed, you act reflexively, without proper thought and consideration. “I recommend not making extreme decisions when you’re feeling stressed,” agrees Podmore. “You need to extract yourself from the situation and then make a decision when you’ve had time to reflect. You want to reduce the collateral damage and fallout from an overreaction.”

Red flag

You’ve lost interest in sex
stress can also play havoc with relationships. If you’re exhausted after a day at the office, sex is often not on the agenda. “Sex takes energy,” points out Podmore. “Many women suffer a lack of libido during periods of high pressure, which can lead to relationship problems and self-criticism.” Regular massage therapy can help shift you out of the stress cycle, helping you to unwind and reconnect with your partner, asserts Fiona Cosgrove, life and wellness coach, and national general manager of The Golden Door Australia. “Having regular massage is about caring for and honouring your body. We need to reframe what these activities represent and treat them as necessary maintenance on the body and a way to self-care, or even self-love.”

Red flag

You're having lunch at 3pm
Adrenaline from stress can act as an appetite suppressant, but it can come undone when your blood sugar dips and you can no longer resist that doughnut come 3pm. “3pm is often when the body is most active and hungry,” says Sue Zbornik, nutrition therapist and author of Find Your Happetite (Motivational Press, $19.95). If you’ve missed breakfast and lunch, you’re going to be more likely to indulge in something sugary, which then sends you back on the blood sugar roller-coaster. The trick is to have an eating plan in place for when life starts to get out of control. “I like to stick to the three, three, three rule when it comes to food,” reveals Zbornik. “Three meals, three snacks, three hours apart. And make sure you’re getting a lot of coloured foods in each meal: think sweet potato, capsicum and fatty fish, like salmon – all high in antioxidants to fight free-radical harm that occurs when you’re stressed.”

Red flag

You're exhausted but you can't sleep
Your old friend adrenaline isn’t about to let you rest after a day filled with nervous energy. Your mind stays alert, even when you’re physically exhausted and need to rest. Performance coach Bev Carter advocates daily exercise, preferably a mix of planned and incidental: “Incorporating exercise into every day isn’t easy, but the benefits are enormous. You’ll work off all that restless energy that keeps you up at night and you’ll encourage the body to produce endorphins, the happy hormone.” It can be as simple as going for a walk in the morning, taking the stairs at work, and a yoga stretch in the evening to help the body prepare for rest.

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1. “Don’t avoid fat,” counsels nutrition therapist Sue Zbornik. “Just choose the right type.” Essential fatty acids are important for brain function, especially mood regulation, so incorporate good fats into most meals. “It’s as simple as adding an avocado to your sandwich and flaxseed oil to your salad dressing,” says Zbornik.

2. “If you know you’re about to enter into a stressful time, start taking vitamins B and C,” suggests performance coach Bev Carter. Vitamin B offers protection from adrenaline overload and keeps you brimming with positive energy more consistently throughout the day.

3. “If you’ve been frantic all day, you can’t expect the body just to shut down and go to sleep,” says psychologist Melissa Podmore. “You really need to start slowly moving into the restful state a couple of hours before bed.” So turn off the TV, switch off your mobile and run a bath – the change in body temperature will also help trigger your sleep hormones, helping you to get the best rest possible.

A simple, five-minute breathing exercise

Find a quiet spot without too many distractions and find your breath’s natural rhythm. Press your left nostril closed with your thumb and inhale through your right nostril. Remove your thumb and close your right nostril with your forefinger and exhale through your left nostril. Without changing fingers, inhale through your left nostril. Change fingers, exhale through the right. Inhale through the right and exhale through the left, and so on. Continue for about five breaths, keeping each inhalation and exhalation even and consistent. Focusing on the breath will calm the mind and help you get the most out of your day.
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Image: Getty Images.