Stress and how to test it, so that it can be managed

  • 30 Jan 2009
  • Reading time 9 mins
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Don’t let stress affect your health. Learn how to reduce and control it better with some effective techniques.

The Effects of Stress

Stress can be physical – a bad accident or too much exercise; or psychological – a bullying boss or a job with a lot of pressure that you can’t control. But they both have very definite and wide ranging effects on our bodies. But what’s odd, given that we know so much about stress, is how bad we are at dealing with it. If you go to the doctor you will probably be offered anti-depressant pills and told to learn to relax. Left to your own devices you will probably try to get by on booze, sleeping pills and snacking on sweets. Yet none of these measures are very effective – except relaxation, but when you are really stressed, just being told to relax is probably worse than useless. However, once you know what’s going on in your body when you are feeling stressed, it becomes much easier to work out how to handle it – and some of the best ways may come as a bit of a surprise.

They include eating the right sorts of food, learning to control your levels of carbon dioxide and concentrating on feelings that are loving and happy. Generally we tend to blame stress on the situation – the overcrowded train, the traffic jam, the crisis at work – but once you know what’s going on inside you, you’ll realise that you have a choice. You can allow your stress response to take over or you can learn how to control it. Learning how to control it not only makes you feel much better but you will also handle situations a lot more effectively. You may think that you are really stressed out because you’ve got neighbours from hell, a partner who doesn’t understand you and a boss who belongs in a locked ward. But we are going to show you how to halve your stress without changing your life, your wife (or husband!) or your job.

What's going on when I’m feeling stressed?

As soon as you spot a threat, your body starts pumping out a couple of hormones that are responsible for many of the classic signs of stress – adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term they are very useful for handling a crisis – you become more alert, you have more energy and you are better at focusing your attention. But when the crisis becomes chronic, these two hormones can cause havoc with many of your body systems; that’s why the symptoms of stress can be so wide ranging. They start to interfere with the workings of your thyroid gland, liver, digestion, blood sugar levels, immune system, sleep and reproductive hormones.

Your liver becomes less effective at detoxifying your blood, the lining of your gut gets eroded so you absorb nutrients less effectively. Just those two alone would make you feel ill and exhausted. But there is more. The excess cortisol and adrenaline also affect the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, making you feel depressed and irritable. On top of that, the number of antibodies that fight off infections begins to drop – which is why students, for instance, are more likely to come down with colds and flu as exams loom. Most important, though, is the effect they can have on your whole cardiovascular system. In fact there are some radicals who believe that it’s stress rather than raised cholesterol that is a major cause of heart disease. Stress pushes up blood sugar levels, raises blood pressure and increases both blood-clotting agents and LDL cholesterol.

Eat yourself calm

It’s because of the link between stress hormones and your blood sugar that the right diet can make a big difference to the way you handle stress. The extra cortisol pumping around your body makes your cells more resistant to insulin – the hormone that clears the glucose (the breakdown product of carbohydrate) from your blood after a meal and stores it away. The result is that your blood sugar goes up and so does your insulin levels. In the long term, this can give you diabetes. So does this give you a hint why comforting cakes and sugary snacks are especially not such a good idea when you are stressed? First, they pump extra sugar into the blood stream when the level is already rising, giving you a brief rewarding rush. But that then prompts your body to make more insulin, which clears away the sugar leaving you with a slump in energy mid morning and afternoon and a craving for more. You’re also likely to have headaches, find it difficult to concentrate and feel moody and irritable.

So an easy, but often ignored, way to keep stress from overwhelming you is to cut down on the refined carbohydrates that release their glucose fast – foods such as cakes, biscuits and sugary snacks or anything made with refined white flour – and instead go for low ‘glycaemic load’ (low GL) foods that keep your blood sugar more stable. These include wholegrains rather than refined grains (ie brown bread, pasta or rice instead of white, and oats), almost all vegetables and ‘slow-releasing’ fruits such as apples, pears, berries, cherries and plums rather than ‘fast-releasing’ grapes, bananas and raisins. Read my book The Low GL Diet Bible to find out more about the benefits of following a low GL diet. Combining carbohydrates with protein also helps the balance. Instead of a mid-morning chocolate bar, try an apple and some almonds or pumpkin seeds. You might also try supplementing with the mineral chromium, which the body needs for insulin to do its job properly. Try 200mcg of chromium in the morning (you can safely double this amount if your energy is really unstable – ie 200mcg with breakfast and again with lunch – the toxic level is 10,000mcg). Cinnamon also helps – try half a teaspoon on your cereal.

Get Your CO2 Right – Learn to Breathe

The stress response doesn’t just involve hormones; it also makes you breathe faster. Again, short term, that’s fine – you get more oxygen, your heart rate goes up and you’re ready for action. But chronic over-breathing can be very damaging because it causes a drop in the amount of carbon-dioxide in the blood stream and that can trigger all sorts of harmful effects. These include a drop in blood pressure, which reduces the amount of oxygen getting to the cells in both your brain and your muscles, and you make less of the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter serotonin. You might experience all this as a lack of energy, tingling in hands and feet, headaches, depression and trouble sleeping. It may come as a surprise that too little carbon dioxide can do this because we think of it as the waste product we breathe out; in fact it plays a crucial role in regulating the acid/alkaline balance in your body. Your doctor may not appreciate it, but when you do breathing exercises to relax, one of the effects is to regulate your carbon dioxide levels. However the tricky part of breathing exercises is to know when you are doing it right which is where the Capnotrainer comes in. This is a new lightweight device that provides a moment-by-moment readout of your carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on a laptop. It’s being used by Dr David Beales, a Gloucestershire GP, to help people recover from chronic stress. Not only does it show you how much you are over breathing, but it acts as a biofeedback device so you can rapidly learn how to breathe in the most beneficial way. For more information on the Capnotrainer and how learning breathing techniques can help you reduce your stress levels go to www.butyeko.com or call 07971745801. The exercise system Psychocalisthenics® – also focuses on a type of breathing called Dia-Kath breathingsm and this helps to de-stress and maintain the right acid/alkaline balance through the breath.

Optimism and a Sense of Humour is What you Need

Once you’ve got your blood sugar and your acid/alkaline levels balanced, you are a long way towards controlling stress rather than having it control you. But chronic stress isn’t just messing up your metabolism; it’s also linked with all sorts of negative mental states – cynicism, mistrust, hostility and anxiety, for example. Yet again, in the short term, that’s okay as it focuses your attention and helps you get out of trouble. Long term, however, feeling like that is likely to make you ill, while the positive emotions – optimism, a sense of humour, forgiveness, gratitude – all promote health and bring levels of the stress hormone cortisol down.

Now cultivating a positive mental state while the phones are ringing off the hook and the pressure mounts is near impossible for most of us. But another biofeedback device makes it much easier. This one allows you to control yet another system thrown out of whack by chronic stress – the balance between the active (sympathetic) side of your nervous system and the relaxing (parasympathetic) one. If you are healthy, your heart switches rhythmically between these two with every beat – a process known as high HRV (heart rate variability). Low HRV means your heart is only responding to one side – the active type that’s aroused with chronic stress – and that’s not good. A computer program called HeartMath uses data about your heart rate, taken from a finger sensor, to show on the screen just how rhythmic your HRV is. What’s so valuable about HeartMath, says Dr Yardley Jones of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, is that it links your breathing, your emotions and your heartbeat together. When you are stressed, your HRV shows up as disorganised. But you can learn to restore it to a healthy rhythmic state by breathing in a way that balances your CO2 levels, while concentrating on a positive emotion. This may sound tricky but because HeartMath gives you instant feedback, you can soon learn to put yourself into high HRV within seconds, even under pressure. To find out more read my Heartmath report.

Find out more about how to beat stress

Read my book Beat Stress and Fatigue

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