"I hit a breaking point the other day," a friend recently told me. "My daughter was being difficult about an upcoming curfew and I just lost it. I'm already dealing with an irate boss, an overly demanding husband and 50-hour workweeks. I couldn't take anything else, and my daughter sent me over the edge."
Welcome to 2014, where chronic stress becomes the new normal and our fast-faster society juggles a never-ending to-do list even as we're still frantically catching up from last month's agenda.
Doesn't it sometimes feel like one of those reality-show contests to see who can do the most? One problem: Nobody wins. There's always more to do.
As my friend dramatically expressed, jobs often become a major source of stress. One study found increased work demands and worrying about work during free time could disturb sleep and impair awakening. Older folks (45 and up), females and people with higher body mass indexes (BMIs) were especially susceptible to work-related stress that impaired sleep.
A vicious cycle ensues. Work and other stressors mean you sleep less, neglect exercise, and down-regulate "me" time all while grabbing a low-fat muffin with your morning java jolt to keep you going.
All that delivers a serious whammy to your quality of life, not to mention your hormones. Adrenal hormones like cortisol stay ramped up, leading to a miserable "wired and tired" feeling. One study found even one night of poor sleep can knock your hormone insulin out of balance, triggering insulin resistance and diabetes.
Chronic stress can also make you sick. One meta-analysis of 300 studies found chronic stress could seriously crash your immune system. Studies show stress can make you fat and increase your risk for serious problems like cardiovascular disease.
Shall I go on? I think you understand the very ugly repercussions of chronic stress. You can't eliminate stress, but you can learn to better cope and reduce its impact. I've found these five simple but powerfully effective strategies can help:
1. Dump the sweet stuff.
You've had the day from hell, so along with your dark roast you impulsively order an apple fritter or whatever your coffee shop weakness might be. Rather than assuage stress, sugary foods only worsen it as metabolic havoc ensues. "Consuming refined sugar... [and other] refined carbohydrates leads to a spike and then drop in blood sugar levels, which can result in anxiety, nervousness and irritability," says Trudy Scott, author of The Antianxiety Food Solution. She points out a study that shows chronic stress sometimes triggers comfort food binges. Trade the processed, high-sugar foods for lean protein, healthy fats, lots of cruciferous and leafy veggies, and slow-release high-fiber starches to steady your blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to consistent energy and mood levels.
2. Burst your stress away.
Studies show stress impairs your efforts to stay physically active. The opposite is also true: Staying active reduces stress. You've likely felt that post-workout stress-zapping endorphin rush. That's because, according to Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the Yale Stress Center, exercise can boost hormones like norepinephrine that elevate mood and even improve stress-damaged thinking. Burst training, or high-intensity interval training, is my favorite exercise for busy, stressed-out professionals to better cope with the challenges life throws their way. "When stress hits, our physiology is designed to fight or flee," says Dr. Jade Teta, co-author of The Metabolic Effect Diet. "Short, intense exercise engages recovery aspects of physiology and helps the body learn to reengage the parasympathetic nervous system."
3. Get deep sleep.
I wrote about seven hormones that become out of whack with too little sleep. On a practical level, sleep deprivation makes morning rush-hour traffic an amped-up hell, as you imagine your boss reprimanding you for being late while devouring your third dark roast. Frustrating episodes throughout your sleep-deprived day become monumental events that leave you even more stressed. A chicken-or-egg cycle ensues as stress cuts into your sleep. Among other problems, studies show chronic stress and sleep loss increase your risk for depression and other mood disorders. Make time for seven to nine hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. You'll find you're more productive and capable of rolling with whatever stress the following day throws at you.
4. Chill out.
"I just don't know how to relax," a colleague told me recently. Leisure time gets short shift as our work-more mentality pervades. Schedule relaxation and prioritize it just like you would an important client. One study shows a massage could lower your stress hormone cortisol while boosting your feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Another study among the elderly, found acupuncture could reduce stress and boost lymphocyte production. Studies also show regularly practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM) can be effective against chronic stress. What matters most is what works for you, even if that means watching a silly movie or having a coffee date with your beset friend. Find it and make it a daily habit.
5. Mind your gut.
Researchers are learning more about the mind-gut connection and how chronic stress can adversely impact your gut, leading to intestinal permeability and other issues. One study showed stress-induced prolonged combat-training increases intestinal permeability. (With its numerous demands, your life might sometimes feel similarly to combat training.) Chronic stress can also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and numerous other gastrointestinal conditions. Repopulating healthy microorganisms with a probiotic supplement is among my gut-healing protocol. One study found stress suppressed inflammasome, which is needed to maintain healthy gut flora. In this mice study, probiotics reversed that detrimental effect.
As you can see, chronic stress creates a domino effect that can affect numerous areas of your life. You can't eliminate stress, but you can learn to reduce its impact and attain grace under pressure (to quote Hemingway) with the right strategies.
You probably have your own battled-tested strategies to deal with stress. Share them in the comments section below.