Under the Hood

National Stress Day 2016: How Getting Stress, Anxiety Under Control Can Save Your Life

relaxing
Finding peace of mind daily through proper sleep and diet habits, as well as practicing mindfulness and spending time outdoors, can help reduce stress. Pixabay, public domain

It’s mid-April, and people are beginning to crawl out of hibernation: Outdoor storefronts are opening up, and the thought of brunch or drinks on a patio is becoming a reality rather than a distant dream. Since summer is just around the corner, it’s a good time of the year to shake off the dust of winter depression, take a step back, and focus on improving mental health.

It’s perfect, then, that Stress Awareness Month occurs in April, and National Stress Day is April 16. The day was first put into place by the Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, in 1992. The main goal of the awareness month is to “inform people about the dangers of stress,” as well as “harmful misconceptions about stress that are prevalent in society,” the website states.

“Even though we’ve learned a lot about stress in the past 20 years, we’ve got a long way to go,” Dr. Morton Orman, founder and director of HRN, said on the website. “New information is now available that could help millions of Americans eliminate their suffering.”

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), most Americans suffer from stress — and it’s quite possible that stress levels have increased over the past several years, particularly among teens. The APA notes that concerns about money, work, the economy, family responsibilities, relationships, personal health concerns, and housing costs are the top sources of stress among Americans. Of course, stress can bleed into any other aspect of your life — especially if you’re already suffering from other mental illnesses, like depression or generalized anxiety disorder.

While acute stress can be exhausting in the moment, chronic stress — lasting over a period of months or years — can be truly damaging to your health. An increasing wealth of research has found that long-term stress can lead to future heart problems, like arterial inflammation and hypertension. It can also harm your gut microbiome, impair your immune system (people who are stressed are more likely to get sick more often), and cause inflammation. Stress has an effect on nearly every part of your body, and when it all adds up, it can shorten your lifespan.

Chronic stress can also take a toll on your mental health and acuity. A recent study found that mice exposed to chronic stress had memory problems later on, possibly due to a weakened immune system or the lack of sleep often associated with pressure. But perhaps most frighteningly, research is also beginning to find that long-term mental stress may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and change your brain circuits.

If you begin to feel like your stress is getting out of hand, follow through on these steps to get it under control.

Sleep. When it comes down to pushing yourself that “extra mile” during a tough week at work or getting that one extra hour of sleep, go for the extra hour of sleep. Research has shown that sleep deprivation actually kills brain cells, reduces the size of your brain, and impairs cognitive function. It has also been linked to increased anxiety, lack of focus, fatigue, and even some psychiatric disorders. Combine all of this, and you get a perfect concoction that can exacerbate existing stress. No matter the level of work that needs to get done, or how many things are on your mind, keep a clean sleep hygiene schedule to always get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night: It’s the foundation on which you can build healthier, stress-relieving habits. Without sleep first, you don’t have much else to work with.

Drink water. It’s a simple act, yet we often throw it to the wayside in lieu of caffeine and sodas. But if you get a glass of water right now and drink some of it down — you’ll feel better instantly. If you don't believe it, try it.

Our brains need water in order to function correctly. When you’re dehydrated (and yes, it’s possible to be chronically dehydrated without even realizing it), your brain actually shrinks in size and has a harder time focusing. All of that work that needs to get done will take much longer if your brain is sluggish from dehydration, lack of sleep, or improper nutrition.

Eat. When most of us get stressed, we often go one of two ways with food: either overeating it or not eating enough. Weight gain or loss can be a huge side effect of stress that often exacerbates the problem by making us feel sluggish or lightheaded, and of course, self-conscious. Once you’ve got your sleep and hydrating habits under control, focus on getting your body the nutrition it needs: a hearty breakfast, plenty of fruits and vegetables, protein, and vitamins. Steer away from foods high in fat or sugar, as they can cause spikes in energy that quickly drop.

Exercise — Outside. Now that your body has the energy it needs from sleep and food, you can take the next most important step in fighting your stress: exercise. Physical activity has been linked to enhanced creativity, brain function, and lowered stress. Bonus points if you find a park or green area to exercise in, since being in nature can also reduce stress and anxiety levels significantly. It’s a good chance to detach from the world of work, stress, digital screens, and your overwhelming to-do list. It'll also help you clear your head so that it'll be ready to tackle these tasks later on.

Be Mindful. Mindfulness and meditation have become more popular in the Western world of late, as people are beginning to see the value in living day by day, moment by moment. When you’re six hours into a hectic work day and you see no end in sight, step away from your desk to grab a cup of tea, then focus on your breathing and the tea for 15 minutes. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and improve your mind and memory.

Get Help. If you’re doing all of these things and still not in a good place mentally, you may have some other mental health issues driving your stress. Seeing a therapist or counselor over a long period of time can be a good chance for you to begin uncovering some of the more difficult-to-change thought processes or habits that keep you overwhelmed or anxious.

On this National Stress Day, stop to take stock of your stress levels; it may very well save you from a future of compounding health issues.

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