Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain caused by adverse circumstances.
It is the body’s response to pressure from external circumstances.
When you say you are stressed, you are describing the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope because of unmanageable tension.
When we are feeling stressed, our body releases the chemical cortisol (aka ‘the stress hormone’) into our system. Cortisol is useful in “fight or flight” situations when there is an immediate or direct threat. It is meant to give us a burst of energy that will help us react quickly to the immediate danger.
A short-term rise in cortisol levels can affect our efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, interpersonal skills, and mental state. This is known as “eustress” and can be helpful and purposeful.
However, prolonged increased cortisol levels can impact the quality of life. This can cause lowered immunity, higher blood pressure, and impaired cognitive performance. This is known as “distress” and is usually unpleasant and uncomfortable.
For the purposes of this blog, when referring to stress, I am referring to distress.
In adults, it has been found that even mild acute stress has a rapid and dramatic effect on the brain's prefrontal cortex’s ability to function. Stress affects creativity, problem solving, and memory, and chronic stress can even cause the architecture of the brain to change.
Chronic stress also elevates our adrenaline levels. It may be useful to monitor your own adrenaline levels, and any surges you are experiencing on a regular basis.
For years I was aware on occasions of a dull ache surging up through my mid back into my shoulders but had no real idea what was causing it. I now believe it to be cortisol and adrenaline, both of which come from the adrenal glands, which are situated just above the kidneys.
Chronic stress can trigger a decrease in glutamine levels. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory.
Science underpins the belief that chronic stress makes it more difficult to think, make decisions and process information.
The stress response overall is not great because its effects are wide ranging. It inhibits creative thinking, it tires the brain quickly, it impacts your ability to think clearly, it can make you defensive in your words or your actions, and it can make you less able to process new information.
It follows therefore that stress will negatively impact your ability to function as an effective business owner and leader.
So how can you easily and effectively reduce your stress levels?
1. Get some exercise.
A good way to lower cortisol levels in your body is by moving your body.
Exercise is great because it causes the release of endorphins in the body’s system. Endorphins are “feel good” chemicals, that counterbalance the effects of stress.
Physical activity is always a good response to stress since it improves the body’s ability to use oxygen and improves blood flow, which has a direct effect on the brain.
Exercise is also helpful in inducing a good night’s sleep, which in turn helps counter the effects of stress.
All forms of exercise should be considered but seek the advice of your doctor before embarking on any form of rigorous regime.
Go for a walk, put some music on and have a dance, stretch, or do some yoga. Team sports are also a good option, as they have the additional benefits of social interaction.
2. Eat a good diet.
Make sure you are eating a healthy, colourful diet at regular intervals.
Drink plenty of water, at least 2 litres per day, in addition to other beverages.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking if possible, as all these can elevate stress levels.
Certain foods are beneficial when it comes to countering the effects of stress. These include avocados, berries, dark chocolate, garlic, oatmeal, oranges, turkey, and walnuts. This is because such foods contain either chemicals such as serotonin, antioxidants, or vitamins, which either boost our mood or prevent deficiencies linked to stress-related illness.
3. Practice Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming fully aware of the present moment. It is much more than simply “stopping to smell the roses”. It starts with noticing the roses in the first place!
It has five key components:
- Acting with Awareness
- No Judgement
- No Reactivity
Mindfulness heightens the awareness of your senses. You notice more your own breathing, and any other sensations in your body.
Mindfulness can be helpful in stopping you ruminating over problems. It can prevent you from dwelling on negative thoughts and over-analysing past events.
You practice being in the NOW!
4. Express Gratitude.
Gratitude, the quality of being thankful, has been recognised in the scientific world as a natural “anti-depressant.
In expressing and receiving gratitude, your body responds by producing dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good chemicals”, which enhance your mood.
Expressing gratitude reduces the use of negative language and curtails envy, bitterness, and resentment.
Gratitude has not only been shown to have a beneficial effect on stress levels, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A recent study* found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
5. Laugh – a lot!
Laughter really is the best medicine. It is beneficial to both our mental and physical health.
Laughter stimulates the production of endorphins, which are known to strengthen the immune response, by increasing the production of cells and antibodies.
Laughter has been shown to be a good antidote to pain. The endorphins produced, combined with the increased oxygen intake all help to make you feel better.
Research suggests that pre-school age children laugh up to 300 times a day. For adults, the number is much less. So actively look for opportunities to laugh. Watch a funny movie, listen to a comedy podcast, or seek out good-humoured friends.
Try to make yourself laugh every single day
For more about stress and how best to manage it, listen to my recent guest slot on the OMD podcast here
* Behavior Research and Therapy (2006)