Mental Health

11 Practices to Overcome Chronic Stress in a Chronically Stressed World.

I’ll be the first to admit that I suffer from chronic stress. Literally by the time I got to my desk at work this morning, my entire body was shaking from fight-or-flight.

I get it.

If you want the backstory, check out my article about adrenal fatigue where I share what it is, my self-diagnosis story, and steps you can take to get back on track.

This is the part where I tell you that I’m not even close to healed. It’s going to be a long journey. But I can share what I’ve learned, what has helped me, and get the conversation started. Our society has come to see being stressed as normal, even healthy. It becomes the measure we use for productivity and passion.

It’s a lie. And it has to stop.

Why Do We Stress?

Stress is a natural reaction we have that keeps us alive. When you feel fear or anxiety, your body releases hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) that help you cope — you get stronger and more alert. Your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing increase. Glucose is released into your bloodstream for energy. Other body functions are put on the back burner. [1]

After the threat has passed, we are designed to go into recovery mode to restore and heal from the spike in activity.

If a hippo is chasing you down the street, stress is amazing. It puts your body in superpower survival mode. If you get an email from your boss, stress is not so helpful. Your life isn’t in danger from a hippo, but you body reacts the same way.

Why Hippo-free Stress is Bad for You

Your adrenal glands are in charge of delegating which hormones get made and how much. You have 3 main categories of hormones produced by the adrenal gland: sex, stress, and other functions.

Your adrenal gland usually does an amazing job of balancing demand and getting your body the hormones it needs.

When you’re under consistently high stress (hellooooo, fellow stressers!) 2 bad things happen:

1. Your adrenal gland can’t keep up with the demand for cortisol. It either just gives up and starts producing super low levels (lower than normal, healthy levels). Or it produces super high levels of cortisol and not enough other hormones. Both too high and too low levels cause problems.

2. You don’t have recovery time. Your body requires time to heal and regroup after being under stress. It’s not optional.

But if you’re anything like me, your job and life (but especially job) are highly demanding and don’t allow for recovery time. I work for a company that believes work is life and “talking it out and taking action” are how you deal with stress (which is laughable to someone who deals with chronic stress/anxiety). And if you can’t keep up, find a different job. I know that this company’s ideology is not unique, especially here in the US.

Chronic Stress

You adrenal gland can compensate for a while to keep your hormone levels even with stress overload. But after a while, it just can’t.

What happens to us chronic stressers is that we don’t get that recovery time. It’s just go, go, go every day.

The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are wide ranging, everything from full-blown autoimmune disorders to hair loss to decreased libido. [2]

Part of the problem is that Western medicine doesn’t believe we have a problem. If you go to your doctor today, they will tell you that adrenal fatigue isn’t real. Either you’re healthy or your adrenals are totally failing — they don’t believe there is any middle ground. They will attach your symptoms to something different and hand you a prescription.

Adrenal fatigue is best treated holistically. I’ve written on this before, and Dr. Axe has some great resources on his website if you’re interested in consulting advice from a medical professional.

When I found out I had adrenal fatigue last year, I didn’t bother with doctors. I just started reading. (This is not me telling you what to do. This is me telling you what I did.) I read from Dr. Axe, Dr. Hyman, yoga instructors, personality professionals, meditation gurus, psychologists, and anyone else who took a holistic approach to stress management and healing.

Coping with Chronic Stress

My first goal was to learn what my triggers were, expect to be stressed, and figure out how to cope. I expected to need 12 hours of sleep every night, cut back on high intensity exercise, removed gluten and dairy from my diet, and started taking a few choice supplements.

But coping isn’t sustainable.

This might be the stage you’re at. Sometimes it’s the stage I relapse into (honestly, it’s where I’ve been recently). Progress isn’t always linear.

Once you know what to look for in your symptoms and what in your life is most likely to trigger them, it gets easier to manage.

Healing from stress never happens until you can completely control your emotional state. Those of us who are highly sensitive and highly reactive struggle with this — heck, it’s the reason we’re in this position in the first place!

Here is a list of 11 practices to tackle chronic stress. It will take practice and consistency. And until you really dig deep and decide to change, you won’t. I encourage you to use as many of these as you can or just start with one. Find an accountability buddy. Do what you have to do to heal. It’s hard, and most people won’t understand. Don’t forget this:

Our society has come to see being stressed as normal, even healthy. It becomes the measure we use for productivity and passion.

It’s a lie. And it has to stop.

Tackle Chronic Stress for Real (and without a prescription!)

1. Breathing exercises

I’ve written a post about my favorite breathing exercise for stress before. If you haven’t read about it, it’s called the 4-7-8 method and is gold. I also like to use alternate nostril breathing. It sounds weird, it looks weird, but it freaking works when you need to reel in the emotions. That link is to a great Yoga With Adriene intro video.

2. Meditation

Meditation is something relatively new to me compared to some of these other practices. It’s one of those things that really takes practice and consistency but pays off HUGE, especially with chronic stress. If you’d like to read more, check out this introduction to meditation or read about these 5 common meditaiton myths. I also have a 4-part meditation series if you’re a beginner looking for a starting place. Each part is less than 5 minutes and has a different focus.

3. Exercise

This one is tricky. When I was at the peak of adrenal fatigue, I had been training for a marathon. Super high intensity and lots of physical stress. That 100% fueled the fire. When you’re a little stressed, exercise is a great way to disperse it. However, chronic stress doesn’t agree with that high intensity so much. When you’re on overload and completely drained, stick to low intensity, low impact workouts like yoga, gentle mat Pilates, or shorten and ease up on your run.

4. Yoga

Yoga is a dream for stress management. Seriously. If you’re not sure where to start, food then yoga. It moves your body, focuses the mind, and grounds you back to reality. The reality that you are alive. That you are not being chased by a hippo. That chances are, whatever you’re freaking out about isn’t actually going to kill you. You will survive, come out stronger, and you don’t have to lose yourself in the process. Don’t know where to start? I LOVE Yoga With Adriene. Catch her on YouTube.

5. Food

Start here. Your food affects your mental state more than you know. Kick sugar to the curb. Throw out gluten and dairy. Stop eating inflammatory foods like fast food and packaged, processed food. Eat more veggies. Resist emotional eating. Food is medicine. Take your medicine.

6. Boundaries

This one is tough for me. Start saying no at work, at school, at church. Stop taking on extra projects that you know you don’t have time or energy for. Don’t feel bad. That thing will get done — it just doesn’t have to be done by you. Your mental health is more important. And usually, people will respect you more for saying no and setting your priorities.

7. Sleep

Sleep is super overlooked in our society. Your body uses sleep to restore and heal. Without that time, recovering from stress is so much harder. One of my beautiful mentors shared a mantra with me that is super helpful when I want to stay up and binge just one more episode.

I am empowered to sleep.

If you need to sleep, sleep. Close the laptop. Put away the phone. Do a 5 minute meditation. Get your 8 or 10 hours.

8. Scheduled rest

Schedule rest into your week as strictly as you would a work meeting or Pilates class. Take rest seriously. Resting is not being lazy — it’s about making time to heal and check in with yourself. It’s important. Take a bath once a week, treat your skin with a face mask, read a book, take a walk, play with your dog, have a cup of tea before work. Find your thing that brings you peace and relaxation and make time for it.

9. Communication

We all need to vent when the stress and pressure builds up. Whether it be your friend, partner, or therapist, find someone who you can talk to when you need to let it out. For me, talking tends to happen only when I’m to the point of melting down. Use your vent earlier than full fledged melt down (trust me, by then you’re in a bad spot!).

10. Supplements/teas

There are several herbal brews and pills that can support your body under stress and recovery. Traditional Medicinals brand tea even has a blend with skull cap, cinnamon, and licorice specifically called Stress Ease. I keep a whole box in my work bag. I also take Ashwaganda. (But if you’re gonna take a supplement, do your research and decide for yourself what is right for you. I’m just telling you what I do.)

11. Vacation

I realize this one is not necessarily accessible to everyone on the same level. And this is coming from someone in grad school and working a job with no paid time off. Even if you can’t completely get away and unplug from “normal life”, try to turn your weekend or holiday or random free day into a mini vacation. Unplug from your email, turn your apartment into a sanctuary for a day, and pack all of the treat yourself vacation moments into a single Saturday. Make it work if a “real” vacation is not possible for you. If it is possible, take your week off and hit the beach (or wherever it is that makes you happy).

Let me know if the comments below… Has chronic stress been something you struggle with? What do you do to unwind when the stress is getting to you?

Looking for more? I’ve got just the thing for you! A short and sweet meditation series — each guided mp3 is less than 5 minutes. And one of them has a special emphasis on stress. Get it now, just pop in your name and email address below.

Much love,

Kate

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