More than half of Americans are concerned about their everyday stress levels, according to the American Psychological Association—and for good reason. Chronic stress can lead to serious health problems, including hypertension, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and ulcers. But not all stress is equal, experts say. Stress that arises from facing obstacles while you’re working to make a positive difference is, in fact, good stress that can leave you happier and more fulfilled. Humans are genetically built to manage this kind of stress. Here, three experts tell how to discern when you’ve moved beyond healthy stress and how to get stress levels in check. Stress may not be the only cause of these symptoms; consult a doctor to be sure.
Know the signs.Symptoms of too much stress include chipped nails, hair loss, skin breakouts, and irregular menstrual cycles. You may also tend to overeat to crave high-glycemic, processed foods, and to rely on coffee or a drink at the end of the day to regulate energy and mood.
Maintain a low-glycemic diet. High-glycemic foods, including processed crackers, breads, pastas, and cookies, cause blood sugar to spike and then drop dramatically. This forces your body to produce more adrenaline, which can make you hyperreactive to stressors. You are more likely to lose patience, get frustrated, or feel an energy slump. A well-balanced diet with quality protein (fish, eggs, chicken, turkey), healthy fats (nuts, seeds), and fiber (whole grains, leafy green vegetables) maintains balanced energy.
Measure results.Eating the right foods can boost energy levels as soon as one hour after a meal. Start with a well-balanced dinner, which will help you wake up the next day feeling stable; then, you’re more likely to take the time to make poached eggs or a protein-rich smoothie to start the day. It becomes a self-fulfilling goal because you feel better so you want to eat better, and the cycle continues.
–Meghan Telpner, CNP, Canadian Association of Natural Nutritional Practitioners, Toronto, Ontario
Gauge activity levels.When people get too stressed, they often reduce physical activity. However, research shows being active four to five times a week for 20 minutes to an hour helps manage and even eliminate the negative effects of stress.
Tailor your training.The key is to find physical activity that you enjoy and that produces results. Try various physical activities for different amounts of time to see what works for you. [For some people, 20 minutes of yard work or housework a day reduces stress, while others need 45 minutes to an hour of strenuous and vigorous exercise five days a week.] cuttable
Play with others.Find and schedule physical activities that you enjoy doing with others; you’re more likely to follow through when someone else is counting on you. For extra benefit, choose physical activities that have an element of friendly competition or goals that everyone strives for as a team.
–Michael Conner, PsyD, Bend Psychological Services, Bend, Oregon
Notice the symptoms.The moment you become overly stressed, you experience a stress reaction—perhaps a faster heartbeat, tense muscles, or an irritable mood, which is usually the same each time. Adopt a down-regulation strategy, an activity you can do for five or ten minutes a few times each day, or whenever you notice stress building up. Possibilities include meditation, yoga, walking, praying, talking with friends, deep breathing, or listening to relaxing music.
Be mindful.People who are too stressed rarely take a moment to recognize their stress, which is the first step to regaining calm. Mindfulness is a receptive self-awareness that anyone can tap into by bringing attention into the present moment, pausing, and embracing a nonjudgmental attitude. Consistently check in with how you feel emotionally and physically.
Know the emotional signs.Common stress responses include anger, blame, and judgment. If your down-regulation strategy doesn’t work, remember that you haven’t failed. Respond to your own stress how you would a friend’s—with compassion and kindness.
–Jeffrey Brantley, MD, Founder and Director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, Duke Integrative Medicine, Durham, North Carolina