Stress is a subject that I write about from time to time because I see all too often the damage it does to our health and wellbeing. I see it from clients and I see it with friends. And we happen to live in a society where the demands made upon us are unreasonable. Whether your stress originates in the workplace, Yeshiva, family relationships, or a host of other areas, what we do know for sure is that long-term activation of the stress response system can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes and increase the risk of numerous health problems. Exercise, diet and sleep are definitely major factors in controlling our stress.
Ahron is a client who came for weight loss. It became very apparent at our first meeting that he was under a lot of stress. He couldn’t control his twitching and his body was tensed up all of the time. After a few sessions we began to discuss his high stress level and the impact it was having on his weight and general health.
The latest facts and figures on stress out of the United States are indeed frightening. Let’s start with financial stress. In a survey of 3,000 adults over the age of 18, 75% reported feeling stressed out about money at some point, with some respondents saying they sacrificed health care because of finances. But it is job-related stress that sit at the top of the list. 80% of workers say they feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage their stress. 42% notice and say that their co-workers need help with stress. The cost? Workplace stress causes healthcare expenditures of roughly $150 billion per year. That is about 7% of all health care expenditures per year.
Certain kinds of stress can indeed be healthy. If we had no stress at all, we wouldn’t get things done and deadlines would mean nothing to us. But when the reaction goes beyond the types of responses discussed above, not only can it be debilitating, it can be dangerous. If your stress response is turned on too much of the time, and certainly ALL the time, it will almost always lead to serious issues – both psychological and physiological.
Stress has been linked to a long list of sickness, including heart disease, depression, insomnia, anxiety and if we take the research of Dr. Kenneth Pallatier’s (Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine) research, 85-90% of all illness is stress induced or stress exacerbated. We now have evidence that chronically elevated stress shrinks the brain. One of the biggest negative effects of stress is that it almost always causes sleep deprivation, which in turn intensifies our stress levels and that becomes a terrible cycle where one just gets more and more stressed and gets less and less sleep.
How do we deal stress and improve our wellness? Although for many people this is something that needs work and needs professional help, there are certain things we can all do to help keep our stress in check. There is an analogy I like to use with my clients who are working on stress management. Imagine a very heavy chain around your neck—too heavy to take off by pulling over your head. The only way to take that chain off is to remove one link at a time. It might take some time, but ultimately after enough of those links are taken off, the chain is light enough to deal with. And so it is with our stresses. We might be overwhelmed with our problems and issues, but it is only with tackling them one at a time that we can find a solution.
You might have seen this list before of stress reducing steps, but it is worth taking a look again to see which of these will be helpful to you in order to help you control your stress:
- Maintain a program of healthy eating, good health habits and adequate sleep.
- You might not feel like this right now, but exercise anyway. This promotes physical fitness as well as emotional well-being.
- Balance work and play. All work and no play can make you feel stressed. Plan some time for hobbies and recreation. These activities relax your mind and are a good respite from life’s worries.
- CHESED! Help others. We concentrate on ourselves when we’re distressed. Sometimes helping others is the perfect remedy for whatever is troubling us.
- Take a warm shower or bath. This will soothe and calm your nerves, and relax your muscles.
- Have a good cry. Tears of sadness, joy or grief can help cleanse the body of substances that accumulate under stress, and will also release a natural pain-relieving substance from the brain.
- Learn acceptance. As we mentioned, a difficult problem can be out of your control. When this happens, accept it until changes can be made. This is better than worrying and getting nowhere.
- Talk out your troubles. It sometimes helps to talk with a friend, relative or your Rav. Another person can help you see a problem from a different point of view.
- Do relaxation exercises daily. Good ones include visualization (imagining a soothing, restful scene), deep muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing muscle fibers), meditation and deep breathing.
- Budget your time. Make a “To Do” list. Prioritize your daily tasks. Avoid committing yourself to doing too much.
- As difficult as it might be right now, develop and maintain a positive attitude.
- Modify your environment to get rid of or manage your exposure to things that cause stress whenever possible. Often there are simple solutions to problems. You just have to see them.
Nutrition plays a part
The following foods may not make the stress go away, but they may reduce the negative health effects that are highly associated with chronic stress, including depression, anxiety, insomnia and cardiovascular disease.
- Turkey, dairy, soy and pumpkin seeds contain high amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, which is associated with a boost in the “happiness hormone” serotonin, which in turn may lessen depression and anxiety.
- Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus are loaded with folic acid, a vitamin associated with serotonin production.
- Sunshine and other sources of vitamin D may boost serotonin levels through an increase in the enzyme that converts tryptophan to serotonin.
- Oatmeal and other complex carbohydrates can stimulate the brain to produce serotonin. Carbohydrates that are absorbed more slowly help to ensure a steadier supply of serotonin, meaning unrefined, whole foods.
- Oranges, grapefruits, red and green peppers, and many other fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C, which can aid in lowering blood levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and ease the subjective feeling of being stressed.
- Crunchy veggies like carrots and celery sticks don’t possess any special nutritional content for fighting stress per se, but the crunchy sensation that comes from eating them provides mechanical stress relief.
Implementing any or all of these tips can make a big difference in your stress level. However, please keep in mind that sometimes help is needed from a professional psychologist, therapist, or coach who deals with stress management.
Last but very important, we must work on our Emunah and Bitachon to remind ourselves that Hashem is in control.
One thing is for sure—DON’T ignore your stresses; deal with them. Exercise, deal with one problem at a time, treat yourself to some down time that you can enjoy and when you need help, seek it out. Keeping our stress under control will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.