Two weeks ago, I wrote about the difference between acute, local inflammation (first stage of healing: good) and chronic, systemic inflammation (body attacking itself: bad) and explained that the things you can do to optimise your system to reduce inflammation were to stop smoking, cut down on the alcohol, sort out your sleep hygiene, reduce your stress levels, drink plenty of water, eat well, and exercise in moderation with good movement patterns. Last week we went through sleep – now it’s time to talk about stress.
If you’re stressed, you might notice that you’re constantly on edge, or that you’re finding it hard to switch off in the evening. You might find that you’re not sleeping very well, or that you keep having arguments or taking comments the wrong way.
Those are all signs of chronic stress.
We’re genetically designed to cope with acute stress, the adrenaline rush of being chased by a sabre toothed tiger. It sets off a fight or flight reaction. The levels rise quickly and also drop again afterwards.
But chronic stress is different, it’s related to a different hormone, cortisol. Chronically raised cortisol levels make your central nervous system fire constantly. They affect your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tone. They make it hard for you to slow down at the end of the day and get off to sleep, and hard for you to recover after exercise – and increase your risk of heart disease, obesity and exhaustion.
Recognise these symptoms? Yes: the same as the symptoms of chronic systemic inflammation. It’s a vicious circle: chronic inflammation is a physical stressor so leads to chronically raised cortisol, and chronically raised cortisol feeds into the inflammatory process.
So – how can you help to reduce your cortisol levels?
One great way is through yoga; and I’ve recently released an online programme, called Yoga for Stressed People, that’s specific to stress reduction – it’s all about neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to actually change as you train it, which in turn affects cortisol production. Eating better also helps – and we’ll be discussing that over the next few weeks.
But until then, here are our ten top first-aid tips for controlling cortisol:
1. Breathing. Let your breath flow deep and comfortably into your belly without forcing it. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Count to 5 as you breathe in, and count to 5 again as you breathe out, and keep going for 3-5 minutes.
2. Mindfulness meditation. Based on the work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is a form of Buddhist meditation. The idea is to focus on one thing in the moment – each breath you take, each step you take as you walk, or each blade of grass you can see on the lawn.
3. Pattern interrupt. This is a technique from neuro-linguistic programming or NLP, and it’s a way of changing your patterns. Possible pattern interrupts are laughing at yourself, going for a walk, listening to music, or reading a book that might fire your imagination and draw you into a different world.
4. Have a hot bath. A hot bath will initially raise your heart rate and temperature, so to dispel the heat, you perspire, your blood vessels dilate, and this helps to reduce your blood pressure.
5. Talk to a friend. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, and talking to a friend can definitely help, ideally face to face.
6. Do some exercise. Exercising can help to release feel-good endorphins, which can counter your adrenaline and cortisol levels, and thus help ease depression and anxiety.
7. Stroke a pet. Everyone takes the mickey out of me for having my clothes constantly covered in dog fur; but research has found that people can experience an increased output of endorphins and dopamine (feel-good hormones) after spending as little as 5 minutes with an animal.
8. Keep a gratitude journal. The more you look for the positives in life, the more likely you are to find them.
9. Help someone. Evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, become more resilient.
10. Do something you love. In a culture that prioritises work and productivity, it’s vital to counter the pressure of that by taking time for leisure activities. So whatever you love doing– take a little “me-time” to decompress.
Want to know more?
If you’re suffering with mild to moderate stress levels, then you should really try my online, video-based programme, Yoga for Stressed People. I also really like the Headspace app which you can get on your phone; and if you have a decent manual therapist nearby, then why not pop in for a massage?
If you’re more stressed out, or you’re still stressed after doing yoga, mindfulness and massage, you may benefit from talking to a clinical psychologist, such as the fantastic Dr Victor Thompson, who used to work with me at Victory and who’s now available at a variety of venues and via Skype.