3 Steps To Transforming Stress

by georgia hartmann

Women’s Health Expert

In such unprecedented times with COVID-19 and the new reality of being in lockdown, stress is at an all time high.

Pre-coronavirus, we were all familiar with the stressors of life―those deadlines leaving you pulling at your hair; those commitments weighing you down; those ever-growing to-do lists that woke you in the middle of the night. Now, we are experiencing much more: the stress of the unknown. Is my family going to be financially stable? What if my loved ones become ill? How am I going to homeschool my children?

Now, more than ever, we need to learn how to manage our stress.

As soon as the body senses stress, a cascade of 1,400 different biochemicals is released. [1] Constant, elevated stress forces the whole body to suffer. Stress affects the functioning of your immune system, increasing your likelihood of you becoming unwell. It increases blood pressure and constricts the arteries, increasing the risk of cardiovascular events. It causes functional and structural changes in the brain that alter mood, memory, learning, decision making, attention and judgment.  It affects gastrointestinal function, playing a role in the development of irritable bowel syndrome, Ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. It increases systemic aches and pains. [2-7]

Constant, elevated stress also affects your hormones. When you are in a state of stress, your hormone command centre in the brain, known as the hypothalamus, makes the executive decision to shut down any non-essential systems. One of the first to go is the reproductive system. (Because, understandably, when it’s just you and a hungry lion in sub-Saharan Africa, the last thing the body wants to do is bring a child into the world). The problem with the hypothalamus is that it responds in the exact same way whether you are facing a work deadline or a hungry lion.

Under normal, non-stressful situations, the hypothalamus secretes a hormone called GnRH. This prompts the pituitary (another gland in the brain) to produce and release hormones called FSH and LH which then tell the ovaries to produce oestrogen and progesterone (these regulate your cycle). However, under stress, GnRH is suppressed, which ultimately results in the ‘shutting down’ of your cycle, leading to a loss of your period. [8]

So, it’s clear that we need to manage our stress.

Here Are Three Steps to Transforming Stress

1. Determine the stressors.
The first step to transforming your stress response is addressing where the stress is coming from. It’s so easy to say “I’m so stressed” or “This is a really stressful time” without actually addressing the cause. 

So sit down (with a mug of chamomile tea, of course) and ask yourself, where is the stress coming from? Aside from a global pandemic which undoubtedly is causing us all a lot of stress, are you in a toxic relationship; are you stretched too thin at work; are you struggling with young children and/or aging parents; are you lacking support―where is your stress coming from?  

2. Get brutally honest with yourself.
Once you can determine the source(s) of your stress, the second step to transforming your stress is to get brutally honest with yourself. I warn you―this step can be hard. But it is absolutely crucial in transforming your stress and, ultimately, your life. 

What do you need? Not your partner, not your children, not your parents, not your boss, not your friends. You

I, myself, previously worked in an environment that led me to a state of constant anxiety. I’d wake with heart palpitations; I’d drive to work with clammy hands; I’d leave feeling flat and burnt out. Feelings that were once-upon-a-time very foreign to me. I continued this for a couple of years. It wasn’t until I had lost my period, was diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure, and told by my partner that he is not coping with my mood, that I had to get brutally honest with myself.

So I quit my job. A very hard decision to make because the opportunity was like no other. But at the end of the day, I had to ask myself, what’s more important?

3. Create (and stick to) a stress-relieving routine.
It is only when you address the first two steps, that creating a stress-relieving routine will have long-lasting effects, primarily when it comes to chronic stress.

  •  Start with sleep.
    We know that sleep influences our response to stress. So dim the lights and turn off all screens at least 1 hour before bed to help your body secrete melatonin, our sleep-inducing hormone. And ensure you are getting 8 hours of good-quality sleep each and every night. [9,10]

  • Get up and get moving.
    Set an alarm for the same time every morning and avoid hitting snooze. Moving the body, particularly with structured exercise such as pilates, enhances mindfulness which not only transforms your stress response but also improves mood and sleep quality. [11]
  • Nourish your hypothalamus.
    Increase foods in your diet high in magnesium, a key nutrient involved in modulating hypothalamic activity, therefore transforming your stress response. Foods high in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, brazil nuts, avocado, spinach and broccoli. [12, 13]

So make the most of this time and look after yourself. Everyone around you will benefit.

[1] Childre, D. & Rozman, D. Transforming Stress. 2005. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland California.

[2] Straub, R.H. & Cutolo, M. Psychoneuroimmunology-developments in stress research. Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, 2018. 168(3-4). PMID: 28600777.

[3] Turner, A.I., et al. Psychological stress reactivity and future health and disease outcomes: A systematic review of prospective evidence. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2020. 114. PMID: 32045797.

[4] Juruena, M.F., et al.  Atypical depression and non-atypical depression: Is HPA axis function a biomarker? A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2018. 233. PMID: 29150144.

[5] Sandi, C. Stress and cognition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2013. 4(3). PMID: 26304203.

[6] Keskin, G. Approach to stress endocrine response: somatization in the context of gastroenterological symptoms: a systematic review. African Health Sciences, 2019. 19(3).PMID: 32127826.

[7] Garfin, D.R., et al. Acute stress and subsequent health outcomes: A systematic review. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 2018. 112. PMID: 30097129.

[8] Whirledge, S. & Cidlowski, J.A. Glucocorticoids, Stress, and Fertility. Minerva Endocrinologica, 2010. 35(2). PMID: 20595939.

[9] van Dalfsen, J.H. & Markus, C.R. The influence of sleep on human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2018. 39. PMID: 29126903.

[10] Tähkämö, L., et al. Systematic review of light exposure impact on human circadian rhythm. Chronobiology International, 2019. 36(2). PMID: 30311830.

[11] Caldwell, K., et al. Pilates, Mindfulness and Somatic Education. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, 2013. 5(2). PMID: 25328542.

[12] Boyle, N.B., et al. The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress—A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 2017. 9(5). PMID: 28445426.

[13] Schwalfenberg, G.K. & Genuis, S.J. The Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare. Scientifica, 2017. PMID: 29093983.

women’s  health expert

by georgia hartman

Women’s Health Expert

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