Three Ways to Reduce Stress that are Backed by Science
You're probably aware that chronic stress is a health risk. It's linked to problems including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. Our previous blogs What Causes Stress and The Link Between Stress and Your Mood provide insight into the biology of stress and why we need to manage chronic stress.
When it comes to managing stress, the internet is full of advice and techniques. Google gives a plethora of advice for managing stress including 'light a candle', 'use of aromatherapy oils' and 'guided muscle relaxation'. If you're open to trying lots of different techniques to manage your stress, then don't hold back! Try them all and see what works! But if you're a person who is short of time and you just want the most effective solutions for your chronic stress, then you've come to the right place.
We've done the research and come up with the goods; a list of the three best ways to reduce stress that are backed by science.
This is no internet fad; the research is extremely robust. Exercise in almost any form can help relieve stress. Studies show that exercise is effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and boosting overall cognition. This can be the perfect antidote when stress has depleted your energy and ability to concentrate.
Exercise helps reduce stress in several ways. Firstly, it boosts the brain's production of endorphins. Endorphins are "feel good" brain chemicals. The word endorphin comes from combining the words endogenous meaning from within the body, and morphine which is an opiate pain reliever. In other words, endorphins are named as such because they are our internal pain relievers.
Endorphins are made in the pituitary gland. When released, endorphins inhibit pain pathways and create a sense of euphoria, resulting in a sense of well-being. Laughter also stimulates the production of endorphins!
Being active not only boosts your feel-good endorphins but can also distract your brain from your daily worries. The repetitive motions when you exercise promote a focus on your body, rather than the problems in your mind. By concentrating on the physical rhythm of your movements, you experience benefits that are similar to meditation, while working out.
In addition to directly boosting your mood through the release of endorphins, regular exercise promotes mental health in other ways. Physical activity improves your body's use of oxygen and improves blood flow. Both these changes have a positive effect on your brain. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress. Regular exercise can also increase self-confidence.
All of these exercise-related benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of calm and wellbeing.
There is no need to spend hours of your time or money purchasing equipment or joining a gym (although gym membership can obviously be beneficial). The main thing is just doing it! Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Get your heart rate up, use your muscles and reap the rewards of a more positive outlook.
2. Grow Your Social Support Network
There is a huge body of evidence showing that people who have a strong support network are better able to manage stress and have better mental and physical health. The findings of such research are very striking. Not only does social support help people feel less stressed, but it can improve overall health and increase life expectancy. The positive effect of social support on life expectancy is just as strong as the opposite negative effects of obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension, or a low level of physical activity.
You probably have some sense of what it means to have a supportive social network. But in terms of research, it is often defined as acts that communicate caring, that validate the other's words, feeling or actions, or that facilitate adaptive coping with problems through the provision of information, assistance, or tangible resources.
Having robust social support confers better resilience to stress. This seems to be associated with keeping the body’s stress response within an optimal range during stressful situations, by reducing stress-induced cortisol release.
Social connectedness also increases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. Levels of oxytocin surge after giving birth, bringing on the bonding response between mother and infant. Don't worry, you don't need to have a baby to get a blast of oxytocin!
Having a pleasant conversation with someone you trust and enjoy also releases oxytocin. Oxytocin boosts a person's desire to connect socially, creating a positive feedback loop whereby a person seeks more social connectedness.
Those who have an increase in oxytocin due to the trusted personal interactions of their social group, have lower stress and lower cortisol levels compared to those who don't have the support of social connections.
There are so many ways to grow your social support network. Reach out to people around you – family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. Join a group, volunteer at a school or other organisation, or sign up for a class.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of those words that has infiltrated the internet and especially social media for the last few years. You might be tempted to think it's another gimmicky health trend that will die out - like detox tea.
Based on the large amount of research that sits behind mindfulness, and the benefits that people feel, mindfulness is here to stay. It's an excellent way to manage stress and maintain a positive mental outlook.
So, what exactly is mindfulness? It is sometimes referred to as mindfulness meditation. However, it is distinct from more traditional forms of meditation which are usually about emptying the mind. Mindfulness is more about focusing on the present. According to mindful.org - a non-profit organisation that is the voice of the mindfulness community, "mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we're doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what's going on around us".
Practising mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery or other practices to focus on the here and now. Spending too much time planning, daydreaming, thinking negative or random thoughts can make a person more likely to experience stress and mental health problems. The brain can easily get stuck in unproductive, frustrating, or negative thought patterns, or even start to catastrophise. Practising mindfulness can help move attention away from this kind of thinking, which redirects the brain away from the stress response, towards a more relaxed state of mind.
Meta-analysis is a technique whereby researchers combine the results on multiple clinical trials to get a bigger pool of data to see what really works. In a meta-analysis from the Netherlands, researchers looked at results from 15 mindfulness studies. They found that practising mindfulness contributed to improving mental health outcomes, particularly stress.
In another study on mindfulness, researchers looked at mental health among Australian's working at the front line of human service roles such as social workers, counsellors, foster care workers and psychologists. This study showed that those who had the highest levels of mindfulness had the lowest levels of psychological distress and burnout. In this instance, psychological distress and burnout are clinical endpoints that are the result of chronic workplace stress.
The take-home message is that we can actively reduce our levels of stress by practising mindfulness. By doing so, we can reduce or avoid mental health problems such as burnout, that arise as a result of chronic stress.
To practice mindfulness, try downloading an app onto your phone. There are lots of good apps to choose from, here at Xtend-Life, we have personally trialled the Headspace app and found it delivers the goods in terms of creating a more peaceful state of mind. It only takes about 10 minutes a day or try for every second or third day if you're too busy to schedule 10 minutes a day.
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Dr. Amanda Wiggins
Xtend-Life Research Scientist
Dr. Amanda Wiggins works with Xtend-Life as the Chief Research Scientist, where she can use her passion for science, research and nutrition.
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