It’s a phrase we’ve all heard before, yet often ignore. What is stress exactly anyways? And how does it affect health?
Stress is how the body reacts to threats, which can be real or might exist only in the mind. If you’ve ever caught your finger in a door, that sudden alertness as pain and shock fill your senses is stress. That jolt you feel when someone slams on their brakes in front of you? That’s stress. Or that drop you feel in your stomach when someone breaks up with you? Stress again. The first example was caused by physical stress, the second and third, psychological stress. It’s not as if a car suddenly stopping in front affected you physically in any way, but it gave you the alertness needed to avoid an accident. In the case of physical threats, like injuring your finger, stress alerts you to quickly extract your finger to prevent further harm.
In the short term, stress is a very useful reaction. It allows the body to avoid or deal with potentially dangerous or trying situations. Long term stress, however, is a drain on the body and causes a multitude of problems like inflammation, fatigue, anxiety, and if untreated, death. So, just avoid stress and live happily ever after. Simple right? But… there are a lot of stressors in the modern world.
Understanding that chronic stress causes illness, the goal then is to reduce the stressors contributing to this elevated state in order to improve the body’s natural day to day health resilience. Everyone handles stressors differently, but they are a drain on the body’s resources. The stronger a reaction that’s provoked, the more it’s impacting your system. Use the list of common stressors below to help figure out which ones are causing you the most problems.
- Lack of sleep
- Alcohol and other recreational drugs
- Over caffeination
- Unnecessary medications – Of course, some medications are necessary to treat health conditions, but keep them to the bare minimum!
- Toxins – wear appropriate safety gear like gloves and a mask when handling toxic chemicals, for example. Keep in mind a lot of household cleaners fall into this bucket.
- car exhaust
- smoke – wood smoke, cigarettes, etc.
- VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) – chemical fumes such as from hair spray, hair gel, fresh paint, glue, off-gasing plastics, etc.
- artificial fragrances – perfumes, cologne, scented laundry detergent, scented candles, and air fresheners are all serious offenders. If you feel you must use these sorts of products, make sure you buy only those with natural fragrances!
- mold spores
- pet dander
- family drama
- death of a loved one
- money worries
- hostile work environment
- long work hours
- stressful commute
- negative news like politics or social issues
- any time you get angry or upset – If these emotions happen a lot, try to figure out where they’re coming from so you can either avoid the source or come to terms with it!
- personal stressors – these are specific to you, but they can drain you just as much as other stressors. Maybe you find messy environments unbearable or you can’t stand rigid work schedules. You might feel anxious if you have to deal with people all the time or you might feel drained after spending too much time alone. It’s important to reflect on what your personal needs are so you can ensure they’re met.
- Chronic illness – that’s right, illness adds stress which then weakens your body further! This is why it’s so important to find a good doctor and work on getting better
- Physical injuries
- Intensive physical activity – like running a marathon
- Poor diet – it is especially important to limit sugar consumption!
- Adverse food reactions – For those that have difficulty with certain foods, it’s important to avoid these while you are healing! Your gut can’t handle these foods and eating them will just degrade your health further. Note that seemingly unrelated symptoms like sudden hair loss can be impacted by problematic foods.
- Pregnancy – I’m not trying to discourage having kids, just keep in mind how paramount it is to live healthy while pregnant and breastfeeding!
Stressors take many forms and different people have different things that cause their body stress. The healthier someone is, the easier they can deal with it all. If you are in poor health you should avoid as many as possible and focus on adding healthy habits to your life. Note that it is impossible to avoid all stressors and you don’t need to! For example, an occasional indulgence in alcohol or marathon running is fine if you are healthy enough to handle it. Just try to limit the number of habitual stressors as much as possible, especially the ones you know you have trouble with. Prioritize which stressors are unavoidable for you and try to reduce exposure to others.
The best solution is to remove stressors from your life. But, of course this isn’t always possible, so here are ways to limit your exposure. When applicable, I’ve included links to items I own and use in the section below. Keep in mind I haven’t tried nearly enough products to be an expert in choosing which to buy. If you do a little research you might something that will work even better for what you need.
There are supplements that can help the body deal with stress. These alone will not cure what is causing you stress, but they can help alleviate the worst of it while you work on recovering
- Magnesium supplements – magnesium is sold in different forms, some more usable by the body than others, so read the label before you buy! The best forms are magnesium chloride and magnesium citrate. Magneisum oxide, though the easiest form to find, is far less effective. In excess, ingesting magnesium can cause diarrhea; great if you suffer from constipation, less great if you don’t.
- Epsom salt – This is actually just magnesium chloride dried into a salt. When dissolved in water, it’s easily absorbed through the skin and can be used instead of or in addition to oral magnesium. Athletes use Epsom salts as a remedy for sore muscles. While I was ill and suffering from anxiety, just having my feet soak up magnesium did wonders to calm me down. Unlike taking magnesium orally, absorbing it through your skin does not have the side effect of looser bowel movements.
- Vitamin C – The best source, of course, is to eat fresh fruits. If your digestive system is shot or you need an extra boost, supplements can be a good option. I recommend buying naturally produced vitamin C, which is a product extracted from plants, not synthesized in a lab. What is created in a lab is not the same as the real stuff and it is not as effective. Additionally the extreme doses, often 10 times the daily recommendation, contained in typical vitamin C tablets are not tolerated well by some people.
Outdoor air pollution is a plague of cities, though indoor air can be even worse! Pets, dust, cleaning chemicals, and artificial fragrances all deteriorate the air quality indoors. Remove sources of contaminants first, if at all possible. Additionally, certain pollutants can be mitigated by following the strategies below:
- Get room air filtration units with HEPA filters. These can help lower airborne particulate like pet dander, mold spores, and dust. Right now I have two GermGuardian towers which scrub dust out of the air. The filters need to be vacuumed every week or two. They get quite dusty and the air throughput drops significantly until the filters are clean again! In addition, these filters are supposed to be replaced every 6-9 months. Most room filter units, including the GermGuardian, are best for removing particulate like pet dander and dust. They are not meant for heavy duty removal of VOCs. If you live in a big city, near a major road, or have to deal with frequently smoky air from wood burning stoves or wildfires, you should consider getting a unit that’s also designed to alleviate VOCs. The Austin Air HealthMate Plus is a highly recommended filter for doing just that.
- If you live in a house with an HVAC system, install a HEPA filter into the unit. Again, try to get one that removes VOCs in addition to fine particles if you need it. These need to be regularly cleaned and/or replaced to continue filtering the air.
- If you live somewhere with baseboard heaters or any other kind of space heater where dust can collect inside, make sure you remove the outer panel to vacuum up the dust that accrues. Do this at least once a year before the cold weather sets in and they get turned on.
- Buy a HEPA sealed vacuum so you aren’t releasing clouds of particulate into the air every time you clean! Your vacuum should also have a high suction power, especially if you have carpet, to pull up as many contaminants as possible.
- Vacuum and clean every week or two to prevent dust from building up.
- At regular intervals, deep clean areas and items that can collect dust, for example: under the stove and refrigerator, vacuuming refrigerator coils, washing bed linens, washing curtains, wet wiping blinds, and so forth.
- Wear a good-quality respiratory mask to limit exposure in problematic areas. Preferably, find a mask that filters out VOCs like city pollution. I personally use a Respro mask, but note that they run a small so order a size up from what they say! The first mask I tried was a Cambridge mask and it worked pretty well. My biggest complaint is that it didn’t create a tight air seal for me. Moisture build up was also an issue, causing my glasses to fog, and because the mask wasn’t rigid it got sucked onto my face when I breathed in.
- Avoid using VOC producing products inside! Use no-VOC or low-VOC paint when re-painting an interior. Use cleaners and detergents without added fragrance.
- If you can, live in the countryside. At the very least, try to live away from major roads.
- This won’t benefit you directly as much, but reducing your car emissions helps everyone out a little bit! The more people that participate, the more it helps us all.
- Whenever you can, walk or bike instead of driving. You won’t be polluting and you’ll get in some good exercise.
- Taking the bus or another mass transit option saves an extra car being on the road.
- Fully electric vehicles burn no gas at all, so they are the best low-emission car you can drive.
- The next lowest emission option for city driving is a plug-in hybrid vehicle, as they release no exhaust if allowed to recharge between short drives.
- Hybrid vehicles have very good overall gas mileage, though they do still add to the emissions produced.
If you have pets, as hard as it is to admit, the best solution for your health might be to remove them or convert them to outdoor pets if their temperament allows it. For those who don’t want to take that step or have to deal with other people’s pets, here are some things to keep in mind:
- If you live in the house in question, get air filters to scrub the air. See the air pollution section for more information.
- If you are visiting a place with pets, wear a mask like those mentioned in the air pollution section.
- Carpet traps and releases a lot of dust and pet dander. A pet filled house with hard surface floors is much easier to handle. Cushioned furniture also collects pet dander, so avoid spending time near couches, chairs, and so forth.
Often emotional stress is sudden and unavoidable, a family crisis, for example. When it becomes long-term though, it needs to be addressed. In general, the rule of thumb is to change what can be changed and learn to accept what can’t be. If you can’t change a situation and you can’t accept it, get some outside perspective from family, friends, or counseling. Do not make the mistake in thinking these problems will just go away on their own.
Additionally, you might find guidance in learning stress relief tips for your personality type from the book Tranquility by Type. These insights may help clarify what personally causes you undue stress and what activities can potentially alleviate it.