Stress Management & Beyond
To move beyond stress management, a thorough examination and understanding how you experience and deal with stress is important.
As you may be well aware, stress is a common factor of life. What may be stressful for some may not be stressful for others. We all have days when one situation after another taxes our patience, and if we respond to those situations with a rise in our stress hormones, by the end of the day we are either exhausted or can’t shut off the stress. Insomnia is our reward and since we haven’t been able to restore, our ability to handle the stresses of the next day is then compromised.
Yes, if chronic stress continues we may suffer health issues and experience constant symptoms such as headaches, heartburn, insomnia, digestive issues, low back pain, and other stress-related symptoms. But, here’s another reason to watch your stress levels: Stress seems to hasten the aging process. However, you can learn stress management techniques and stop the negative effects.
Scientists have known for some time about genetic markers of aging called telomeres. They are the tips of our chromosomes, those DNA molecules in our cells that determine our physical characteristics. When a cell divides, a portion of the telomere is lost and the cell ages just a bit more. Eventually, the telomere gets so short that it can no longer divide. Thus, it dies.
Telomeres shorten as we age. According to a few recent studies, the shortening accelerates in the presence of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. But, even more significant, it also accelerates in the presence of chronic stress!
Chronic tension makes cells deteriorate faster! Perception and Stress Management is the key!
In a University of California San Francisco study, published in 2004 in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, professor Elisa Epel and colleagues found that chronic stress, or even the perception of stress, significantly shortened the length of the telomeres. The study was undertaken on women who had children with chronic medical conditions. The women who “perceived” the most stress had telomeres that suggested that they had aged 10 years beyond what would be expected.
What can we learn from this study? Have you ever heard the adage “what we perceive is what we get?” In other words, what we perceive as stressful is how our body responds to that stress.
This can become a vicious cycle of stress and aging, as we find more and more situations that we find stressful.
The good news is that we can train ourselves to see the world as supportive instead of stressful. This is one of the key factors of stress management.
A more recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine looked at the impact of exercise on telomeres. Researchers looked at telomere length in more than 2,400 twins.
The scientists found that those twins who were the most active had the longest telomeres. They were also biologically about 10 years younger. So, move your body!
How Do We Live Longer and With More Vitality? Stress Management.
We need to become self-regulators. Self-regulation is a term that describes a way of being in life in which we are consciously aware of how we are responding to stress, what choices we are making regarding our food and fitness, and most of all, how we are managing our energy. It means making choices every day that lead towards health.
This involves the understanding and use of energy. When we have energy, we are motivated to make good choices, our mood is positive, and our ability to weather stress and have it affect our health adversely is minimized.
Energy Cycle and Stress Management
There is actually a circadian or biological rhythm to our energy output for the day. This is our “energy cycle” which is determined by the action of light on our pineal gland and adrenal glands. The pineal gland is responsible for the production of serotonin (our feel good hormone) during the day and melatonin (sleep hormone) at night. The adrenal glands are responsible for the output of cortisol, our main stress hormone which not only regulates the stress response, but also regulates our energy output for the day. The secretion of this hormone is typically higher in the morning at dawn and the lowest at night. Thus, if our body is in perfect hormonal balance, we will wake up feeling refreshed with a surplus of energy. By evening, we won’t feel exhausted, but just tired so that our body is able to rest and sleep.
What If We Don’t Have Enough Energy?
What if we arise in the morning and we still feel tired and need more sleep? We will be challenged to be motivated to start our day. If this happens, most of us will reach for the coffee to wake us up. If this persists and our energy stays low, small tasks will seem insurmountable and daily annoyances intolerable. By the time nighttime arrives, exhaustion will take over. If our hormones are out of balance and our circadian rhythm is switched so that we have more energy in the evening, then we will want to stay up late to get things done. Insomnia may take over and sleep will be problematic. If this continues on a daily basis, our ability to handle the stressors of the day will be diminished and everything will create stress. Overwhelm and constant tiredness if our reward.
Understanding Energy to achieve Stress Management
We all have ideas of how we perceive “energy.” Energy to some means being able to work a long day and not feel stressed or too fatigued. For others, it means being able to do lots of activities and still have energy for more. Whatever our perception, having enough of it is what we all desire.
From a biochemical perspective, every cell in our body needs to have ATP in order to have energy. From a nutrition perspective, we need the correct ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrates as well as good digestion to kick start the production of energy. From a hormonal perspective, our hormones need to be balanced to ensure that our metabolism is well nourished. From a fitness perspective, we need movement to build up energy reserves.
How We Use Energy Can Keep Us Healthy
Let’s go beyond thinking of energy as a biochemical phenomenon and look at energy as a feeling and a perception based upon our moods while honoring our body’s physiological signals. Learning to be aware and to manage what Robert Thayer, an internationally recognized “mood scientist,” describes as our “energy rhythm.”
Robert Thayer, PhD. has conducted extensive research into the biological dimensions of mood and mood regulation. In his research, he took into account the “daily biological rhythms related to alertness and tiredness and the effect of such things as exercise, food, and stress.” (Thayer, 2003) Over many years, his research continued to demonstrate that the different moods we experience have in common four dimensions:
- Energy (high and low) • Tiredness
- Tension • Calmness
There is calm energy and tense energy. There is a calm tiredness and a tense tiredness.
When we are calm we have a free flow of available energy. When we are tense, we may have frantic, excitable energy. We may seem productive, but this can lead to exhaustion and overwhelm.
With this theory, really good moods (pleasure, happiness) have high energy and low tension (calm energy). Bad moods (anger, frustration, depression) have low energy and high tension. The key for all of us is to emphasize calm energy as it actually provides us with more energy. What type of energy do you use?
Type of Energy; Characteristics & Examples
Calm Energy; Absence of tension, Aren’t hurried, Work purposefully without stress, Focus on the present moment, Relaxed and happy. Calm energy is exemplified by children at play, exercise, and meditation.
Tense Energy; Calm energy with a bit of tension, Not stressed, but active, Use as needed to be productive, however, If we get too tense, we will exhaust ourselves. This type of energy is best exemplified by the way we work when deadlines approach.
Calm Tiredness; Absence of tension that leads to a natural energy decline in the evening and restful sleep. Tired but not exhausted. Examples; Deep, restful restorative sleep.
Tense Tiredness; “This occurs when your resources are depleted and you feel tense and nervous” (Thayer, 2003) Examples; Depletion, muscle tension, exhausted, nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, procrastination. You’re likely to suffer insomnia and wake up tired. Muscles may ache and body feels tense.
Stress Management and Our Energy
I find that we are so used to believing that in order to be energetic, we may have to be very active and move and think as if we are on fast forward. In fact, most of us can’t imagine having energy without tension. I would also venture to propose that most of us don’t know what it feels like to have calm energy.
How do we break this cycle? The key is to notice what mood we are experiencing and what type of energy we are using. When we become aware of these moods we can take action to use our energy wisely and to change our mood to create more energy.
For example, stress has a greater impact during periods of tense tiredness. During these periods we often have the urge to eat sugar and don’t feel like exercising. Unconsciously and perhaps consciously, we think that sugar will increase our energy and alleviate our tension. Of course, we are too tired to even have a desire to care for our bodies. It is crucial at these times to be truly mindful of eating well and to move our bodies. We can’t break the cycle of stress unless we can take healthy action. Here are some ways to take action to manage energy and self-regulate our moods:
- Pay attention to your energy levels and energy patterns.
Throughout the day, tension influences your energy and can be affected by momentary stressors, thoughts about your problems, or the energy patterns of others. You will notice that your energy patterns will shift throughout the day.
- Notice if your mood changes coincide with energy shifts.
- If you know which situations are likely to cause undue stress, plan ahead how you will regulate your mood so you can calm your energy.
- Be consistent with your self-care. Eat healthy food, sleep well, get physical activity.
- Live with enthusiasm and joy no matter what difficulties you encounter.
A great part of living a healthy life is to transform the way we manage our energy, effectively control our responses to stress, and be consistently aware.
- Thayer, R. Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise, 2003:
Oxford University Press, N.Y.