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Back to School, Back To Work…

Back to Stress

Labour Day has come and gone. Summer is over. The days have started to get shorter. Kids are heading back to school. People have returned to work after their summer travels. And this is when the stress curve for most people starts to ascend.

A little stress is good for most of us. It forces us to focus and motivates us to get stuff accomplished. We end up doing more, better and faster than without any stress. We are built to handle and even excel under these infrequent times of minor to moderate stress. We are not designed for nor (for most of us) are we equipped to handle prolonged times of high or extreme stress. 

Unfortunately we live in stressful times. It is estimated that as much as 90 percent of doctor’s visits are stress-related. Many people seem to be in a perpetual state of panic. We are obsessed with being available (checking our cell phones, social media and email constantly) and keeping up with the Joneses on social media (because they post everything, not just the good stuff, RIGHT!) Work, friends, family, finances, deadlines, community; these all seem to be pulling us in opposing directions - competing for our mind space, time, energy and emotions. It can very quickly get to be too much. Does a happy balance between stress, productivity and stability even exist? It may not seem like it but balance can be achieved and stress brought down to healthy manageable levels.

The first step to finding balance is knowing what level of stress works for you. It is something unique to each individual. In my case I need a fair bit of stress. For me, no deadlines and no stress result in no productivity. Once you know YOUR personal preferred stress level, you can see when it starts creeping too high and work to bring it back down into your comfortable range.

When necessary, tackle stress in the moment. When you feel it peaking, take deep breaths. Use your senses (what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch) to bring your levels down. Look at a calming picture, listen to a favourite song (or soothing sounds), enjoy a calming smell, eat a (wholesome) comfort food, or hug a pet. Find the specific relief valve(s) that work for you and keep them handy.

There are a class of supplements called adaptogens. These herbal supplements don’t reduce your stress levels but rather help your body adapt and cope with physical, mental and emotional stress. The best known of these are the ginsengs: Canadian, Imperial (Asian) & Siberian. Another adaptogen is Ashwaghanda. Each of these supplements can be an effective part of your stress coping strategy.

Diet, not surprisingly, plays a role in helping to cope with stress. If your diet is less than ideal (and whose isn’t) you may not be getting enough of the nutrients your body needs to cope. Vitamin B-12, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories all work together to help cool the situation. To be certain, top off your (hopefully) healthy diet with a good active vitamin B-12 supplement, a good multi-mineral, and spices that are both antioxidants & anti-inflammatories. My two favourite spices for this are turmeric and ginger. I can never get enough of these two and love to relax and unwind with hot ginger turmeric chai in the winter, or cold ginger turmeric lemonade in the summer.

Essential oils can lend a hand in de-stressing. Smells can have profound effects on your stress level. They can instantly trigger memories of people, places, moments in time and emotions. These can directly impact our bodies through our nervous systems. When used properly, just the right scent can dial the stress down, enabling you to move forward productively. Remember to use 100% pure essential oils (not absolutes or % oils) and ideally ones that are certified organic to ensure purity. These oils are VERY concentrated so just a drop or two can go a long way. Also because they are concentrated be sure to read the cautions on product labels. Some of the key essential oils to relieve stress are: Lavender, Bergamot, Ylang Ylang, Chamomile (German), Clary Sage, Jasmine and Rose. Each brand tends to have their own blend, but I prefer individual ones so I can control the quality and amount of each component. My personal favourites are Lavender, Ylang Ylang and Chamomile (German) 

Sleep is your ally when trying to handle and deal with excess stress. Sleep gives your overworked body time to heal and your busy mind the opportunity to wind down so that they can handle the next day’s stress. Another big advantage to sleep is that for some people (I am in this group) their sleeping brain works through problems and comes up with resolutions. Sometimes I go to sleep with a problem and wake up with a fully working solution. Thank you sleep!

Exercise is a fun one that may seem counterintuitive as the very nature of exercise is to stress and strain your body to get results. But exercise (specifically regular exercise) has been shown repeatedly to help reduce stress and to improve our resistance to and ability to handle stress. Is this perhaps because we are training ourselves through daily exercise to adjust to stress in controlled measured doses enabling us to build up a tolerance? Or is it just that the other health benefits of regular exercise (blood flow, endorphins, blood pressure, oxygen utilization, etc.) work together to increase our ability to handle stress? In the end it doesn’t matter how, just that it does work really well.

Yoga, meditation, and other mind-body practices train your body and mind to be able to cope with stress better and improve overall health and well-being. In addition to movement these practices provide mindfulness, mind body awareness, proper breathing and being non-judgemental which all help in dealing with stress. 

Try avoiding things that cut down on your natural defenses. These are the no-nos that you already know you should be avoiding for your good health. Now you have another reason to keep them away. A key example would be stimulants, namely caffeine and sugar, both of which give you a quick rush or a food high, but the resulting energy and mood crash far outweigh the benefits. Limiting these (don’t forget there is caffeine in chocolate and hidden sugars in foods) can help you feel less tense and help improve your sleep. 

Alcohol, nicotine (smoking and vaping) and drugs are also on the no-no list. Many people try to escape stressors and stress by self-medicating with alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. Often they’ll say they do it because it relaxes them and gives them an escape. The problem with this approach is that whatever was causing you stress before you medicated is still going to stress you out after the medication wears off and it may compound the stressors, often making the situation worse!

Everyone can hit the point where stress just gets to be too much. Through knowledge of your own limits, you can set a plan to keep you in your most productive zone. The right amount of physical activity, yoga, sleep and proper supplementation while keeping your diet healthy can help keep you in your zone and in tip top shape. 

Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience.