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Hello Zurich Magazine - January

Stress and how it affect us all

It is probably true to say that stress is one of the greatest threats to our health today, especially in developed countries where we have more stress than we are able to cope with. The increased pace of our lifestyles, the complexity of many professions and the added strains on relationships and long distance travel all play a part in burdening our body's stress-management system.

Whilst pressure can be stimulating and motivating, too much of it can leave us feeling unable to cope. Often our initial response to stress is to deny it and ignore the physical signs, but if the causes of stress are left untreated they can affect our general well-being and lead to serious health problems such as ulcers, heart disease and depression.

Many people associate becoming excessively stressed with work but it can also be triggered from events such as bereavement, relocating to new place or obvious life changes such as having children. As an expat pressures are placed on you simply by living in a new environment with a different culture and language, and just learning the new system and regulations can have a huge impact on confidence and self-esteem. Add to that the fact that it is easy to miss relatives and friends and to feel estranged for the first few months it is no wonder that stress can hit so-called unexpectedly!

What is happening in our bodies when we are stressed?

Our internal stress-coping mechanisms were originally developed to help us cope with life-threatening situations - the 'flight or flight adaptation'. However, the pressures of modern day life can mean that our bodies are put under an almost constant state of alert, which in turn puts pressure on our adrenal glands and immune system. The result is that a person is likely to feel panicky and anxious through periods of stress, rather than stimulated and awake.

The physiological effect

Our nervous system works without us realising it, this 'sympathetic' system reacts to stress by causing blood to flow faster through the muscles. The muscles and the blood vessels then constrict allowing the blood to become flooded with hormones from the pituitary gland and adrenal glands resulting in an increased heart rate and acceleration in oxygen. The production of digestive juices is reduced and blood sugar levels rise as the liver releases glucose into the blood stream. This can become a harmful process if rather than experiencing the odd bout of stress; our bodies end up in a perpetual state of stress with only few relaxation periods and full release of tension.

The first signs of stress

All this information can be somewhat alarming but the best way to deal with stress is to recognise the early symptoms and act on them quickly before they become severe and start threatening well-being. The most common initial signs include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Sleeplessness and difficulty concentration
  • Digestive disorders (such as IBS, ulcers, constipation, food intolerance)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia)
  • Short rapid breathing (hyperventilating)
  • Weakened immune system (easily catching a cold or flu, mouth ulcers, sore throat)
  • Self doubt, anxiety and/or depression

Ways to combat stress

Nearly all natural therapies place stress as one of the greatest factors in the cause if ill health. There are many ways to deal with the symptoms of stress and whilst taking ourselves out of the stressful environment would be ideal, this is not often possible. The best thing to do, therefore, is to learn how to help yourself in your everyday life and take whatever action suits you. Natural therapies have been proven to be hugely effective in relieving stress. There are many to choose from such as:

  • Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises
  • Massage
  • Exercise
  • Affirmations and visualisation
  • A healthy balanced diet
  • Adequate sleep
  • Fresh air and sunlight
  • Use of essential oils

Meditation and deep breathing are easy techniques which can be practised anywhere not just at home. Only ten minutes of taking time out to listen to your breathing and regulate it can lower blood pressure quickly and bring about a sense of calmness. If you find yourself in an angry or stressful conflict, a few minutes away in a quiet room or simply alone can give you time and space to take some deep even breaths, assess the situation and return with a calmer frame of mind, which in turn could lead to better decision making.

Massage encourages the body to repair itself and recover its defences more quickly and it also gives you a little 'me' time which is so easily lost in everyday living. It also increases your body awareness so you are more likely to recognise symptoms quickly and avoid them worsening.

Exercise oxygenates body tissue, dissipates stress hormones and relieves tension. It doesn't have to be overly strenuous to be good for you either. Just three 30 minutes sessions of anything from fast walking to cycling, swimming or a racket sport can bring long term benefits to your heart and your health. It will bring stress relief by lowering blood pressure and will improve flexibility and decrease the risk of heart problems and osteoporosis in later life.

Affirmations and visualisation may sound a little 'dreamy' or New Age, but it simply means using the power of imagination to create a positive outlook. Concentrate on your good qualities and remind yourself often of them rather than focusing on the bad qualities. If you have an interview, presentation or situation that you are nervous about, imagine the positive outcome. It will not only die down your nerves but will boost your confidence and ensure a better outcome. Many athletes including elites practise this kind of creative visualisation before a race or event to help centre them.

Adequate sleep and rest is vital to good health. Whilst sleeping, the body repairs itself and without it we cannot cope for long. If you have difficulty sleeping at night try taking some deep breaths and counting down slowly from 10 to 0, whilst imagining yourself in your favourite place. Alternatively have a milky drink or herb tea before you go to sleep.

Fresh air and sunlight not only allow you to breath better but Vitamin D from sunlight is essential to health. Just 15 minutes exposure per day will provide you will all the vitamin D your body needs in a day.

A balanced healthy diet is essential for a health digestive system. For optimum health, make sure your diet consists of lots of fresh colourful fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals and bread, oily fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel, extra virgin olive oil, pulses, low fat dairy products and only natural sugars such as honey. Also remember that it is important to drink 2 litres of fluid per day (some of which will come from food) and to limit amounts of alcohol and coffee as they are dehydrating. If you feel you need to take a supplement as your busy life makes it difficult to always eat healthily, take a vitamin B complex of 50mg (to regulate nerves), 200-300mg magnesium (a muscle relaxant) and 500-1000mg vitamin C in divided doses to stave off colds and infection (Vit C is excreted in urine at times of stress and is also destroyed by drinking coffee and alcohol).

Essential oils are a very good natural approach as they can help to calm nerves, promote relaxation and aid digestion. Try taking a bath with a few drops of lavender in a carrier oil (such as almond oil) to relax you. If you suffer anxiety or sleep problems try calming oils such as chamomile, marjoram and geranium. And for mental fatigue or depression take a bath in an uplifting blend of bergamot, basil or rosemary.

So, don't just wait for things to get you down. Deal with your stress, before it deals with you!

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