When did you last feel stressed? Your answer is likely to be very recently -- you might even be feeling stressed this very minute. And you are not alone.
In a recent survey, 51pc of Irish people reported feeling more stressed than the previous year, with women reporting higher stress levels than men.
Stress as we term it today started as the 'fight-or-flight' response when early man confronted life-threatening situations, and it was vital to our survival.
While modern man no longer has to deal with the dangers of hunting for his food or outrunning sabre-toothed tigers, we have our own modern stressors -- problems at work, in our personal relationships, financial concerns, traffic jams, the kids arguing, you name it -- and though hardly life threatening, they can trigger the same fight/flight response.
When we are exposed to a stressor a number of things occur. Chiefly, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol (known as the 'stress hormone'), energy levels and heart rate increase and our muscles tense in preparation to deal with that stressor.
In the normal course of events the 'danger' passes, our relaxation response kicks in and our body returns to its pre-stress state. However, in our high-pressure culture, for many people the body's stress response is nearly constantly switched to 'on'
This long-term activation of the stress response system is known as 'chronic stress' and it is associated with a host of health problems from headaches, insomnia and high-blood pressure to chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Chronic stress also affects the body's balance of dopamine and serotonin, which, over time, can lead to anxiety and depression.
And the bad news does not end there. Chronic stress not only messes with your head, it also messes with your waistline. Cortisol signals the body to store fat (your body thinks it is an 'emergency situation' and may need it) specifically in the tummy area, so continually raised cortisol levels mean a bigger waistline over time. Stressed people also tend to reach for high-sugar, 'comfort foods' -- so a double-weight- gain whammy follows.
Managing stress, then, is paramount to maximising optimal mental and physical health. But how best to break the stress cycle, and to control our experience of it?
Regular exercise is key in the management of stress, helping to fight it on a number of fronts. Exercise promotes the production of neuro- hormones that are associated with elevated mood. This produces a calming effect and feeling of empowerment, which will help you to deal with any current or future stressors.
Stress creates a physical tension in the body and exercising helps to release that tension -- creating a more relaxed body and ultimately a more relaxed mind.
On a practical level, physical movement itself is a great distraction from your woes. Stepping away from our worries can provide a calm and perspective we might not otherwise get by focusing too closely upon them.
It seems that exercising can make you more resistant to stress in the first place. In lab studies, scientists put animals on a six-week aerobic programme, they then compared their brain cells with those of a group that remained sedentary.
They found that the brains of the exercising mice changed into a biochemically calm state that remained steady, even when the subjects were under stress, while the non-exercising group continued to react strongly when exposed to the same anxiety-inducing situations.
Exercise also promotes better sleep, which is vital in lowering stress levels. Consider how much better you handle life's problems after a good night's sleep.
Whatever you do, don't think of exercise as just one more thing on your to-do list. Find an activity you can enjoy and stick to, whether it's weight training, yoga, or a meditative meander down to your local park.
Any form of regular physical activity can help you unwind and can become an important part of your approach to easing stress. Diet too can play a great part in the fight against stress.
Some foods have been found to have a calming effect on a stressed system. Think natural. The best stress fighting foods are made by Mother Nature, not by Ben & Jerry's.
Berries are naturally rich in vitamin C, which helps to offset increased levels of cortisol. Munching on crunchy foods, such as carrots and apples, is associated with a reduction in anxiety. Consume antioxidant-rich foods to offset any oxidative damage caused by stress and cut out processed and fast foods. Poor food choices might make us feel better in the very short term, but ultimately will lead to more angst as we gain weight.
Turning to alcohol during difficult periods is tempting, but should be avoided. Although a few drinks may appear to relax you and provide temporary escape from your troubles, alcohol is also a depressant and hinders restful sleep (which is already compromised when we are stressed), making us more agitated in the long run. Avoid or strictly limit your alcohol intake.
We can't entirely eliminate stress from our lives but we can improve our ability to handle stressful situations when they occur. Simple lifestyle changes can yield big results when it comes to harmonising your mind.
And when all else fails, take a deep breath and remind yourself that 'this too shall pass' -- and pass it shall.
Gillian Hynes is an NCEHS personal trainer and Stott Pilates instructor. For enquiries regarding training with Gillian, email: firstname.lastname@example.org