It’s okay to experience a bit of stress, but too much takes its toll on the body. Whatever is causing you to feel stressed, it’s important that you make time for rest and relaxation. How can you maintain that balance and help your body to recover from (too much) stress? Here are six tips for rest and relaxation.
What’s the best way to do that? We asked OpenUp psychologist, Soesja Vogels, to explain what stress does to your body and why recovery is so important.
What Is Stress?
We all know what it’s like to feel stressed: when your mind is racing, there’s loads of tension in your body and/or you’re experiencing anxiety or restlessness. But what exactly is stress and what does it do to your body?
“Stress is an abstract concept, but you can view physical stress as a form of tension that occurs in your body as a response to external stimuli,” explains Soesja. “When something happens in your surroundings and your brain detects ‘danger’, you get that sense that something is wrong and you need to act now.”
What Happens to Your Body When You’re Stressed?
When you experience stress, your body’s initial response will be to produce adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones change the way the blood flows in your body, with more blood going to your heart and muscles. Soesja: “In the short term, that’s a really good thing. You get physically stronger and you can react more quickly. That would be great if you were being chased by a bear, for example.”
However, stress becomes harmful when you’re exposed to it for a prolonged period of time. “When you’re under too much stress, your brain keeps getting the message that you’re in a ‘dangerous situation’. You’re no longer able to relax because there are too many stress hormones in your blood,” clarifies Soesja.
“Think of it as using water to put out a fire: at first that’s going to be really effective at scaling back the blaze. But if you kept going after the fire had been extinguished, you’d eventually destroy the house as well.”
What Are the Physical Consequences of Too Much Stress?
When you’re exposed to stress for a prolonged period of time, it has a harmful long-term effect on the body. It puts your essential bodily functions under too much pressure.
“Too much stress and not enough relaxation has a major impact on your body,” emphasizes Soesja. “Your immune system, digestive system and memory may all suffer the consequences.
Additionally, it can cause headaches, high blood pressure and sleeping problems. When you’re very stressed, your heart rate will also consistently stay at an unhealthily high level.”
Why is Rest and Recovery So Important?
When you’re experiencing (too much) stress, rest and relaxation is extremely important. You’re like a balloon with too much air in it: if you don’t deflate a little, you’re going to pop.
Rest helps you to recharge your internal battery. But it’s not always easy to relax and that’s the frustrating part. “When your phone or laptop dies, you know that the logical thing to do is to charge it,” notes our OpenUp psychologist.
“But we expect our bodies to keep going at all times, even without that recharging time. We don’t have endless supplies of energy.”
Helping Your Body Recover from (Too Much) Stress
So how can you recharge that internal battery? Soesja is here to share six tips that will help you to regain your balance and allow you to recover when you’re experiencing too much stress.
1. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
Sleep is the most fundamental part of rest. While you’re sleeping, your body reaches peak relaxation and does most of its recovery. So, make sure you’re having a good night’s sleep and aim for between seven and nine hours every day.
A consistent nighttime routine can be helpful here. Make sure you’re going to bed at the same time each night, circulate fresh air through your bedroom, before journaling your thoughts or reading a book. Try not to think of a good night’s sleep as something you ‘have to have’, but instead make it an experiment: what would happen if I slept really well for one night? It’s more likely you’ll succeed this way.
2. Avoid stimuli
Stimuli make you more alert and awake, so try to avoid them as much as possible. This one applies to everybody: spending too much time on your phone or computer won’t help you to relax.
So be mindful about your screen time and your exposure to bright lights and sounds, but also remember that certain people and places can also count as stimuli if they cause you to feel a lot of tension. You might want to avoid them if you’re experiencing a lot of stress.
3. Drink plenty of water
Having stress hormones in your body for an extended period of time can cause you to become dehydrated. Your body is focusing all its reserves on being able to take immediate action. As a result, many of the organs in your body aren’t receiving adequate hydration.
So, try to make sure you’re drinking enough water and no: alcohol doesn’t count 😉
4. Exercise regularly
When someone says exercise, we tend to think of really intense sports, but gentle exercise like walking, can also help you to relax.
Particularly when there’s been a lot of pressure on your muscles because of all that surplus adrenaline and cortisol, it’s good to get moving and get your blood pumping the way it’s supposed to.
5. Eat healthy
It sounds so logical, but a lot of us still struggle with this: eating healthily. At the very least, you should try to eat less sugar. When you have a lot of cortisol in your blood, you may find yourself craving more sugar, but sugar actually increases your cortisol levels.
Cortisol also puts pressure on your digestive system. So, the best thing to do is to be gentle with yourself by eating foods that are easy to digest.
6. Find a form of relaxation that works for you
Work out what makes you feel relaxed – it’s different for everybody. Consider doing breathing exercises, a mindfulness body scan or gentle types of yoga, such as yin or yoga nidra. ‘Progressive muscle relaxation’ exercises involve tensing and relaxing your muscles in a certain order, and they’re great if you experience a lot of tension in your body.
Of course, you might also turn to hobbies or spending time with friends when you’re looking to relax, but be aware that these things sometimes require energy and they might not necessarily give you the rest you need.
Bonus tip: Kelly McGonigal gave an interesting TED talk about stress, focusing on both its physical and mental aspects. She discusses what stress does to you and explains that embracing these feelings not only changes how you view stress, but also the effect it has on your body.
Would you like to talk to a psychologists one-on-one, and learn more on how to set boundaries? Feel free to book a consultation.