When you think of stress you may think of the acute stressors, like a deadline to get your taxes done, being late for an important meeting or a last minute project that your boss drops on your desk. However some stresses are more subtle and can in many ways be detrimental to your health, and certainly not great for your health. Here are a few overlooked examples of chronic stress and some tips on what you can do about it.
Keep up the communication: Professor Janice Kiecolt-Glaser from Ohio State University has made some interesting discoveries about stress hormones and (supposedly) happily married couples. She analyzed cortisol in newlywed couples after they had a 30-minute conversation about a few areas of disagreement in their marriage. The results showed high cortisol and weakened immune-system markers. After a transition period, Kiecolt-Glaser had the couples talk about how they met, what attracted them to each other and other positive aspects of their relationship. The cortisol levels fell, as expected, in 75 per cent of the participants. This is a great argument for why you should keep the communication open with your partner and if needed, head to counselling to improve the relationship -- remember, your cortisol depends on it.
Cut out The Noise: It's true -- loud noises boosts stress levels. If you live in a noisy area, or frequently travel, I recommend trying on some earplugs or noise-cancelling earphones to cut cortisol spikes caused by noise. Taking this small extra precaution can give you a surprising leg-up on stress. Not to mention, you'll be amazed how much better you will feel at the end of an airline flight or after a day's work without the added stress of sounds hammering in your ears.
Rethink Your Morning Commute: Millions of North Americans commute to work every weekday. If you're one of them, did you ever imagine your daily commute could be contributing to your belly fat? And not just because of all that sitting! Researchers from Cornell University have found a link between a longer commute to work, whether by car or by train, and greater feelings of frustration, irritation and stress. The research team measured the salivary cortisol of 208 commuters taking trains from Jersey to Manhattan. All of the subjects had routinely high cortisol readings, proving that commuting is a stressful aspect of work for many people. For some, commuting can be the most stressful aspect. If you are destined for a lengthy commute each day, you can reduce your cortisol levels by filling your Mp3 player with your favourite songs (and listening with noise cancelling earphones), picking up an e-reader or downloading movies onto your iPad, or even journaling. You may need to try a few different modalities to get your stress down, but the goal is to arrive at your destination calm, cool and relaxed.
Stop being a hermit: A powerful study completed by researchers at Northwestern University showed just how strongly our social and emotional experiences affect our hormonal balance and overall health. Subjects who went to bed feeling lonely, sad or overwhelmed exhibited high levels of cortisol and a low mood the next day. This study was the first to prove that experiences influence stress hormones just as stress hormones influence experiences. Interestingly, individuals who got out of bed with low cortisol reported fatigue throughout the day. Whether you are active on social networks such as Facebook or were thinking of joining a social meet-up group -- it's a great way to lower cortisol.
Get off the couch: Whether we engage in strength training or aerobic activity, cortisol is released during exercise in proportion to the intensity of our effort. Both high-intensity and prolonged exercise cause increases in cortisol, which can remain elevated for hours following a workout. Researchers at the University of North Carolina have also linked strenuous, fatiguing exercise to higher cortisol and lower thyroid hormones. Remember, thyroid hormones stimulate your metabolism, so depletion is definitely not a desired effect of exercise! The same study found thyroid hormones remained suppressed even 24 hours after recovery, whereas cortisol levels remained high throughout the same period. As you can see, more is not always better. This is why I recommend short, intense, 30-minute strength training sessions 3x along with at least one yoga session.