Research shows that about 70% of visits to family doctors are due to issues related to stress and lifestyle. When you're stressed and overwhelmed, you're less likely to practice healthy habits -- but the thing is, these healthy habits (such as exercising, eating nutritious food) actually can help to improve your emotional as well as your physical health.
Stress has both a psychological and physical component to it. A stressful feeling activates a complicated cascade of hormones and other chemicals in your body and brain. These chemicals can change cardiovascular (heart) function, and can even alter your metabolism. If the stimuli causing your stress are overwhelmingly abundant or unable to be resolved for a long time, this stress can become chronic, and it may even lead to a weakening of your immune system and long-term organ and tissue damage. One example of a factor that can cause prolonged stress is having long work hours: a Finnish study showed that working overtime increased individuals' risk of heart disease (1).
Mood disorders like depression or anxiety can sometimes manifest themselves with similar symptoms to stress, so it's important to distinguish between them. If you think you might have depression or anxiety, talk to a doctor. Many chronic diseases can lead to depression; however, depression is also a risk factor for many chronic diseases. Therefore it's important to talk to a professional if you think you might have a mood disorder so that you can get on track to better emotional health.
It's impossible to control all the factors that can cause stress and/or mood disorders (for example, childhood trauma). However, there are multiple factors we can control. Physical actions you can take to manage stress include establishing a regular exercise program, keeping to a regular sleep schedule (see my articles on sleep ), and making sure you get outside in the morning. In addition, reducing or eliminating addictive substances like cigarettes and alcohol can help to reduce stress. Better nutrition is more effective in managing stress than most people realize. For example, according to one study adults who regularly ate fast food were 40% more likely to develop mood disorders than those who avoided fast food.(2) Certain supplements can help with stress, and some even rival the effectiveness of medications. Also, be sure that excessive toxins such as arsenic, mercury, or lead are not present in your food nor daily environment (for example, some fish are very high in mercury, and older houses are sometimes painted with lead paint).
An under-appreciated cause of stress is not routinely engaging in activities that enhance the functioning of your frontal lobe: melodic music, reading, and religious practices (if you participate in a religion). Suppressed frontal lobe function can occur when you're not living according to your value system, meaning that trying to deny your moral principles in some way for long periods of time can cause prolonged stress.
Here are some helpful ideas of ways to de-stress:
Finally, pay specific attention to a few factors that can affect your mood:
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