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Simple but Proven Stress Management Techniques for Coping with the Causes and Effects of Stress

Jeremy Hendon | April 25

Stress is my Nemesis

Seriously. I don’t know pretty much anyone who isn’t more stressed than they would like to be.

I really just want to be happy and unstressed. All the time.

Lately, I feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job of it. I tend to wake up in the morning pretty grateful for everything in my life, and I’m excited about most of the things I’m doing during the day.

I may not have mentioned it on the blog before, but I’m getting married soon, and then we’re traveling for quite a while. So, all in all, things are pretty good.

But at least once a week, I get pretty overwhelmed by all the things I need to do (marketing, phone calls, website maintenance), all the things I’ve failed to do (call back friends, start a podcast, read more fiction), and all the things that I could do (play basketball, walk outside, play with the cat). It’s inevitable.

We All Need to Exercise a Bit More – It PREVENTS Stress

This might seem a bit obvious, since most of us are pretty aware that exercise is a good way to blow off some steam and de-stress. However, it’s actually even better than that.

Here’s the paper (with a very long title):

Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus

In this study, the researchers made some mice run on a regular basis and let the others be lazy. They then subjected the mice to stress (cold water) and measured activity in a region of their brain called the ventral hippocampus.

What they found was that the mice who regularly ran had much greater activity in that area of their brain when under stress. That’s really important because the ventral hippocampus is the area of the brain that suppresses anxiety (aka stress).


In other words, exercising on a regular basis didn’t just relieve stress, it actually prevented it.

Takeaway: You already know that you should be exercising for a variety of reasons. However, most of us have a tough time figuring out how to decrease our stress levels. This should provide you with one answer that will also hopefully motivate you to move on a more regular basis.

How Do You Prevent Stress?

There are all sorts of theories and tactics for dealing with stress, but how do you cut it off at the pass? Meditation? Yoga?

Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime

This article reveals much of the science and research into the brain’s need for downtime and relaxation.

Here are a few of the more salient points:

  • Downtime (rest, daydreaming, or just not focusing) is the time when your brain actually does much of the processing.  It processes your experiences, your memories, and your understanding of events.  Without this downtime, researchers have found that understanding, comprehension, and memory are all inhibited.
  • Vacations are great for rejuvenation, but that only lasts for 2-4 weeks after the vacation.  Much more effective is just to block off one night per week to not think about work at all.
  • Naps are incredibly beneficial, but a 10 minute nap will give you the same benefits as a 30 minute nap, without making you feel nearly as groggy when you wake up.

Ferris Jabr, the author, presents tons of recent research that both confirms things that we already know (sleep is critical for pretty much everything) as well as new and useful tips (spending time in nature has at least as much restorative power as a nap).

Modern technology is rapidly approaching the ability to slow down or even reverse aging. And until we get there, modern science is already pretty clear on exactly what causes aging and what we can do immediately to slow it down.

For instance, here’s a recent study (conducted on blackbirds) that deals directly with this question and comes to the same answer that pretty much all other studies are getting:

Repeated stressors in adulthood increase the rate of biological aging.

Stress Makes You Age Faster

In this study, researchers took a group of blackbirds and exposed them to varying levels of environmental stress over the course of a year. (The types of stress ranged from making the birds slightly sick, to chasing them around the facility, to putting them in an enclosure for an hour. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like the most humane study ever conducted on an animal.)

One group of birds got none of these stressors, while the other group received these stressors continuously for a year.

At the end of the study, the birds that had been stressed for the year had (a) significantly shorter telomere lengths and (b) significantly higher circulating levels of oxidative damage. Without going into too much detail, oxidate damage is what happens when free radicals damage DNA, fats, and proteins, and telomere shortening means that certain sequences DNA get shorter and shorter.

Both of these occurrences (telomere shortening and oxidative damage) are excellent physical markers of aging.

So, in other words, the birds that were stressed for a year by their environmental conditions aged significantly faster.

And here’s the kicker, there were many common stressors that were not present in the lab setting, such as too little food, predators, social competition, weather changes, etc.

What Does This Mean For You?

You’re not a blackbird, but the lesson is the same. If you want to stay young longer, you need to decrease the amount of stress in your body.

And there are many ways to achieve this, since stress is more than just mental:

1. Eat better food.

When you eat processed foods, including grains, processed sugars, and seed oils, those foods stress your body and cause it to work harder.

2. Sleep enough.

Not sleeping enough is a huge stressor for your body, and sleep is one of the few times when your body starts to recover from stress.

3. Relax and Play.

If you feel like you’re always under pressure, then try to play more and work a little less.

4. Meditate.

It’s been said a thousand times, but it’s one of the most surefire ways to decrease mental stress.

5. Move More But Don’t Over-Exercise.

Exercise is a “good” stress, and humans do well if we’re moving often. But we don’t do well by doing 2 hours of cardio per day.

Obviously, there isn’t a single answer, and you can’t prevent all stress (nor would you want to). However, in addition to slowing aging, reducing your stress load will also make you both healthier and happier.

Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The 9-Year Mortality Experience After the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial

As you can guess from the title, the study examined the association between vacations and health. Vacations are obviously not an exact measure of stress or the lack thereof.

The study followed over 12,000 men for about 9 years, but it was, nonetheless, only an observational study, meaning that we can only draw hypotheses from it.

However, the results were astounding enough to warrant some discussion.

In general, the study compared how often the men took vacations with how often they died. Pretty simple.

The result was that men who took more frequent vacations were 21% less likely to die from any cause (and over 30% less likely to die from heart disease).

Again – this is only observation, and although the researchers tried to control for other factors like activity level, diet, smoking, etc., it’s really impossible to account for everything.

However, given the huge body of research that links stress to higher rates of disease, it’s pretty likely that stress played a significant role in these results.

Takeaway: Stress Will Kill You.

No joke. Stress may be the single most under-appreciated aspect of health. It likely has an even bigger impact than your diet.

Stress is an often-overlooked aspect of modern lifestyles, mostly because we don’t have great answers for how to reduce stress. Vacations, meditation, exercise, and other practices can help, but they’re not holistic solutions.

Whatever you do, pay attention to your stress levels, and try to do something about it. After all, it’s about more than potentially dying – being stressed all the time is really no way to live.

This might seem a bit obvious, since most of us are pretty aware that exercise is a good way to blow off some steam and de-stress.  However, it’s actually even better than that.

Here’s the paper (with a very long title):

Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus

In this study, the researchers made some mice run on a regular basis and let the others be lazy.  They then subjected the mice to stress (cold water) and measured activity in a region of their brain called the ventral hippocampus.

What they found was that the mice that regularly ran had much greater activity in that area of their brain when under stress.  That’s really important because the ventral hippocampus is the area of the brain that suppresses anxiety (aka stress).

In other words, exercising on a regular basis didn’t just relieve stress, it actually prevented it.

How to Prevent Stress?

Work it Out. Literally.

You already know that you should be exercising for a variety of reasons.

However, most of us have a tough time figuring out how to decrease our stress levels.  This should provide you with one answer that will also hopefully motivate you to move on a more regular basis.

The link below isn’t an actual study (I couldn’t get my hands on it), but it’s a very interesting article that discusses and extrapolates on the study:

Gut Bacteria May Exacerbate Depression

In the study that the paper discusses, patients who were depressed were tested for leaky gut (a condition whereby the intestines let too many things through into your bloodstream).

Leaky Gut Leads to Depression

Researchers found that 35% of patients tested positive for leaky gut. And it’s likely that more than that may have had minor cases of leaky gut that would not have shown up on the tests.

The article is well-written and concise, and it lays out a few of the ways that leaky gut might cause or exacerbate depression. In particular, certain bacteria may get into the bloodstream and then accumulate in particular areas of the brain.

What is not as great about the article is its list of possible causes of leaky gut. Several of the possible “causes” are much more likely to be symptoms or effects of leaky gut, such as IBS, Auto-Immune Disorders, and Severe Food Allergies.

Eat Well and Get Happy

The limitations of the article aside, it’s yet another reason to focus on the health of your gut.

More and more studies are arriving every day proving that gut health may be one of the most important factors in our overall health, from brain function, to immune activity, to weight loss.

And taking care of your gut relies largely on avoiding foods that will exacerbate either leaky gut or overgrowth of bacteria. In both cases, that largely means avoiding grains (especially gluten), processed sugars, and seed oils.

But maybe you’re already doing those things?

That’s a really sexy title for a paper.

(That wasn’t actually the title, but maybe it should have been. Who am I kidding? It’s the worst title for a paper ever.)

Stress is one of those things that we all know we need to control, but very few of us make significant progress.

In many ways, it’s harder to fix than diet, exercise, or sleep.

Nature Kills Stress

In the April Issue of Landscape and Urban Planning (not a journal I usually read, but Mark Sisson linked to the study, so here I am), researchers published this paper:

nature and stressMore green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns

The study’s general hypothesis that regular exposure to nature is linked to lower levels of stress.

While most studies arrive at this conclusion simply by asking people how stressed they are and how often they get out into nature, this study went a bit further, which is what makes it both interesting and informative.

In the study, the researchers did two things:

a.     First, they took surveys to see how stressed a particular group of people felt on an ongoing basis, and regularly obtained saliva samples from that group.  Why?  In order to see if there was a link between cortisol levels and how stressed people felt. There was just such a correlation.

b.     Secondly, the researchers measured the quantity of green space in the immediate living area of each participant and then compared that to the cortisol levels in the saliva samples.

The results showed that having green space in your immediate living area meant that you were much less likely have elevated cortisol, and in turn, much less likely to be stressed.

Get Out of the Office

Spend more time in nature, or at least with greenery.

This is not a finding that shocks us much, but it’s a well-done study that reinforces how important it is to get outside more often.

Recently, there have been quite a few studies examining the link between Anti-Depressants (mostly SSRIs) and birth defects and abnormalities (particularly autism).

And pretty much all of the studies being published show some sort of correlation between SSRIs and Autism, if not other birth abnormalities. So it’s certainly an issue that needs more studies and more research.

However, I really like this recent article that was published on the subject:

Prenatal SSRI exposure and autistic traits

Depression May Have As Much of a Link to Autism as the Drugs

The point of this article is first of all that this area of research definitely needs more studies still.

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But the secondary point is that we should also be looking to a degree at the link between the prenatal environment and birth abnormalities.

In particular, there’s good reason to believe that prenatal conditions like depression are likely driven by or at least accompanied by inflammation in the parent, and such inflammation could quite reasonably be linked to anything from ADHD to Autism.

This article isn’t the first to point this issue out, and the article itself cites other studies that list depression and other environmental factors as potential confounders.

But the article is correct that this is an area that is given less attention than it probably should be. I still wouldn’t want to take any anti-depressants as a mother or father to be, but I’d be at least as worried about any signs of depression.

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