9 Steps to Perfect Health – #6: Manage Your Stress

Stressed out woman

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Of all the 9 steps, stress management is probably the most important. Why? Because no matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you’re not managing your stress you will still be at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity.

I see this every day in my practice. I have a lot of patients that are following a “perfect” diet, and yet they are still sick. Stress is often the cause. (I’ll define stress more clearly in a moment.) Yet as pervasive as stress is, many people don’t do anything to mitigate its harmful effects. The truth is it’s a lot easier to make dietary changes and pop some pills (whether drugs or supplements) than it is to manage our stress. Stress management bumps us up against core patterns of belief and behavior that are difficult to change.

I suspect this is why all of the articles I’ve written about stress management are among the least shared on Facebook and Twitter and have elicited the fewest comments. I think many of you may feel defeated or overwhelmed by stress. I understand this. Stress management is hard. It asks a lot of us. It forces us to slow down, to step back, to disengage (if only for a brief time) from the electric current of modern life. It asks us to prioritize self-care in a culture that does not value it.

While I feel your pain, and still struggle with stress management myself, I’ve got to lay down some tough love here. If you’re not doing some form of regular stress management, you will sabotage all of your best efforts with diet, exercise and supplements. Stress management is absolutely crucial to optimal health and longevity. If most health conscious people spent even half the amount of time they spend focusing on nutrition and exercise on managing their stress, they’d be a lot better off.

I’m going to suggest several strategies for stress management at the end of the article, but first let’s define stress more explicitly and learn more about the harm it causes.

What is stress?

Hans Selye, the famous physiologist who coined the term “stress”, defined it this way:

…the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.

The prominent psychologist Richard Lazarus offers a similar definition:

…any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual…

At the simplest level, then, stress is a disturbance of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment. When the body loses this ability, disease occurs.

The adrenals are two walnut-shaped glands that sit atop the kidneys. They secrete hormones – such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine – that regulate the stress response. Because of this, the adrenals are what determine our tolerance to stress and are also the system of our body most affected by stress.

Most people are aware of the obvious forms of stress that affect the adrenal glands: impossibly full schedules, driving in traffic, financial problems, arguments with a spouse, losing a job and the many other emotional and psychological challenges of modern life.

But other factors not commonly considered when people think of “stress” place just as much of a burden on the adrenal glands. These include blood sugar swings, gut dysfunction, food intolerances (especially gluten), chronic infections, environmental toxins, autoimmune problems, inflammation and overtraining. All of these conditions sound the alarm bells and cause the adrenals to pump out more stress hormones.

Adrenal stress is probably the most common problem we encounter in functional medicine, because nearly everyone is dealing with at least one of the factors listed above. Symptoms of adrenal stress are diverse and nonspecific, because the adrenals affect every system in the body. But some of the more common symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Decreased immunity
  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
  • Mood swings
  • Sugar and caffeine cravings
  • Irritability or lightheadedness between meals
  • Eating to relieve fatigue
  • Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
  • Digestive distress

How does stress harm the body?

The short answer is “in every way imaginable.” It would take books to explain the full effects of stress. And those books have been written. Check out Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky and When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Mate for a more thorough investigation. I’m just going to summarize here.

When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you get out of bed and start your day), and gradually taper off throughout the day (so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep).

Recent research shows that chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more importantly it disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. And it’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on your body. Among other effects, it:

  • raises your blood sugar
  • weakens your immune system
  • makes your gut leaky
  • makes you hungry and crave sugar
  • reduces your ability to burn fat
  • suppresses your HPA-axis, which causes hormonal imbalances
  • reduces your DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone and TSH levels
  • increases your belly fat and makes your liver fatty
  • causes depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
  • contributes to cardiovascular disease

These are all well-documented in the scientific literature, and the list of health problems caused by stress goes on. And on. In fact it’s not a stretch to suggest that stress contributes to all modern, chronic disease.

But most people don’t need much convincing of this. You’ve witnessed the negative effects of stress firsthand, every day of your life. So the question is, what do you do about it?

How to reduce the impact of stress

There are two different approaches to reducing the impact of stress, and both are important:

  1. Reduce the amount of stress you experience.
  2. Mitigate the harmful effects of stress you can’t avoid.

Reducing the amount of stress you experience

Reducing stress means just what it sounds like: reducing your total exposure to all forms of stress, whether psychological or physiological. Of course it’s never possible to completely remove stress from our lives. But even in the most stressful of circumstances, it’s still possible to reduce stress.

The first step is to avoid unnecessary stress. This often seems obvious, but it isn’t. It’s easy to overlook habitual patterns of thought and behavior that cause unnecessary stress above and beyond the stress we can’t avoid. Here are a few guidelines for how to avoid this kind of stress:

  • Learn to say “no”. Know your limits, and don’t take on projects or commitments you can’t handle.
  • Avoid people who stress you out. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. Drama kings and queens. People who are constantly taking and never giving. Limit your time with these people or avoid them entirely.
  • Turn off the news (or at least limit your exposure to it). If watching the world go up in flames stresses you out, limit your exposure to the news. You’ll still find out what’s going on, and still be able to act as a concerned citizen. But you’ll have more time for yourself. I stopped getting the paper years ago, and don’t even have TV. And believe it or not I’m still well-informed. The difference is I get to choose what I’m exposed to.
  • Give up pointless arguments. This is especially true for useless internet debating. There is obviously a place for discussion and debate, and working towards change. But have you noticed that most arguments don’t lead to change? In fact, they tend to have the opposite effect – each side becomes more defended and entrenched in their worldview. Find other ways to get your point across, learn to listen with empathy, and don’t waste precious time and energy trying to convert fundamentalists to your religion.
  • Escape the tyranny of your to-do list. Each day spend some time in the morning really considering what needs to be done that day. Drop unimportant tasks to the bottom of the list. Better yet, cross them off entirely. The world will go on.

The second step in reducing the amount of stress you experience is to address any physiological problems that are taxing your adrenals. These causes include anemia, blood sugar swings, gut inflammation, food intolerances (especially gluten), essential fatty acid deficiencies and environmental toxins. If you have one or more of these conditions, it’s probably best to get help from a skilled practitioner.

Mitigating the harmful effects of stress you can’t avoid

Obviously there are times when we just can’t avoid stress. Maybe we have a high-stress job, or we’re caring for an ailing parent, or we’re having difficulty with our partner or spouse. In these situations it’s not about reducing stress itself, but about reducing its harmful effects.

How do you do that? There are several different strategies:

  • Reframe the situation. We experience stress because of the meaning we assign to certain events or situations. Sometimes changing our perspective is enough to relieve the stress. For example, being stuck in traffic can be a “disaster” or it could be an opportunity for contemplation and solitude.
  • Lower your standards. This is especially important for you perfectionists out there. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let good enough be good enough.
  • Practice acceptance. One of my meditation teachers used to say “All suffering is caused by wishing the moment to be other than it is.” Many things in life are beyond our control. Learn to accept the things you can’t change.
  • Be grateful. Simply shifting your focus from what is not okay or not enough, to what you’re grateful for or appreciative of can completely change your perspective – and relieve stress.
  • Cultivate empathy. When you’re in a conflict with another person, make an effort to connect with their feelings and needs. If you understand where they’re coming from, you’ll be less likely to react and take it personally.
  • Manage your time. Poor time management is a major cause of stress. When you’re overwhelmed with commitments and stretched too thin, it’s difficult to stay present and relaxed. Careful planning and establishing boundaries with your time can help.

In addition to everything I’ve listed above, one of the most important things you can do to manage stress is to bring more pleasure, joy and fun into your life. This is the subject of Step 9, so I’ll just mention it briefly here.

Stress management practices and techniques

All of the stress management tips above are important, and can make a huge difference in your health and well-being. However, there’s a certain amount of stress in modern life that is simply unavoidable for most of us. That’s why it’s so crucial to have a regular stress management practice.

There are a lot of options here, of course. Things like exercise, yoga, tai qi, qi gong, a walk on the beach, etc. can all relieve stress. I’ll just share the practices I’ve found to be most helpful for myself and my patients over the years.

Meditation

In spite of the fact that I’m listing it here, I don’t consider meditation as a “stress management” technique – although it can certainly have that effect. Meditation is an awareness practice. Through meditation we learn to witness our thoughts, feelings and sensations and dis-identify with the story we tell ourselves about them. We learn to stay present to our lives even in the face of great difficulty or pain.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be able to “relax” to meditate. Sometimes we are relaxed during meditation, sometimes we are quite agitated. We don’t meditate to manipulate our feelings, but to learn to observe them without reacting to or “becoming” them.

One of the books I often recommend to people who’d like to learn more about meditation practice is Opening the Hand of Thought, by Kosho Uchiyama. You may also want to check out Don Matesz’s recent article, 10 Reasons Why I Practice Mindfulness Meditation, for more on the benefits of meditation practice.

Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) combines mindfulness meditation and yoga to cultivate greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, as well as of the ways the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health. It was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979.

Through clinical research at the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere, MBSR has been shown to positively effect a range of autonomic physiological processes, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing overall arousal and emotional reactivity. MBSR is offered as an 8-week intensive training in hospitals and medical centers around the world. It is also offered as an online course, and can be done via home study with books and audio recordings. MBSR is particularly effective for anyone struggling with chronic illness or pain.

UPDATE: You can also download a free recording of the Body Scan and other mindfulness techniques here.

Rest Assured

Rest Assured is a program for healing insomnia naturally. However, the way this is accomplished is by maintaining a greater state of relaxation and ease throughout the day. We can’t run around all day in a state of constant hyper-arousal and expect to fall into a deep and peaceful sleep at night. The body doesn’t turn on and off like a light switch. This is why sleep medications have become ubiquitous. They’re the equivalent of hitting yourself over the head with a sledgehammer so you can fall asleep.

The Rest Assured program contains simple exercises that coordinate breath and movement. Many of the exercises can be performed in as little as 3-4 minute throughout the day, while some take 20-30 minutes and can be done when you have a little more time – or while you’re laying in bed before sleep. I’ve found these to be incredibly helpful myself, and my patients have as well.

So here’s my request. If you found this article to be helpful, please share it on Facebook and Twitter (you can use the FB & Twitter icons at the top of the post), or email it to someone you care about. Stress management is one of the most important things we can to do protect our health, yet it’s often the first thing that slips through the cracks in a busy life.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Evan E says

    It’s funny you mention to share this article on Facebook, when I have come to the conclusion that Facebook is an addictive technological trap for wasting an inordinate amount of time. I now check Facebook once every couple of weeks and have forced myself to refrain from comment battles. I also have forced myself to stay off other comment sections on other websites as well. I also spent a couple hours changing all my email contacts from yahoo to gmail because I found Yahoo’s news feeds diverting my attention virtually every time I went to check email (plus Yahoo ruined their email interface anyway and it is now a glitch prone mess). We don’t need so much ‘news’ and updates on all the people we know and all the hyper-media of today that truly bombards our minds. And last but not least put the smartphone away (not just airplane mode, turn it off!…when it is off you suddenly lose the temptation to busy yourself with apps…seriously try it) Step back from it all let your mind calm down. Go outside. Meet up with and have fun with friends and family. Make wholesome quality meals and take pleasure in doing so. Read a good book. That is the stuff of life and none of it causes stress (quite the opposite).

    • Hélène says

      Hear, hear! I heartily concur, Evan. Well-said.
      Now I just have to make myself do it. I don’t spend that much time on devices, don’t have many, but I spend TOO MUCH on them–for sure.

    • Melisa Byrne says

      So true Evan – having less is actually the key to having more (less worries, more time, more peace)!. Oh and Kris I just love your blogs which centre my attention on important health matters.

  2. Patrick Neal says

    This resonates w/ experience. I have always been sensitive to stress and have been working so hard to become the head of my department. I have succeeded in my professional goal, but my metabolism has crashed. I’m continuing to decrease carbs and trying to increase my strength training to try to restart my metabolism, but maybe I need stress management more. When I was a child I could enter deep meditative states without effort, but can’t seem to meditate now if my life depended on it. Not sure how to proceed.

  3. Kathryn says

    In the mid-90’s, a huge research study was done with Kaiser Permanente and the CDC in which they asked 10 questions about patients’ childhood experiences. It was called the ACE Study (for Adverse Childhood Experiences) and they found a very strong link between childhood trauma and illnesses later in life. In my practice as a psychotherapist, I have seen numerous instances of this in my clients. I wondered about it for years before finally hearing about the ACE Study. If you are traumatized as a child and don’t get help for it, your chances of getting one or more serious illnesses is quite high. Another reason why the best diet, exercise and supplements may not be the cures people are looking for.

    • says

      I couldn’t agree more with you Kathryn. I’m a holistic nutritionist and very quickly when I started practising I realized that sending a client out the door with a protocol to change their diet and $300 worth of supplements was all for naught if they were under a great deal of stress or had unresolved emotional issues that impacted their ability to do what was good for them. I now use EFT to help my clients deal with those unresolved emotional issues (I refer to a psychologist when it’s out of my scope) that drive self-sabotage and emotional or stress eating. It’s one thing to know what we SHOULD do to take care of ourselves, it’s another completely to DO it and I think those unresolved issues from childhood are key.

  4. Quinn says

    Relatives and friends constantly told me to meditate, but I am not sure if meditation will help. I tried some of them briefly, but not enough time to tell if it would help. However, if you are someone who’s life partner is a type I diabetes who would go into hypoglycemia from time to time. Sometime, that means calling the ambulance in the middle of the night. Other times, I pray for safety when we are both in the car and he’s driving. I don’t know if you can really relax.

  5. Austin says

    What about stress from constant change of sleeping patterns? I believe it disrupts cortisol level big time.

  6. says

    For anyone interested in meditation, I highly recommend any binaural-beat audio meditation technology. These audio programs put you in a deep meditative state without any effort on your part – without any practice! It’s as close to magic as anything I’ve experienced. After just a few months of daily practice, I noticed that I no longer experienced stress in many everyday life situations that previously were always stressful, without any conscious effort on my part to manage the stress. Nine years later, I still use it daily; it’s so easy. A program like this costs about $40 and you can use it forever!

  7. says

    This article is probably the most important one that has come into my inbox this year. Like so many others who have commented, I am currently experiencing this first hand. I am that person, perfect diet, exercise…was in perfect health and still should be. Stress has caused me blood sugar issues and hypothyroidism. Now my world has fallen apart around me, forcing me to assess stress and self care. It’s so amazing how things happen. The affect that stress has on ones health has been something I have been exploring and thinking about a lot and wanting to write about for my site. This is definitely the missing link in so many health and wellness practices and plans. Thank you for this amazing article and reminder.

  8. Joanne says

    Hi Chris,
    thanks for this article… it reminds me that I am doing the right thing taking time out to try to reduce my stresses in life…
    I suffer with chronic anxiety and chronic fatigue syndrome with multiple health and digestive issues… I feel I am making progress but at times get overwhelmed with wanting full health yesterday lol …. I can relate with “doing all the right things diet wise” but seem to have hit a brick wall … i am still having digestive issues and finding weight loss difficult (although i have lost 10kg in the last year but that seems to have halted for now)… Joanne

  9. John McDonell says

    Thanks Chris for this very insightful piece.

    Should people called ‘patients-in-hospitals’ automatically be assumed to have high cortisol levels, and relaxation techniques be employed as fundamental to healing … including message, good-food, good-music, and hydrotherapy … perhaps, a chuckle or two?

  10. Felicia Dale says

    I have used Emotional Freeing Technique, Tapas Acupressure Technique, Eye Motion Desensitization and Reprocessing and Reiki to reduce my response to stress. I started with EFT about 10 years ago, added TAT about three years ago, was attuned to Reiki (level two) six years ago and finally learned EMDR two years ago. EFT I learned off the net for free and made good progress with on my own for quite a while. After my mother died from breast cancer and I lost her, most of my family (mental illness all around) and my home I needed more help than I could achieve on my own. Two gifted therapists got me through the two years of intense depression- which coincided with being diagnosed, finally, with hypo-thyroid, adrenal exhaustion, hormonal imbalances and finally chronic fatigue. If it weren’t for EFT, TAT, EMDR and Reiki an extremely understanding and supportive husband, literally months of intense rest and these two therapists I doubt I would be alive today. I highly recommend any and all of them for anyone wanting to manage emotional problems of any sort, especially with the help of qualified professionals. The best diet in the world would not have saved me but these techniques did!

    • says

      Amen Felicia. I’m an EFT practitioner trained with Tina Craig, Gary Craig’s daughter. Gary’s free tutorial can be found at http://www.emofree.com for anyone that ‘s interested in learning more about it.
      EFT has been life-changing for me as well. It helped me through losing my father 11 years ago as well as MANY other stressful events in my life.
      I’m initiated in Reiki as well. Sound like we’re on similar paths. :)

  11. says

    Great post. I tell my clients at ExecuCare that the first step to managing stress is making a plan to recognize and address it. Ask yourself: what are my physical and psychological signs of stress that I should watch for? What are certain situations that increase my stress levels? What activities and daily routines can I add to my life that will help me relax and combat stress?

  12. says

    For 10 years now, following my own leukemia diagnosis, I have practiced massage therapy exclusively for cancer patients. Research has shown approximately half of all reported anxiety, depression, pain and nausea from cancer and it’s treatment is due to the amplification effect of stress. Stress is kerosene on the fire.

    The daily results are nothing short of amazing. It is best summed up by an early client, “It’s like a vacation from cancer.”

  13. Jenny says

    Hiya!

    I’ve read the steps in perfect Health up until now and I really liked this article. You’ve pointed out one thing I’ve never heard anyone else mention in connection to stress management. And that was to see and acknowledge your feelings and to grow as a person.

    I have, I think the most perfect teacher in the world. His name is Skansen and he’s a horse. For little more than a year I’ve practied “horsemanship” with him and it’s worked very well.

    I’m now good enough to realize when he’s in a mood to play or not and when I’m doing something wrong. A couple weeks ago nothing worked and I was very frustrated becuase I couldn’t see what I was doing wrong. After thinking about it I finally realized, I wans’t at all in that emotional, open minded zone I usually am with him. And he reacted to that in a negative way. Next time we practiced I made sure to find that “zone” again and was rewarded accordingly :)

    Thank you for making this articte, it made me realise that what I experienced wasn’t just imaginary or a fluke.

    /Jenny

  14. says

    No question, just a comment.

    After only one week of following (not up to speed on all points just yet) the diet rules of no grains/legumes/veg. oils/sugar, I can tell you that the way I manage stress is ALREADY different! I’m calmer than before.

    Coinicidence? No!

  15. Dan says

    In terms of good sleeping habits, and its effect on stress, I’ve been reading up about the effects of modern lighting and how blue wavelengths suppresses melatonin production. Up until the invention of the tungsten filament, and its mass-production by General Electric, nobody ever saw blue wavelengths after sundown. Campfire, torches, gas lamps, oil lamps, twilight we all low-temp amber lighting.

    Richard L. Hansler — a former researcher and scientist for General Electric’s lighting division — recently published a book documenting the established research on how exposure to blue (tungsten) light after sundown is suppressing our melatonin and wreaking havoc on our bodies. The book is called, “Great Sleep! Reduced Cancer! (By Richard L. Hansler, Ph. D.)”. Part of the trick to maintaining a good circadian rhythm is to eliminate blue wavelengths at the same time each evening and wake up at the same time each morning.

    Hansler has started a company called http://lowbluelights.com where he sells products to help reduce exposure to blue wavelengths. If one does their own research, you can find high quality “blue blocker” sunglasses at a fraction of the cost on Amazon.com — though Hansler maintains that his blue-blocking glasses block all of the blue wavelengths.

    From my own experience, reducing my exposure to blue light — even with cheap blue blockers — in the evenings really has improved my sleep a lot. I’m feeling more relaxed and refreshed than ever.

  16. jake3_14 says

    Maybe this topic isn’t shared much, because causes of and solutions to stress are as varied as people. For example, the stress of unemployment from a layoff is different than the stress from disagreeing with your spouse about whether to have a second child, which is different than the stress from being a caregiver to an aging parent, and so are the approaches to managing these stresses.

  17. says

    The topic of stress is pretty much the backbone of what I’m learning at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, how it creates a kind of chemistry and physiology that gets people the opposite of what they want, like weight loss, healing digestive concerns, fatigue issues, etc. I believe it is the cause of most chronic diseases as you said. More and more I’m convinced this is why my health went down because of extreme emotional stress ever since puberty. I’ve de-stressed a lot the past 1-2 years, and it’s helping for sure. I noticed you do create your own stress in the way you choose to react to people…you can’t control what they say…so you have to figure out how to accept what they say and move on.

  18. Anonymous says

    Chris, you write that one symptom of adrenal stress is dizziness when moving from sitting to standing. Do you happen to know the mechanism behind this? This is happening to me.

  19. DrDawny says

    This post resonated with me, especially your point about our culture not valuing self-care. The medical profession is unfortunately a horrible example. I am a resident physician, and I have been suffering from a sundry of physiological problems related to chronic stress and sleep deprivation that has built up over my years of training. We all need a change of mindset, starting with those of us who are supposed to be giving health advice and treatment! I hope to somehow incorporate stress management for healthcare professionals into my career when I’m finished with residency. Thanks for this very useful information!

  20. says

    Hi Chris,

    I couldn’t agree more on the importance of eliminating stress, and would like to add a reframing technique (and a different interpretation of the nature of stress) that your patients and readers might appreciate knowing about. Take a look at http://www.mythofstress.com. As you’ll see, I’m also a fan of challenging mainstream myths, and think that the way we look at stress might be one of the biggest.

  21. says

    This is a GREAT article! Thank you for writing so clearly about such an important topic!

    Two things that have deeply influenced my return to health that you didn’t mention are chiropractic and self-hypnosis. It’s amazing how chiropractic adjustments can increase the functioning of your nervous system and enable your body to handle stress more efficiently. Self-hypnosis has also been an amazing stress releasing tool for me. I’ve never felt so relaxed as I do when I’m in hypnosis – it’s amazing!

  22. says

    The word “Stress” actually relates to wear and tear as when the rubber meets the road on a tire or the brake pads pressing up against the rotor in the wheel. The term as it applies to living organisms was first introduced by Hans Seyle in the 1930’s who defined it as the consequence of the failure of an organism (human or animal) to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats, whether actual or imagined. Thus stress symptoms are the manifestation of a chronic state of responses to stress triggers that are actually benign. Even a thought can set off the same response mechanism that would be in play while standing in front of a hungry lion. Hence, Seyle’s definition still reaches to the heart of stress management; the idea of the response being inappropriate and engaging in a process of altering ones misperception of pending disaster or imminent danger.

  23. David says

    Good article, but you forget that many people havechronic stress finish with a dysregulation of HPA axis, with low cortisol. Adrenal fatigue is a reality. Many physician give vit C, vit B, adaptogen like licorice to recover. Some people never recover from that but this people have no addison’s disease. The best treatment is low dose of hydrocortisone. Pr Jefferies write a good book that explain this situation.

  24. William says

    I should clarify, on the podcast you were talking about blood sugar dipping too low during the evenings when low-carb dieting, which prompted an insulin response that wakes you up at 3:00 am with an anxiety attack. I had this happen twice last week, and listening to your podcast was like a light bulb going on over my head. I’ve been trying to add more carbs into my diet now. My weight loss has been stalled for months, but frankly sleeping through the night is more important than being ready for the beach.

  25. William says

    This posting made me think of a comment you made on your podcast a few weeks back regarding low-carb dieting, blood sugar and adrenal response. I imagine that a combination of intermittent fasting and low-carb dieting could really smoke your adrenals. Do you have a recommended calorie intake and macro-nutrient profile you recommend? The paleo community seems to be loathe to give such parameters, but for those who are far along the path of adrenal fatigue, trusting your appetite is just not going to work.

  26. Chris Kresser says

    The intention of meditation practice is to increase – not decrease – awareness. If it’s used to disassociate and withdraw from feelings, it really isn’t meditation anymore. That is a pitfall, however, which is why I recommend finding a teacher if possible.

    I practice zazen (Zen meditation) myself, but did Vipassana for several years before that. I think finding a good teacher to work with is more important than the specific practice.

  27. David says

    I’ve been dealing with dysthymia for years, and a couple psychologists believe that the root of my low-grade depression is that I withdraw from my emotions (especially in emotionally charged situations) either by not feeling that way as I express it (as in not actually feeling the anger as I admonish someone) or shutting down (by daydreaming or being really involved in my thoughts when life may get heavy).

    My question is this: what type of meditation should I practice. I fear that some types of meditation would just serve as another technique to withdraw from feelings.

  28. says

    Alan – I combine hypnotherapy, imagery and mindfulness techniques in my coaching practice, because you are correct about the subconscious mind’s dominant role in our actions and reactions. When appropriate, I incorporate some Meridian Tapping (aka EFT) when a client is in state as a process of self-inquiry and reframing, and have found it very effective. However, I am not on the “Law of Attraction/EFT bandwagon” as it being a some billion dollar technique. Again, people are looking for instant cures without having to do deeper inner work, and although this process can be successful at getting to the heart of one’s limiting beliefs and negative self-talk patterns, bringing these things up without the guidance of a professional can be disastrous for people who have serious mental and emotional concerns.

    • Jim says

      I don’t use it as often as I should, but my wife, my brother, and I have found EFT to be effective.

      In the past I have also found The Sedona Method to be effective in terms of ‘letting go’ of bothersome stressors.

      For me, the key is to remember to do those things instead of hanging onto the things that are stressing me.

    • Giselle says

      I find tapping really helpful. Robert Smith has loads of free You Tube videos. Highly recommend!

  29. Susie says

    Hi Mark,

    I know first hand how chronic stress can effect your life. I am now going through my second episode of adreanl fatigue. The adrenal fatige seems to hit worse AFTER the stress is gone, however I can tell it is coming on because all my symptoms (and there is a list much longer than what you gave above) start to rear their ugly head again.

    I am chemotherapy survivor and I am convinced that the chemo pushed my adrenals over the edge and I am no longer able to adapt to stress like I once was. Now, it is a constant battle for me to keep my adrenals healthy and working at optimal levels.

  30. Householder says

    I apologize for the double post myself, but my last comment made me realize I have a question. What are your thoughts on chocolate Chris (any other knowledgeable individuals opinion would also be appreciated)? When I eat 85% percent or higher my body doesn’t even seem to desire to eat more chocolate. Mark Sissan is really the only ‘paleo guru’ that has commented on it much at all. I just learned of you from Robb Wolf’s podcast, really liked your perspective and resonate with it and would love to hear your opinion on this food I make such a fulcrum of my diet and happiness (with great success I might add).

  31. Householder says

    The is something I’ve never had a problem with growing up on the Islands and the coast, but chocolate has to be the other reason. I’m almost completely paleo aside from chocolate, but that’s because it plays as significant a role as the rest of the diet in that it makes me a perpetually happy person and being mostly saturated fat seems to be better than some cheats. I would highly encourage others to eat plenty of chocolate to reduce stress, it works wonders for me :D.

  32. Mark says

    Hi Dr. Smith,
    Thank you for commenting, I really respect your work and your opinion. I guess I just got stuck in the void of trying to lean out as quick as possible, taking it to the extreme. So should I just eat more calories of the same quality food? I only resorted to this method because I’ve done the unweighed/unmeasured gig before and I didn’t see much in the way of results but maybe I just didn’t give it enough time. I hear you that the feel-good effect of fasting and underrating is like a ticking time bomb. I guess many people just revert back to calorie counting because it’s something to track. Anyways, I’m going a seminar by Mat Lalonde tomorrow, I’m sure he’ll set me straight. Thank you again Dr. Smith and Chris. I really appreciate the help because even though I read a ton about this stuff, I still easily miss some important points.

  33. Chip Joyce says

    I support these techniques. However, for most people they are so overwhelmed that they need to address stress in a different way too.

    I suggest David Allen’s works: Getting Things Done,The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The calm one can achieve by learning how to write down everything on your mind, define outcomes and next actions, categorize them in objective context lists, review them regularly, and keep everything out of your head–is phenomenal. Then, when you meditate you can be free of everything creeping into your head at the time, because you know you have a trusted system keeping everything in control for you.

    I shared this with my acupuncturist and he was delighted, I might add.

    • susan says

      this sounds really valuable for me. i seem to get stressed out immediately when i get to work and have so many things to prioritize-all the thoughts are doing battle in my head vying for attention. i get really overwhelmed by my non-stop thoughts of things to do, both at work and at home. i often end up shutting down completely and can’t seem to do anything productive. i have adult ADD also so this makes it more challenging. one of my program leads at work gave me a “pep talk” yesterday and told me i need to slow down rather than rushing around trying to get stuff done. she basically said to stop trying to multi-task. i really don’t want to multi-task, but it’s so hard for me to concentrate on one thing w/o having all these other thoughts pop into my head. doesn’t help that my work involves a wide range of duties/tasks where i really do have to shift gears from one thing to another throughout the day.

  34. Catherine says

    I am also emailing your article to a friend whose husband just had heart problems because of his stressful lifestyle. Thank you for this very good series.

  35. Catherine says

    I suffered from stress for a year at a time every time we moved from one country to another and my body reacted very strongly to it by weakening my immune system, I suppose my whole metabolism . 2 month before my previous move I caught a virus and developed pneumonia and I felt that it was a pretty strong warning so 1 year before our last move I took up meditation, qi gong, and breathing therapy. I also allowed myself time for spontaneous pleasures . It worked great. Stress management is definitely an important regime to follow. Laughing yoga was also a great thing :-)

  36. Chris Kresser says

    I agree with Garrett. I’m not a fan of calorie restricted diets because of their effects on cortisol. At that level of caloric intake, you’re going to lose lean mass and end up adding fat in your abdominal area (due to increased cortisol levels) over the long-term. Not a good strategy.

  37. says

    Mark,
    At 1200-1500 Cals/day, you might be getting enough nutrition, but you aren’t getting enough energy.

    By doing this, you are forcing your body to pump out extra stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, to keep your blood glucose levels from dropping. Lifting at the end of a 20-hour fast, when you’re only eating 1200-1500 Cal in a day means that your workout was fueled almost entirely by the result of stress hormones (and the energy they freed up).

    You’ll likely feel OK for a while, then your body will build a tolerance to your stress hormones, and you won’t feel so hot any longer.

    Just because you might use a high quality oil and the highest octane gas in your car doesn’t mean you’re going to get to drive twice as far on a tank of gas.

    Undereating, intermittent fasting, and intense exercise are all stressors. Your experiment has been done before, I deal with “survivors” of your experiment every day. See the RobbWolf.com forums, they’re all over there. It goes well for a while, sure. You think it will go on forever. I’m here to tell you that it won’t. Believe it or not.

    • Hélène says

      Actually you probably felt GREAT becuz when you’re destroying your body, it feels good. That runner’s high is a sign that All Is Not Well. It’s to keep us going when we truly need to keep going, like in a time-limited crisis. That rush is not good to have chronically, day after day.
      Really.
      Physiologically you are harming yourself. Just the same as a smoker is ruining his lungs well before he first starts hacking up in the mornings.
      The piper will be paid.

  38. Mark R. says

    Hey Beth,
    I feel really good actually. I at first thought that it would be drastic but I’m kind of running an experiment and so far it’s going good. Last night I deadlifted the same weight and reps that I did last week when I was eating more calories, so that was a good sign. And that was on the end of about a 20-hour fast. This is why I’m researching this stuff because if I can make 1,200 calories super nutritious and thereby not harm my body, then I don’t see the need for the extra calories. You know what I mean?

  39. Mark R. says

    Thanks Jack. I will likely order the BO and CLO blend. I’m only considering the grams of fat because I’m under-eating right now to lose body fat. Once I get to a desired level of leanness, I definitely plan on increasing my pastured butter intake to the point where I don’t put fat back on. I’ve had fun researching this as I want to lean out in the healthiest way possible.

  40. says

    To add to Jack’s reply to Mark, heating/pasteurizing does kill off the Wulzen factor … so if you’ve got any stiffness/arthritis, it’s probably worth adding the HVBO over the butter or ghee.

    That said, anyone else concerned about a 6′ 190lb guy only eating 1500 calories on a daily basis? Hmmm.

  41. Jack Kronk says

    Mark,

    The butter is a highly concentrated extraction of the fat soluable vitamins/nutrients in butter from cows that ate fast growing green grass. To get that amount, I’ve read that it’s about 5 times as much grass fed ghee and more than that for butter, but keep in mind that the HVBO is raw and they claim that the ‘fast growing green grass’ makes a difference, a la Weston A Price himself. I’m not sure if a “grass fed” label necessarily indicates fast growing, but I think that’s getting pretty technical.

    Eating pasture butter and ghee does indeed provide K2 though, and it could be argued that consuming pasture butter could be adequate for K2, so long as you eat enough of it daily. Don’t be concerned about the fat content of the butter oil. It’s not about the g of fat. It’s about what’s in those 2.5 g of fat. Personally, I take the GP royal blend, and eat pasture butter/ghee like a maniac.

    Chris,

    Excellent article on stress management. Weird thing to mention, but I know this gal at work that eats terribly, I mean super terribly. She will not touch any form of meat, and she’ll eat a pack of M&M’s and a regular coke for breakfast. A bagel with butter substitute and a Red Bull for lunch. Today I saw her eating a little Debbie chocolate cake snack for breakfast. She does this daily, and yet she is fairly in shape and even has made comments to me about others about being out of shape. I jokingly scoff at her diet to her all the time (she’s ok with it) and she pokes fun at my butter and eggs and sardines and what not. My point… she is pretty laid back… doesn’t seem to stress much, and is generally self confident. It will likely catch up to her soon enough, but it still makes me wonder how much that plays a role in her physiological ability to eat that way and still be pretty fit for being in her late 50s.

    Anyway I already have a couple people in mind that I want to forward this too. Thanks so much for your diligence.

    Jack K

    • Hélène says

      She is a genetic anomaly. The kind of woman that other women hate lol. I doubt it will catch up with her if it hasn’t by her mid50s. SIGH
      Genetics is JUST not fair.
      I don’t want to smoke till 95 and drink every nite till I’m 90. I just want to look normal lol

  42. Barry says

    Hi Chris

    just have two questions I’d like to run by you:

    1. In terms stress monitoring, do you recommend the Adrenal Stress Index ? Reckon its a consistant measure ?

    2. Any experience using supplements such as Phosphatidyl Serine, Licorice Root and Holy Basil ?

    Thanks Chris

    Barry

  43. says

    Excellent post Chris – posting the link on my Facebook page.
    Stress in one form or another is at the core of every one of my client’s presenting issues. I deeply appreciate your promotion of the efficacy of mindfulness practices in the mitigation of stress (including the link to eMindful), as well as the excellent tips to proactively help reduce it in the first place. With the instant gratification mindset that is pervasive in our culture, it can be a challenge to inspire people to do what it takes to be fully present and responsible for the impact their thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors have upon their mind and body (as well as everyone else their life comes into contact with). The evidence-based education you provide along with a dose of “tough love” (one of my favorite tools) is a gift to those who are ready to take the necessary steps to feel good and live well. Many thanks to you.

  44. Mark R. says

    Oh ok, I only asked because a serving of butter oil has 2.5g of fat while a tbsp of Kerry Gold has 11g. I’m not sure if there is research on this but do you think that I could get the same benefits by eating the Kerry Gold butter instead of taking the butter oil? And if so, do you have any idea how much butter I would need to eat to get same nutrition provided in 5 ml (which is the amount that I think you recommend) of butter oil? Thank you for your help. Basically I’m wondering if I’m overeating the fats as I’d be happy to just eat the essential amount to absorb the vitamins and then just eat protein and carbs as needed.

  45. Chris Kresser says

    Matt: as I mentioned in the article, I believe the answer to your questions comes down to beliefs, habits and patterns of behavior. We all operate within a structure created by years of conditioning. It’s usually possible to change our diet, take supplements and exercise more without threatening this structure. But stress management actually requires us to question the beliefs and change the habits and behavioral patterns that this structure is comprised of. That’s what make stress management so much more difficult. It actually requires us to grow and evolve.

    Mark: FCLO and BO are fats, so you don’t need extra fat to absorb the vitamins they contain.

    • Nishat says

      Hi chris, this an article all need to look at in detail.its very enlightening indeed.but lifestyle management is a real problem.i have a friend who works long hours on the computer as a means of livelihood. Missing meals and poor sleep are life parteners to such a way of life. I have given my friend lots of advice on diet and how to improve sleep. …at least now initating sleep is not a problem but missing meals is kind of like a habit due to, well, being engrosed with work. Chris what do suggest for this sort of situation?

  46. Mark R. says

    Hey Chris,
    Love your stuff. After reading and listening to your material, along with reading the good material over at The Perfect Health, I have come to some conclusions that I’d like to run by you.

    Basically, I’m working at leaning out from my current level of about 15%. So to do this in a smart way, I want to eat the most nutritious that I can with the limited amount of calories that I eat per day (1,500 at the most – I’m 6’0″, 193 lbs and 27 yo if that matters). With this in mind, I know that I need to get vitamin D, K, and A at a minimum. So I was thinking about getting the Green Pastures Butter Oil and CLO but wasn’t sure if I need a certain amount of added fat to absorb those vitamins or will they absorb fine without added fat? I have been eating 1-2 tbsp of Kerry Gold butter per day and supplementing with CLO pills and vitamin-D in an effort to get the same benefits but if I could cut the calories by using the Green Pastures product and not eating extra butter, then I would likely go that route. Sorry if this comment is kind of all over the place. Thank you for your help.

  47. says

    I’ve often come to wonder if, instead of being overwhelmed by stress, people simply do not understand stress and no not think they have it. I think this is what I tend to see in my massage practice.. “I’m not here to relax, I’m here because my back hurts!”
    You have a wonderfully simplified explanation of stress and what it does to the body. I think using this article as a reference will help me by leaps and bounds to help people understand their stress. Thank you!

  48. Matt says

    Such an important article and topic. I believe it was stress – from emotional, dietary and lifestyle sources that plunged me into chronic fatigue and a multitute of chronic symptoms.

    I am exactly the person you describe. Seemingly knowing/implementing everything when it comes to diet and supplements but then being extremely unmotivated and apathetic towards stress relief and relaxation. I can’t quite understand why I’m so committed to the things you would think are more challenging, such as sourcing and preparing top quality food, cooking frequently to balance my blood sugars, working out all the macronutrient ratios, researching this or that supplement etc but then find it so difficult to implement some sort of relaxation or meditation routine, even if it’s only for a few minutes initially. It’s like I can’t escape my desire to get well, which is keeping me unwell! When I could be reading a book or drifting off to sleep, the lure of the laptop and checking all the paleo/WAP blogs is too strong!

    I WILL be forwarding this to people I know, but it looks like I need to work out how to look after number one, somehow…..

    Thanks Chris

  49. says

    I started doing neurofeedback this past fall after reading about it in Nora Gedgaudas’ book. My doc would object to this, but I call it computer-facilitated meditation. Not for everyone (it’s not covered by insurance), but I’m finding it invaluable to break some of my decades-old, stress-related habits.

    One thing my neurofeedback doc recommended adding to my stress management practice is an emWave PSR from HeartMath. I use the emWave in the AM and PM while listening to classical music and watching a slideshow of nature pics on Flickr. Lovely way to unwind!

    With both the actual neurofeedback and the emWave, I find that there’s something about having actual feedback that makes “sitting” far more tolerable, and thus something I can actually continue doing on a regular basis.

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