We are constantly being told how important it is to take care of ourselves, but how do we know what that means? You may think you’re taking care of yourself by eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. But how often are you managing your stress levels? Stress-related disorders play a big role in medical problems ranging from high blood pressure and heart disease, diabetes, obesity – all the way up to certain cancers.
In this blog post, we’ll talk about how integrative medicine approaches to stress management can help you reduce the symptoms of chronic stress and unlock greater resilience in stressful situations.
Why Stress Management Is Ripe for an Integrative Medicine Approach?
Stress is ubiquitous in modern life. We are constantly bombarded by stressors, from traffic jams and work deadlines to simply how much we have on our plate at any given moment. While the root causes of this issue often aren’t difficult to pinpoint–developing the right set of healthy coping skills definitely can be. This is one reason issues like substance abuse are common when the nervous system is unable to return to a relaxed state.
Before we get started, let’s address one thing: your goal of integrative medicine isn’t to attain a stress-free life all the time. What you should be working toward is decreasing stressors where you can, and building better ways to cope with difficult experiences when they inevitably happen.
Unmitigated stress does play a significant role in the development and progression of several of our most prolific chronic diseases, like:
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Cardiovascular disease
- Autoimmune diseases
- Metabolic syndrome
Conventional medicine may only suggest medication, and limited lifestyle changes to manage stress, but integrative health will develop a personalized treatment plan with options like cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based relaxation techniques, acupuncture, and even certain diet changes.
Effective coping mechanisms, as well as stressful triggers, vary greatly between individuals. We’ll explore these in detail, with a range of different approaches to ensure that there’s something that works for everyone.
What are stress-related symptoms?
Symptoms that you’re dealing with the effects of chronic stress and burnout include:
- Difficulty concentrating/brain fog
- Getting sick more often/immune weakness
- High blood pressure
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
- Digestive trouble like diarrhea or malabsorption issues
- Changes in mood
- Weight gain or loss (often due to hormonal changes)
- Sugar and carbohydrate cravings
- Teeth grinding
- Obsessive or compulsive behaviors
Make sense of complex symptoms when you consult with an integrative provider. Scheduling an appointment is simple and quick.
Therapy Based Solutions for Stress Reduction
Cognitive behavior therapy is a type of talk therapy focused on questioning and re-examining your reactions toward your thoughts, feelings, and actions. This type of therapy helps reframe the negative perception or behaviors that contribute to changes in mood. Researchers have concluded that people receiving CBT suffer less psychological stress when they are taking medications alone (1). CBT is a great complementary treatment to an integrative medicine approach.
The goal of Craniosacral therapy is to engage the body’s natural self-correcting ability, improve wellbeing, and reduce internal tension.
Craniosacral therapy, or CST, uses a light, pain-free touch to address circulatory, inflammatory, digestive, and neurological concerns by identifying internal nervous system imbalance.
An experienced craniosacral therapist will engage specific tissues at the base of the head where it meets the spine to release tension (5).
Benefits of Craniosacral Therapy include:
- Improved sleep
- Increased mobility
- Decreased pain and inflammation
- Reduced migraine symptoms
- Reduction in anxiety and OCD symptoms in children
By monitoring the response to craniosacral movement, it’s possible to release inflammation at the root of various conditions. This therapy is a mainstay in integrative medicine because of its effectiveness compared to other invasive techniques that offer limited improvement and troublesome side effects (6).
Experience the benefits of CranioSacral therapy with our experienced therapist, Molly Grady.
Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is one of the most commonly prescribed integrative medicine treatments for promoting healthy self-regulation. These practices involve traditional techniques of deep relaxation by focusing and being aware of your mind and body.
MBSR is based on becoming aware of how our response affects the body’s physiological state, and how to improve it. Research has shown MBSR can aid in improving feelings of anxiety, depression, and the effect of chronic stress (2).
Acupuncture and Massage Therapy
According to one large study, acupuncture has clinical efficacy on various nervous system disorders, such as cardiovascular diseases, epilepsy, anxiety and nervousness, circadian rhythm (sleep) disorders, and some types of infertility (3).
Stressful triggers activate your sympathetic nervous system, and put you in a state of “fight-or-flight”. Acupuncture can encourage the body to let the parasympathetic nervous system take over–also known as the “rest-and-digest”. This prompts the heart rate to slow, as well as blood pressure and cortisol levels to decrease. Acupuncture has been shown to improve stress-related complaints, such as trouble sleeping, energy, chronic pain, and migraines.
Massage therapy has also been proven a valuable tool in stress reduction in integrative health. Similar to acupuncture, massage therapy can also release feel-good hormones from the brain, such as oxytocin. This helps facilitate shifting your nervous system to a more relaxed state while decreasing the release of stress hormones like cortisol (4).
Read more: Acupuncture + Frequently Asked Questions
7 At-Home Tips for Effective Stress Management
There are both short-term and long-term strategies that are most effective when practiced consistently. The best thing about these tips is their accessibility for almost anyone. These methods:
- Are most effective when practiced consistently
- Cost little or are free
- Are accessible for most people
Get out in the sunlight early.
Exposure to morning sunlight profoundly benefits mood, mental health, and overall sleep hygiene (7). Getting out in the natural light upon waking supports your body’s built-in circadian rhythm, which regulates energy levels, mood, and sleep.
Want more sunlight benefits without sun exposure? The ‘sunshine vitamin’–aka vitamin D can help improve your mood.
Eat a balanced diet
A poor diet, or one high in processed foods, can bring about a more intense reaction to daily stressors both big and small.
Processed and refined carbs like cereals, fast food, and cookies cause abrupt highs and lows in blood sugar that decrease your ability to cope with stressful triggers.
Eat a healthy diet with plenty of proteins, healthy fats, and fiber-rich carbohydrates such as vegetables.
Related: Stay Away from These Bad Mood Foods!
Start a gratitude practice
This can help you address negative self-talk patterns that may also be contributing to high chronic stress.
Begin each morning by quickly writing down 3 things you’re grateful for each day. As time progresses, this aids in shifting your perspective from one of negativity to seeing the positive aspects of your day.
Deliberate Cold Exposure
While non-conventional, the practice of intentionally exposing the body to very cold (20 degrees C) temperatures for a short period of time may be one of the most cutting edge strategies for improving health and mitigating your physiological response to stress (8).
Other benefits of cold therapy include:
- Reduction in chronic pain/pain management
- Increased immune function
- Better sleep
- Mental, emotional, and physical resilience
- Increased energy and focus
This process generally involves cold showers for a period of 2-5 minutes, or cold plunging in a tub, or cryotherapy (air-cooled to -115 degrees).
Regular movements like tai chi or yoga
A mind-body practice that helps unify your thoughts and movements by focusing on how you move your body through space. Tai chi has been shown to improve mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, and more.
Yoga is another form of movement that has been shown to alleviate stress by decreasing cortisol levels in the body. Yoga also increases serotonin production which makes us feel better overall.
Focus on belly breathing
Your diaphragm is connected to your vagus nerve, which, when stimulated, can promote relaxation in the brain (9).
- Breathe in deeply through your nose for 4 counts and watch your belly and chest fill with air. Hold for 7 seconds, and then exhale slowly for 8 counts.
- When you breathe in, imagine bringing peace into your body. As you exhale, imagine negative thoughts and stressors leaving your body.
Cut out Things That Add to Your Stress
Sometimes, the best way to live a more peaceful life is to know when to say no to certain things. This may look like setting boundaries in your personal life, sticking to your routine during trying times, or just reducing the number of commitments on your to-do list.
It’s also worth noting that watching the news, being constantly connected to your digital devices, drinking alcohol, and consuming too much caffeine are just a few of the things that may add more stress to your life. Making some changes to your daily habits could be instrumental in helping you feel better.
Read more: 6 Strategies to Heal the Mind
Decreasing Stressful Situations in the Workplace
Many jobs are inherently stressful, but how you react to this trigger is key.
Stress at work can be caused by how we perceive the events and how much control we feel like we have over those situations. For this reason, both Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCT) are beneficial to treat stress responses while at work.
Consider ways that you may be able to take a break from work–even if it’s just for five minutes. Step away from your desk, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. This can help to reset your mind and body so you can continue working productively.
Supplemental Tips to Reduce Stress
Certain vitamins and nutrients can help your body manage a healthy response during stressful times. When you’re feeling challenged, consider:
- Magnesium: Helps cells relax and improves mood, sleep, and tension.
- Vitamin C: Enhances how your body responds to stressful triggers by reducing cortisol levels in the blood. This vitamin also helps strengthen immunity which can weaken during periods of high stress.
- Fish Oil: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been shown to support a healthy mood.
- Rhodiola rosea: An Ayurvedic herb traditionally used to improve fatigue and improve mental performance, especially during times of stress.
- Herbal tea blends: Certain herbs like chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, and passionflower are known for their calming and relaxing effects.
- Kava kava: A herb that’s traditionally used in the South Pacific to boost mood and treat insomnia.
- Adaptogens: Herbs that help restore balance in the body and promote mental, physical, and emotional resilience.
- Ashwagandha: An herb used to regulate cortisol levels, improve energy production, and fight inflammation.
- Holy basil: A type of mint plant found in India that’s been shown to lower blood pressure while reducing anxiety symptoms.
Building a Stress Reduction Program with Integrative Medicine
If you are experiencing chronic stress, it’s vital to take some proactive steps toward mitigating its potential effects. Integrative medicine can help with building an effective stress management program that fits your individual needs. You can start now with short-term strategies like breathing exercises and mindset changes, as well as long-term strategies like eating a healthy diet and relaxing movements.
Integrative medicine approaches your treatment to identify the root causes of your issues, looking at all aspects of wellness including mental, physiological, and spiritual/emotional health, social relationships, and physical environment.
We encourage you to make an appointment with a member of our team today so they can work together in creating a personalized plan for your stress management.