StressAway-300x200We live in a fast paced society.  Two of the common emotional issues that face millions of people are stress and some sort of depression or mood disorder.

Stress; the word alone often causes people to tense up.   Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Some people may cope with stress more effectively or recover from stressful events quicker than others. It’s important to know your limits when it comes to stress to avoid more serious health effects.

Technically speaking, stress is defined as the brain’s response to any demand. Many things can trigger this response, including change. Changes can be positive or negative, as well as real or perceived. They may be recurring, short-term, or long-term and may include things like commuting to and from school or work every day, traveling for a yearly vacation, or moving to another home. Changes can be mild and relatively harmless, such as winning a race, watching a scary movie, or riding a rollercoaster. Some changes are major, such as marriage or divorce, serious illness, or a car accident. Other changes are extreme, such as exposure to violence, and can lead to traumatic stress reactions.

Not all stress is bad. All animals have a stress response, which can be life-saving in some situations. The nerve chemicals and hormones released during such stressful times, prepares the animal to face a threat or flee to safety. When you face a dangerous situation, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival. In the short term, it can even boost the immune system.

However, with chronic stress, those same nerve chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival. Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally. Once the threat has passed, other body systems act to restore normal functioning. Problems occur if the stress response goes on too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided.

The Effects of Stress

Different people may feel stress in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, mood changes, anger and irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them.

Of all the types of stress, changes in health from day-to-day stress may be hardest to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.

Stress Influencers

It goes without saying that the amount of stress one has in their life varies greatly depending upon how much they have going on.  Everyone goes through times in their life when they have more or less stress.  In addition, the level of experience you have with life also has an impact on how you view stress.  What you thought was stressful during college days might seem like a walk in the park to a parent raising three children.

The obvious aside, there are other factors that dramatically influence how one perceives stress and how one deals with stress.  These include:

Attitude: A person’s attitude can influence whether or not a situation or emotion is stressful. A person with a negative attitude will often report more stress than would someone with a positive attitude.  Some tips on attitude include;

  • Find the positive in situations.
  • Do not dwell on the past or negative situations.

Diet: A poor diet puts the body in a state of physical stress and weakens the immune system. As a result, a person can be more likely to get infections. A poor diet can mean making unhealthy food choices, not eating enough, or not eating on a normal schedule. This form of physical stress also decreases the ability to deal with emotional stress because not getting the right nutrition may affect the way the brain processes information.  Some tips on diet as it relates to stress management include;

  • Eat foods that improve your health and well-being (fruits, vegetables).
  • Eat normal size portions.
  • Eat smaller meals throughout the day instead of fewer, larger meals.

Physical activity: Not getting enough physical activity can put the body in a stressed state. Physical activity has many benefits, including promoting a feeling of well-being.  Re-read Chapter 1!  Some of the important aspects to an exercise program include;

  • Decide on a specific type, amount, and level of physical activity. Fit this into your schedule so it can be part of your routine.
  • Find a buddy to exercise with. It is more fun and helps you to stick with your routine.
  • Find more ways to get incidental activity into each and every day; take the stairs, park farther away from the shopping center or intentionally take the long way walking around the office.

Support systems: Almost everyone needs someone in their life they can rely on when they are having a hard time. Having little or no support makes stressful situations even more difficult to deal with.

  • Try to socialize. Even though you may feel like avoiding people when you are stressed, meeting friends often helps you feel less stressed.
  • Find recreational activities that you can do with one or more friends.
  • Be good to yourself and others.

“Down time”: A person with no outside interests, hobbies, or other ways to relax may be less able to handle stressful situations. Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night also helps a person cope with stress.  Some tips on relaxation time include:

  • Plan fun activities.
  • Listen to your body when it tells you to slow down or take a break.
  • Even if you don’t think you need it, take regular breaks.
  • Try relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, listening to music, or practicing yoga or meditation.
  • Do something that interests you. Take up a hobby.

Exercising Stress Away

Many studies and groundbreaking books like “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by John Ratey, MD clearly demonstrate that regular exercise is one of the best “medicines” for many emotional conditions—including stress, depression, ADD, ADHD and more.  There are many reasons for this.

First, exercise causes the body to produce feel good neurotransmitters, called endorphins.  Although it is often referred to as a “runners high,” any form of vigorous activity will trigger an endorphin rush.

Second, on the other end of the spectrum, exercise reduces the amount of stress hormones in the body, resulting in a slower heart rate, relaxed blood vessels, and lower blood pressure.

Third, exercising gets the brain to focus on something other than the problems at hand.  This is particularly true for any type of activity that requires constant attention, like tennis or racquetball, or when you are learning a new activity.  The practice of yoga has participants focus on their breathing and letting go of any other thoughts as they enter the brain.  Many instructors refer to this type of focus as “meditation in motion.”

Fourth, regular exercise usually leads to greater physical fitness, which in turn leaves one feeling better and more self-confident.  With greater self-confidence stress seems more manageable for many individuals.

Finally, exercise can help to improve sleep because we tire the body out physically.  When under high levels of stress many people report sleep disturbances.  Therefore exercise can counteract this issue.  .


Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.

Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain.  Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.  Scientists are studying certain genes that may make some people more prone to depression.  In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode.

Although there are many types of depression, there are a few more common types. .  Major depression occurs when a person’s symptoms interfere with the ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life.  Postpartum depression can occur in women after giving birth when hormonal and physical changes, along with the caring for a newborn can be overwhelming.  Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive, is not as common but occurs when an individual has cycling mood changes.  According to the CDC, about 6.7% of US adults experience some sort of major depressive disorder annually.  Women, however, are 70% more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime.

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

Exercise and Depression

In the exact same ways that exercise helps with stress reduction, so too does it help with depression.  In fact, “Google” treating exercise with depression and you will find literally dozens of studies that support the case that exercise can ward off depression.  One study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicinein 199 not only demonstrated that exercising eased depression but that the benefits of exercise lasted longer than individuals taking antidepressants.

Another study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine 27-310-5, showed that not only did physical activity protect against depression but that people aged 13-34 years who attempted suicide reported little or no physical activity in their life the month prior to the suicide attempt.  The study analyzed 4,728 participants and researchers concluded the evidence strongly linked exercise with more stable mental health.

Yet another study, reported in “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38-173-8, monitored 5,451 men and 1,277 women aged 20–88 years and discovered a correlation between cardio-respiratory fitness and reduced depression and enhanced emotional well-being. The subjects engaged in regular walking, jogging and running for their exercise.

The bottom line is that when it comes to fighting off depression, exercise seems to be the perfect antidote on multiple levels.  Not only does it make you feel better but it also makes you look better, which in turn makes you feel even better!