What Is Oxidative Stress?

Generally, most of us would consider oxygen to be pretty good for us. After all, we need to breathe in order to stay alive and this is entirely due to the huge number of crucial roles that oxygen has inside our bodies. Without oxygen we wouldn’t last very long at all.

But while oxygen is very good for us, what’s also important to remember is that it’s highly reactive. This is what makes it useful as an energy source but at the same time it’s also what makes it quite dangerous in a number of ways.

What Are Free Radicals?

What is oxidative stress? Essentially, oxidative stress describes a state of imbalance where there are too many ‘free radicals’ in the body versus antioxidants.

Free radicals are molecules that contain oxygen and that have one or more unpaired electrons. This makes them particularly dangerous as they are highly reactive with other molecules.

Some of these reactive molecules are actually useful as they help the body by attacking pathogens and harmful microbes. Free radicals though are loose cannons and are like bulls in a china shop – reacting with all kinds of components in the body from cell membranes, to DNA and proteins and lipids. By damaging skin cells, free radicals can cause visible signs of ageing and if they react badly with DNA this can then lead to the development of cancers.

What Are Antioxidants?

Fortunately, there is a way to counteract all the destruction caused by these free radicals and oxidative stress which involves the use of antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules within the cells which can prevent unwanted reactions with free radicals by donating electrons to the free radicals without becoming unstable. This then neutralizes the free radical in question and prevents it from causing further harm.

Fortunately it is possible to get more antioxidants by maintaining the right diet. Antioxidants are actually present in a number of different foods and particularly in a lot of different fruits. Vitamins A, C and E, selenium and more are all antioxidants and by ensuring you get plenty in your diet you can reduce oxidative stress and potentially live a longer and healthier life.

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Can Stress Cause Constipation?

It’s a commonly known fact that stress, and especially fear, can potentially cause sudden and unwanted bowel movements. Stress is often linked with diarrhea and is a strong risk factor in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

But what’s less known is that stress can also prevent bowel movements. In some cases stress can actually lead to constipation. But how precisely can stress cause constipation and diarrhea?

The Many Ways That Stress Affects the Bowel

The reason that stress can cause diarrhea is that it produces more contraction in the muscles including the colon. This can then be enough to cause a bowel movement and thus the evacuation of the bowels.

But when asking how can stress cause constipation, we need to look at a different mechanism.

Here, ongoing chronic stress can suppress the gastrocolic reflex. This is an unconscious action controlled by the gastrointestinal tract that would normally trigger bowel movements. Because stress causes blood and oxygen to be redirected to the muscles and the brain, this means that secondary functions like this one are suppressed.

In other cases, being in stressful situations can cause us to consciously suppress our bowel movements. If you’re stressed at work for instance then you might ‘hold it’ so that you can focus on work. If you do this for too long or too regularly, this can result in the stool hardening up. This can also be an issue with the aforementioned suppression of the gastrocolic reflex and create something of a vicious cycle.

Diarrhea or Constipation?

This still doesn’t answer the question of how can stress cause constipation in some people and diarrhea in others. Why do some of us experience one effect and others have the exact opposite experience?

What’s important to remember here though is that everyone is different and that every case of stress is also different. This means that we will all react in different ways when stressed and even react in different ways from one instance to the next.

So while some of us will find ourselves consciously and unconsciously preventing bowel movements, others will unintentionally flex their colon in order to encourage more bowel movements.

Ultimately, neither of these outcomes are really desirable so the main take-home message is to avoid stress and to be aware of the serious and profound effects it can have on the body.

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What Is PTSD?

PTSD is the acronym for post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition triggered by exposure to extreme traumatic situations and resulting in numerous symptoms such as heightened arousal, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, jumpiness, increased heart rate and more.

You’ve probably heard about PTSD on the news or seen it portrayed in films, but what is PTSD really? What actually happens in the brain to trigger it and why does it happen that way?

The Evolution of PTSD

Almost everything that happens in the brain happens for a reason. Over thousands of years of evolution our brains have evolved in order to help us survive at all costs. Unfortunately though, as our lifestyles have changed, some of our evolutionary traits now seem a little ‘out of place’ in the modern world which can lead to a number of issues.

So what is PTSD in the context of evolution? It’s a way to prevent us from getting into dangerous or painful situations again. In other words, it’s our brain’s way of reminding us to avoid those circumstances at all costs. This can still make sense in a modern context: say you were to walk down a dark alley and get mugged, the severe trauma might leave you with a lasting impression of that experience which would then be strong enough to ensure that you never go down a dark alley on your own again. This in turn could then one day save your life if it means that you avoid a future dark alleyway with someone waiting down it.

The problem is that these days we don’t actually tend to need that PTSD because we have enough awareness to know to avoid repeating most of our mistakes. And what’s worse, is that PTSD does tend to go a little ‘overboard’ rather – to the point where you wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats or can’t get to sleep at all.

The Neuroscience of PTSD

To fully be able to answer ‘what is PTSD’ though, we need to look at the changes that occur in the brain. What is actually happening at a neurological level to cause these symptoms?

In any stressful situation, the brain responds by releasing a number of neurotransmitters/hormones that we associate with the ‘fight or flight response’. These are: adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine. Together, they cause us to become more alert and responsive, they contract our muscles and they raise our heart rate and blood pressure. The idea is that if we were facing any kind of imminent danger, we would stand a better chance of fighting or getting away thanks to these changes. At the same time, in these circumstances we are more likely to remember things as dopamine and norepinephrine also stimulate memory. Caffeine has a similar effect in fact and this is why we will often drink strong coffee when revising or working.

In PTSD, these same changes occur but to an exaggerated to degree. A sudden and severe rush of adrenaline, dopamine and norepinephrine is here strong enough to cause deeply ingrained neural patterns and very strong associations that are enough to cause our mind to find its way back to those stressful memories and to cause an even stronger and bigger release of hormones each time it does.

So that’s the scientific answer to ‘what is PTSD’!

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Stress in Dogs – How to Spot it, Prevent it and Treat It

One of the things that make dogs as lovely as they are is the fact that they always seem happy. They’re always pleased to see you, always wagging their tail and they can have literally a riot with a piece of string. It’s that sort of simple enthusiasm for life that many of us could learn from and that many of us wish we could experience.

Stress in dogUnfortunately though, while dogs might always seem happy, this isn’t always the case. Just like us, dogs can get sad sometimes and just like us they can get stressed sometimes. Stress in dogs is in fact pretty common so let’s take a look at some of the things that can cause it and how you can help your pup to get their stress levels back under control.

Stress in Humans and Dogs

In some ways, stress in dogs is completely the same as stress in humans. In other ways, it’s completely different. Not very helpful I know but bear with me, I’m going to elaborate…

For both stress in humans and in dogs, the experience comes from the release of certain specific neurotransmitters. Those include things like norepinephrine, adrenaline and dopamine. These neurochemicals/hormones then put our minds and bodies on ‘high alert’ by making us more sensitive to noises and sights, by making our muscles tense and by increasing our heart rate, blood viscosity and more. In other words, they engage your ‘fight or flight’ response which makes you better at… fighting or fleeing.

How Stress in Dogs Is Different

The difference obviously comes from what triggers this response. Evolutionarily, the purpose of this response is to help us better survive a potentially dangerous situation by making us more alert. On top of this, it can then help us to avoid getting into those situations again because memories will form that lead to associations between the stressor and bad feelings.

Stress in humans though can also be caused by more abstract things. Even the worst boss in the world doesn’t probably pose any physical threat to our health and wellbeing but as far as our brains are concerned they may as well do. Thus we get the same release of neurotransmitters associated with stress and anxiety and that’s where chronic stress comes from. Other abstract causes include being in debt or having relationship troubles. Moving house, Christmas and weddings are all up there too.

But before you get too mad at your human brain, remember that it can also help you to lessen stress as well. As the above demonstrates, stress is caused by our perception of events – not by the events themselves. While we might convince ourselves that we’re in danger when the boss comes around the corner, we can also convince ourselves that we’re not in danger when there’s a storm outside. Or fireworks. We can rationalize our situations and this allows us to become less stressed by things that don’t matter. If you get really good then you can even control your stress levels in those chronic situations – reminding yourself that you don’t give a monkey’s what your boss thinks for instance.

Dogs though can’t rationalize their situation and thus stress in dogs works pretty much the way it was intended in nature. Problem is, they live with us and we give them all sorts of reasons to be stressed. Like fireworks and like arguments and like poor nutrition. You can’t tell a dog that ‘it’s all okay’ and they can’t tell you when they’re feeling stressed…

So how do you manage a stressed dog?

Signs of Stress in Dogs

The first step is making sure that you can tell when your dog is stressed. You don’t need an animal psychologist round to do this as fortunately there are some pretty easy giveaways. These include:

  • Excessive lip and nose licking
  • Yawning – They also yawn when they’re tired but this yawn will look more intense and will be wider.
  • Panting – Again look at the context. If they’re hot or have been running around then panting is normal. Otherwise, if the panting is very quick and shallow and there is no obvious reason for it, they may be stressed.
  • Pinned ears – If your dog’s ears are pinned closely against their head this may be a sign of stress. It’s a sign of discomfort and it helps them to be more alert to noises.
  • Tension – If your dog is generally relaxed then they probably aren’t stressed. If they are stressed then their muscles will tense and they’ll look more upright and rigid.
  • Avoidance – If your dog avoids being touched and sniffs excessively then this might also be a sign of stress.
  • Excessive drooling – Especially when stressed
  • Dilated pupils
  • Barking
  • Urinating
  • Hiding – Your dog might run into the spare room and hide under the bed for instance.
  • Low tail carriage – ‘Running away with your tail between your legs’ is an expression that comes from this. If a dog is unhappy, their tail will be lower and possibly tucked right between their legs.
  • Whining and vocalization
  • Refusal to eat
  • Sweating from the paws
  • Shaking

Perhaps the easiest way to identify stress in dogs though is to know your dog well enough to be able to identify their individual signs. If you’ve owned your dog for a while, then chances are that you will have already survived one firework night together or one trip to the vet. At this time you’ll have seen how they behaved when they were stressed or scared and you should keep this in mind. Now if you see some or all of these symptoms again, you’ll know it’s because they are stressed.

Causes of Stress in Dogs

So what are some of the things that can cause your doggy to get upset? There are tons of potential causes but a few of them include the following:

  • Coldness
  • Loud noises
  • A sudden change of environment (if you’re moving home for instance)
  • A sudden change in activity (they can pick up on changes in your normal routine and behavior)
  • Arguing
  • Boredom/lack of stimulation
  • Poor diet
  • Unwanted interactions with people or other animals
  • Physical restraint or confinement
  • Injury
  • Loss of a family member/another pet
  • Change of their routine

Remember: dogs don’t tend to be stressed for complex reasons. Rather they tend to be stressed if there is some kind of physical cause of stress, if they are prevented from doing what they normally do, or if their routine is changed and they don’t understand why.

Helping Your Dog With Stress

Now you know how to spot stress in your dog, what can you do to help them cope?

The first thing to do is to try to identify and remove the stressor. If your dog is experiencing any of the stressors that we described above, then there’s a good chance that these might be causing their stress. If it’s fireworks, then you can try moving your dog to a room where there’s less noise. If it’s another noise, then try reducing that. If they’re unhappy being cooped up, then let them out to come and be with you.

Note that sometimes the oddest things can cause your dog to get stressed. It might be that your dog is afraid of your coat on the hanger. If they’re barking at it, that’s a good sign that you should move it.

You can also help your dog to avoid stress by spending time with them. Dogs get separation anxiety pretty bad and when you stroke them you’ll find it’s excellent stress relief for both of you and you’ll both get a rush of endorphins as a result. If you’re dog seems very unhappy, put them on your lap, talk to them and stroke them.

In terms of long-term stress it’s important to make sure that you try to give your dog a routine as much as possible. Dogs are definitely creatures of habit and one of the biggest cause of stress is not understanding why things are changing.

To avoid letting your dog get too upset by changes – be that a new member of the family or a change of environment – try to slowly acclimatize them to the new circumstances whenever possible. Meanwhile, you should make sure that you maintain their routine in every other way you can. They might be in a new home but you can still feed them at the same time, walk them at the same time… etc.

Another solution to ongoing stress is often obedience lessons. While this might seem like it would have the opposite effect, dogs are actually happiest when they understand the social hierarchy. If you’re constantly changing the rules and they’re not sure who’s in charge, this can actually cause more stress rather than less. Make sure they know you’re the boss and you’ll both be happier.

If your dog is chronically lonely you might want to consider getting them a friend but remember to introduce the two of them slowly. You should also always make sure to feed them a healthy diet which will support good mental health and to give them fresh air and exercise.

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‘Take a Breather’ – The Top Breathing Exercises for Stress

Do you struggle with chronic or acute stress?

If so, then one of the best things you can possibly do to get it under control is just breathe.

When we breathe deeply and slowly, this helps us by engaging our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the process that acts as the polar opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. Whereas the latter triggers the ‘fight or flight response’ that is responsible for our feelings of stress, the former creates the ‘rest and digest’ state which gets our body back under control.

When your breathing becomes rapid and shallow this acts as a signal to our brain and body that we are stressed and scared and it responds by making matters worse. This is why hyperventilation is a serious risk when you’re very anxious.

In order to get stress back under control then, the best thing you can do is to take a step back and slow down that breathing/breathe more deeply. This way you’ll be able to send signals to your body that encourage it to relax. At the same time, the very act of taking a moment out to ‘take a breather’ will help you to remember yourself and to think more logically about the situation you’re in and how best to handle it. On top of that even, simply providing your brain with more oxygen by breathing more steadily will help you to give your brain the fuel it needs to handle any stressful and sensitive situation.

Here then are some of the best breathing exercises for stress…

Abdominal Breathing

Did you know that the vast majority of us breathe incorrectly and that this is one of the reasons so many of us are chronically stressed?

To see if you’re breathing correctly, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach and then take a deep breath inwards. Which hand moved first? If it was the hand on your chest then sorry but you’ve fallen into bad breathing habits!

Many of us breathe by starting with our chest cavity – using the small muscles between our ribs (the intercostal muscles) in order to expand our ribcage and fill our lungs. Actually though, the correct way to breathe is through the stomach. This way you use your transverse abdominis (the ab muscle that wraps around your stomach) to expand this area so that your diaphragm can drop causing your lungs to expand and fill up that way. Then you increase the size of your ribs at the end. This allows you to take in more air, is slower and is much more revitalizing.

To give it a go yourself, put your hand on your stomach and focus on dropping your diaphragm and expanding your stomach first when you breathe – the way that we do as babies. You should find that this practice helps you to calm down almost instantly. An added bonus here is the concentration required to breathe properly which takes your mind off of the cause of stress. Over time you should eventually make this type of breathing a habit.

Equal Breathing

Also called ‘Sama Vritti’, this type of breathing is one that you might already know if you go to yoga class (yoga teaches you a lot of breathing exercises for stress). Here you are going to breathe in and out through your nose with the objective being to breathe in steadily for the count of four seconds and then to do the same on the outward breath. This method of balancing your breathing will then allow you to get your breathing back under control and to slow it down, fighting the urge to breathe faster and faster as you get more and more stressed.

Progressive Relaxation

This is a type of breathing exercise with a little muscle relaxation thrown in for good measure. It’s perfect for relaxing yourself before bed and it feels pretty good. What you’re going to do is to close your eyes and then focus on tensing your muscles one at a time starting from the muscles of the face and neck and working through your entire body all the way down to your toes. Importantly though, when you release the tension you’re going to relax the muscle completely on the outward breath (which should be through the mouth). By the end your whole body will feel like jelly and you’ll be completely at ease. This is one of the best breathing exercise when you’re at home – it’s harder to do when you’re up and about.

There are many more breathing exercises for stress besides these but actually you don’t need any of them to make good use of controlled breathing in the fight against stress. All that’s really important is that you are conscious of your breathing and that you slow it down and breathe more deeply when you notice yourself getting worked up. It can make a huge difference!

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How to Avoid Repetitive Stress Injury From Typing

Repetitive stress injury is another term for repetitive strain injury; which is inflammation and pain caused by repeating the same movement over and over again ad-nauseam until the strain becomes too much for the joints, connective tissues and muscles.

For most of us working in office jobs, the biggest danger we have in terms of repetitive stress injury is typing. If you sit in an office and spend most of your time answering e-mails, typing up reports and filling in spreadsheets then you will spend a lot of time typing and going over the same motions over and over again. Of course some professionals have it even worse than others: if you are a professional writer for instance then repetitive stress injury can be a real issue.

The question you need to ask then as someone who types a lot regularly, is what steps can you take in order to reduce your chances of repetitive stress injury? How can you ensure you are using the right form and the right technique in order to reduce inflammation and injury? Here are some suggestions to consider following…

Retrain Your Typing

Typing is really a rather fascinating thing. If you are someone who types every single day then you’ll normally find that you don’t even think about typing the words. You just think the words and they appear on the screen – just as easy as if you were talking. This is the result of deeply ingrained patterns in your brain and central nervous system that make it incredibly easy for you to reproduce the same actions again and again automatically.

The problem is though, that if you weren’t professional trained to type, then some of those typing motions may be ‘sub-optimal’. Try typing a capital ‘Y’ for instance. When you do that, do you use one hand or two? You should find that you automatically push shift with your left hand and ‘Y’ with your right. If you do both on one hand though, then you’ll be forced to contort in a way that isn’t particularly good for you. Try to assess your form on all the words you’re typing to see how often you’re twisting, stretching and bending your fingers, then retrain yourself to do things in the most comfortable way.

Correct Wrist Position

When typing you should not rest your wrists on the table which will increase your chances of carpal tunnel syndrome as well as repetitive stress injury. Instead you should hover your wrists just slightly above the keyboard so that there is less movement involved as you type and no pressure on your wrist or veins. You should also aim to keep your wrists straight – which means your elbows shouldn’t be pointing outwards or inwards.

The Right Keyboard

The quickest and easiest way to reduce your chances of developing repetitive stress injury is to get yourself a more comfortable keyboard. For serious writers, a professional mechanical keyboard will not only be a more comfortable writing experience but should also let you type more quickly.

Ullman Penclic MouseIf you’re really worried you can even look into having more than one keyboard. This way you can change the keyboard you’re writing on and thus the precise movements you’re making from time to time. Repetitive stress injury comes from repeating the same action over and over again. Mix it up with a different keyboard and you’ll reduce your chances of experiencing problems.

If you have bad pain in your fingers or wrists right now, then it might be that changing to a different keyboard immediately is the best thing you can do for instant relief. Switch things up and you’ll find it helps a great deal.

Don’t forget your mouse either – these can also cause repetitive stress injury so pick one that’s comfortable and the right size for you. The Ullman Penclic Mouse is a very interesting alternative to a regular mouse that you hold like a pen. Touchscreen devices also offer a good alternative input method.

Take Regular Breaks

Taking regular breaks from long typing sessions is crucial. It won’t only help you to avoid repetitive stress injury but it will also keep your circulation going and your metabolism raised and will help you to avoid back problems and other issues associated with sitting in the same position for too long. If it’s been more than an hour, get up and have a walk around.

Longer breaks can also be advised in cases where the pain is already present. If you struggle with repetitive stress injury currently for instance, then consider taking a vacation from your work or asking to change department for a while if possible. Rest can do a great deal to help as it will give your body the chance to recover.

Other Factors

You shouldn’t consider repetitive stress injury from typing in a vacuum. It may be that other aspects of your daily life are also contributing to the problem and making it worse. For instance, if you are a pianist or a video game fan then you may find that these activities exacerbate your RSI. Taking a break from these activities too could/will be important when you’re trying to rest your hands. Likewise, if you can’t let up on typing, then letting up in these areas could be the next best thing.

Stretches and Exercises

There are a wide variety of exercises and stretches you can do to combat repetitive stress injury in your hands and these are often recommended to sufferers with the condition as well as arthritis patients, pianists and many other groups. These can help with strengthening as well as recovery and work by increasing flexibility, encouraging blood flow and strengthening the muscles and connective tissues.

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Top Stress Reducing Foods And How They Work

If you’re struggling with stress then you might be looking into multiple behavioral solutions to solve the problem. Perhaps you’ve considered therapy, changing your lifestyle or quitting your job…

All these things can work but sometimes the best solution is just to look after yourself better. Some sources of stress can’t be avoided and in fact a little bit of stress can be considered a sign that you’re living a challenging and fulfilling life.

Instead of drastically changing your life or trying to think your way of stress then, you might instead want to consider the use of diet in order to help you combat the symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the top stress reducing foods and how they work.

How Can Food Fight Stress?

At this point you might be asking yourself how stress reducing foods can possibly work. Sure, we’ve all heard of stress eating but that doesn’t actually solve stress, right?

Correct. In fact ‘stress eating’ is only likely to make matters worse as you end up adding ‘weight gain’ to your list of problems.

Stress reducing foods do not include the things that you eat when you’re feeling low. Cake and ice cream are not stress reducing foods, they’re just guilty pleasures when everything else seems to be going wrong.

Instead, stress reducing foods are foods that can help you to fix your neurotransmitter profile and thus feel better.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are released whenever two neurons communicate. They help to carry electrical currents across the ‘synapse’ (gap) between neurons and thus allow them to communicate. At the same time though, these chemicals also contain information of their own and alter the way that that communication is interpreted and acted on. If there’s dopamine in the mix you will view that ‘transmission’ as important and will be more likely to form a memory/seek to reproduce that behavior. If there’s serotonin then you will be more likely to feel happy while experiencing that interaction. If there’s norepinephrine then you will feel wired up and will be more likely to be excitable and focused.

Stress is caused by neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline in differing combinations. It’s a pretty complex process and there are a lot of neurotransmitters probably that we don’t even know about. Basically, that’s how it works.

When someone experiences chronic stress though or depression, this can often be a result of not only what they’re going through but also imbalances in neurotransmitters. Often this comes down to low serotonin which is correlated with depression, stress, fibromyalgia and all sorts of other unpleasant problems.

Stress reducing foods then can work by giving us back our neurotransmitters in the right quantities. That’s because our foods contain the precursors or building blocks of neurotransmitters and thus can help us to ensure we have the right balance.

Getting it Right

So taking all that into account you might now be interested in rushing out and eating some food with serotonin in it. Nom nom!

Only that’s not how this works. For starters, there is no such thing as food with serotonin in it. The best chance you have is food with tryptophan in it which is a natural precursor to serotonin. Tryptophan becomes 5-HTP in the body which in turn becomes serotonin and thus helps to reduce stress.

So you go out and eat all the tryptophan you can, right? Like turkey. Nom!

Unfortunately no, that’s still not how stress reducing foods work. While some articles might tell you to simply stock up on tryptophan and perhaps to supplement with 5-HTP, the reality is that you shouldn’t discriminate when it comes to your neurotransmitters.

You might have been told that cortisol is the stress hormone and that you should get rid of it but in fact it has its uses. Cortisol is one of the neurotransmitters that helps you to wake up in the morning for instance, it helps to keep you switched on and alert and it can even protect against post-traumatic stress disorder. Cortisol also reduces inflammation and this is really important seeing as inflammation is also correlated with stress, depression and other problems.

Then there’s the fact that changing your neurotransmitters just isn’t a straightforward process. Remember we said that there were probably loads of neurotransmitters we don’t know about? That’s potentially a problem. As is the fact that no neurotransmitter works in a vacuum – raise one and you will probably alter a bunch of others too.

Instead then, you should look at using stress reducing foods differently. That means eating foods that act as precursors to all your neurotransmitters. These include foods that are high in amino acids in particular which form the building blocks of the monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin). You should also make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamins and minerals.

The Best Foods for Reducing Stress

Fish and eggsThe best way to get these all important substances is through your diet. That’s because our food provides the most ‘bioavailable’ sources of amino acids, minerals and vitamins in combinations that work for our bodies. This isn’t a coincidence – our bodies evolved from eating these foods and so they’re adapted to thrive on them. Try to artificially elevate specific neurotransmitters and you actually just risk making matters worse.

So what are some foods that provide you with lots of amino acids and relevant vitamins and minerals? The following would provide a good place to start:

Eggs

Eggs are one of the only foods with a complete amino acid profile. That means they contain all the essential amino acids that you need to get from your diet – but you have to eat both the yolk and the white. Their high cholesterol content meanwhile is good for testosterone production (and not actually bad for you) while they also contain large amounts of choline – a precursor to the stimulatory non-monoamine neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Fish

Fish is high in lean protein meaning you get lots of amino acids but at the same time it is also high in omega 3 fatty acid which is just super good for your brain and a common component of the best stress reducing foods. How does this tie into everything we’ve talked about? Well, because omega 3 fatty acids encourage cell membrane permeability – meaning that things can get in and out of your brain cells more easily… such as neurotransmitters.

Avocados

Avocados are high in all sorts of really good stuff, including vitamin C and B5 which can help to increase neurotransmitters as well as good fats (great for brain health) and testosterone increasing substances.

Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin B6 which helps to regulate neurotransmitter release and which is found in many brain boosting nootropic supplements. They’re also really high in magnesium which is another favorite mineral among those trying to improve sleep, elevate their mood and more.

Beef

Beef is a great source of all kinds of neurotransmitter precursors and is also high in substances like creatine and CoQ10 which help to boost the performance of mitochondria (the energy plants of our cells). Organ meat is particularly nutritious and grass-fed tends to be more nutrient dense too.

Nuts

As well as more omega 3 fatty acid, nuts are also high in zinc. Zinc may also play a crucial role in mood regulation. Low zinc has been correlated with depression (1) and with low serotonin. It is thought that zinc plays an important role by helping the stomach produce carbonic anhydrase – an enzyme that breaks down protein into amino acids and that way allows the body to get all the neurotransmitters it needs. Beef is also high in zinc by the way. Notice how when you eat the right stress reducing foods, you get all of the ingredients you need right there in one go? That’s why they’re so much better than relying on supplements. One of the reasons anyway…

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a condition caused by exposure to traumatic or stressful events. Often it is associated with servicemen and women and war veterans but in fact it can be triggered by a number of different experiences, including sexual assault and injury. Here we will look at what PTSD is, what causes it and how it is treated.

Symptoms

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include:

  • Flashbacks to the traumatic events
  • Hyperarousal (a feeling of being ‘wired’ with heightened heart rate and blood pressure)
  • Avoidance of related situations and scenarios
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • Intense physical reactions triggered by reminders of the event (including pounding heart, rapid breathing, tension, sweating)
  • Irritability
  • Poor concentration
  • ‘Jumpiness’ – easily startled
  • Feelings of anger, guilt or shame
  • Substance abuse
  • Physical aches and pains

In post-traumatic stress disorder, these symptoms continue for over a month following the traumatic event.

Causes

Many different stressful situations can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Commonly these include:

  • Sexual assault
  • Interpersonal assault
  • Warfare
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Car or plane crashes
  • Abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Kidnapping
  • Severe injury

Most people will go through a traumatic event at some point in their lives but not everyone will suffer PTSD as a result. Women are somewhat more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder than men, seeing as they are more vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence. For veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan the rate of PTSD is as high as 20%.

While these situations all might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, it is actually underlying neurological mechanisms that cause it to occur.

To understand how post-traumatic stress disorder occurs, it’s important to understand how stress works generally.

Essentially what occurs when you experience a stressful event, is that your body responds by releasing dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenaline. These are the stress hormones that cause the ‘fight or flight’ response and when they occur at the same time, they cause elevated blood pressure (due to increased blood viscosity) and heart rate, muscle contraction, enhanced sensitivity to noise, improved visual acuity, enhanced focus and even dilation of time. All these effects are useful for helping us to respond to the stressful situation and potentially escape unharmed. This neurochemical storm also helps us to learn and to memorize things better – so that we can avoid the situation that caused the stress more easily in future.

In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder though, it is generally thought that the event is so traumatic as to trigger an over-reactive adrenaline response. This can then lead to deep neurological patterns in the brain as a result of huge amounts of these chemicals. This creates a very strong association between that situation and fear and lots of ‘inroads’ to that memory wired into the brain.

During traumatic experiences, very high levels of stress hormones appear to suppress hypothalamic activity which is thought to be at least partly responsible.

But what is it that makes one person get post-traumatic stress disorder when others don’t – even if the situation is identical? There are many factors here, which include the individuals’ previous experiences (which color our interpretation of events and thus their perceived severity), as well as differences in levels of neurotransmitters naturally. While many of us associate cortisol with stress for instance, low levels of cortisol actually predispose us to PTSD (1). Other studies also suggest that chronically low levels of serotonin (a happiness hormone that acts as a natural antidepressant and anesthetic) might also make individuals more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder. Subsequently, dopamine levels can have a negative impact and worsen symptoms whether that’s because they’re too high or too low.

It is normal for most people to experience some level of post-traumatic stress. Even a minor injury might make you more prone to practice caution when repeating that action and may increase your nervousness in that situation. However, depending on your neurochemical makeup and your interpretation of the event this might persist to the point of being considered a disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Treatment

Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment tends to fall into two categories: medication or therapy. Medications will normally include antidepressants that work by increasing serotonin (the happiness hormone) or GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid – an inhibitory neurotransmitter). These can then reduce the presence of stress hormones in order to make patients feel more calm and relaxed and to aid with sleep and relaxation.

Medication for post-traumatic stress disorder does carry certain risks however, including the potential for tolerance and dependence. This occurs when the brain responds to the use of medication by producing less of those neurotransmitters naturally – meaning that the patient then needs the medication simply to function ‘normally’. It is important to carefully follow guidelines with regards to dosage and frequency then.

Therapy meanwhile will often be specifically ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’. This type of therapy involves the practice of identifying negative thoughts that cause the stress response and helping the patient to come to terms with those thoughts and to get them under control, thus enabling them to cope better. They might also learn other coping skills such as breathing techniques.

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Why Is Teacher Stress so Common?

TeacherEveryone knows that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs there is. In fact, according to a lot of research and studies it’s actually the single most stressful job there is. Moreso than bomb disposal or lion taming? Apparently so.

80% of teachers report being severely stressed at work and we’re constantly hearing about teachers who get so stressed that they end up having to quit their jobs – or that they end up having mental breakdowns.

But what is it about teaching that makes it such a stressful occupation? After all, in many ways you might be forgiven for thinking that teacher stress would be uncommon. Teachers get to go home at 3 or 4pm, they have famously long holidays and they don’t have a boss breathing down their neck. What’s possibly so stressful about that?

Causes of Teacher Stress

There are some obvious causes of teacher stress. Perhaps the most glaring is that a lot of children are misbehaved. These days it’s common for a single teacher to be in charge of a class of 25 to 30 pupils, many of whom might be climbing on the chairs, throwing things, crying and generally being ‘challenging’.

This right away creates a lot of stress as you have to constantly move from one crisis to another while at the same time being aware of what’s going on in the corner of the room – this can get very tiring.

Challenging Classrooms

Moreover, some children are purposefully malicious. A mean child (or ‘misunderstood’ let’s say) may well have a knack for sensing when a teacher is getting towards the end of their tether and for knowing precisely what they have to say or do to push them over the edge. Children can often show off in-front of their friends and they’re regularly keen to see how far they can push before the teacher will ‘snap’. This is partly the ‘crowd’ mentality and it’s partly just human nature, especially when you’re developing socially.

One of the biggest sources of teacher stress then is the sheer fact that many children are actively trying to make their teachers stressed. This is perhaps one of the only jobs there is where you have to face a large group purposefully pushing your buttons to see if you’ll break. That’s pretty stressful.

Social Stress

Teacher stress is also caused partly by simple social stress. Social stress is any stress that emerges from having to spend time with lots of people. When we’re with other people it’s hard to relax and be yourself because you’re under scrutiny and because people will want your attention. You’ll also find that if people are in a bad mood, you pick up on this and feel more stressed yourself. In a classroom with 25-30 students that’s a lot of energy required simply to be social (let alone to lead). Outside of the classroom you then have the social dynamics of the teaching staff to contend with and all in all it can be draining and exhausting. This isn’t unique to teacher stress but it is another factor.

Performance

Another aspect of teaching that makes it stressful is the fact that you have to stand up and ‘perform’. It’s easy for an outsider to overlook this aspect of teaching as it’s ‘only children’ but bearing in mind what a tough crowd children are (as we’ve just seen) this is a misguided view of the situation.

Speaking in public is something that is pretty much always going to trigger and acute stress response. We are naturally inclined to find this a scary process and as such our body will always respond by producing stress hormones. Even someone who likes public speaking will experience this to a degree and this is contributing greatly to teacher stress.

Scrutiny

Perhaps rightly so, teaching is one of the professions that is most closely scrutinized. There’s no boss breathing over a teacher’s shoulder but that doesn’t mean that they won’t feel stress from parents, from regular inspections and from headmasters and deputies. All of this is a lot of pressure and this is added to the simple fact that teaching is a big responsibility. As a teacher it is your responsibility to help craft children into functioning adults with a repertoire of social and educational skills under their belt. This is a lot of pressure for anyone who genuinely cares about how well they’re doing their job.

Work Hours

Another aspect of teaching is the sheer amount of work involved in marking papers and homework. This is something that people in other professions will often sneer at – thinking they’d rather be at home marking homework than in the office taking calls.

Be that as it may, it means that teachers have work ‘on top’ of their work and that they then have to spend time marking when they’re being tugged in other ways. Managing your own workload takes a lot of time and patience and especially when people don’t ‘respect’ the amount you have to do. In this way, being a teacher involves many of the difficulties associated with being self-employed. But without the luxury to lie in…

What to Do?

So how do you go about tackling teacher stress?

There’s no easy answer and it’s really going to depend on the individual. But below are some steps you can take for starters:

  • Tell your headmaster that you are struggling with workload/controlling your class and you need help in the form of a teachers’ assistant or a smaller class.
  • Don’t take on too many extra commitments. Running an after-school club is a great thing to do for the children and to get ahead in your career but it also means an extra hour of stressful work on top of what you’re already doing.
  • Take time off – if you’re feeling ill then make sure to take time off. Teachers often find it harder than other workers to get time off and this is one of the big contributors to teacher stress. It’s better to take a day or two off for a cold though than it is to keep going, infect your class and end up getting seriously ill.
  • Talk to others who understand. Having someone you can talk to can often help a great deal and especially if that person actually sympathizes instead of thinking you have it ‘easy’.
  • Change your age group. If you’re really struggling, then try moving to another age group. Some people find older classes easier to control as they can be reasoned with, while others prefer the innocence of younger years. See what works best for you.
  • Come up with a system for managing your marking. This might mean keeping your marking and home life separate for instance by marking in your classroom, or it might just mean sticking to a strict schedule. Either way, this can avoid situations where your marking bleeds into your other activities.
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Understanding and Controlling Social Stress

Social stress is a type of stress that results from interactions and relationships with others. Sometimes you feel like it’s ‘not you’ but ‘everyone else’ and that is pretty much the definition of social stress.

There are many different reasons that social stress is an issue and it can take a number of different forms. Seeing as most of us have no choice but to spend a large amount of time in social settings every single day though, it’s paramount that you understand what might be causing your own social stress and how you can get it under control.

Why Are Social Situations Stressful?

In theory, being social should actually be a cure for stress. Socializing triggers the release of serotonin which is a neurotransmitter known to help alleviate the symptoms of stress and often even described as a ‘natural antidepressant’. Why then would social stress be a problem?

One reason for social stress might be that you are someone who gets social anxiety. Social anxiety is a slightly different problem in which you feel nervous whenever you are tasked with talking to people you don’t know, making presentations or talks, or generally putting yourself out on a limb and exposing yourself to potential criticism. Some people can end up with such a petrifying fear of social situations that they end up avoiding them altogether. On a much smaller scale, this is something that shy people also have to face – and if you find yourself getting an acute stress response every time you have to speak up, then this can make you feel somewhat stressed overall by the end of a long day.

Another point to consider is that stress is contagious. What this means is that if just one person in a group is stressed, this will likely ‘spread’ around the group causing everyone there to feel stressed. There are many reasons for this. ‘Mirror neurons’ for instance are brain cells that fire when we see people express specific emotions. If you see someone who is happy then you’ll feel happy, if you see someone who is angry you will feel angry – and so on. Likewise, we tend to mirror expressions of other people as part of social interactions and this too can fuel our mood via ‘facial feedback‘. Combine this with the fact that stress makes us irritable and prone to shout at other people and you can see why a bad mood could quickly spread around a group.

Then there’s the fact that some social interactions are simply stressful in their very nature. Relationships can be stressful if they aren’t going the way we think they should be or if we’re arguing a lot. Likewise, work relationships can be stressful if you don’t get on with your team or if you feel someone isn’t pulling their weight. There are lots of politics and dramas that go on in families, friendship groups and teams of coworkers and these can all be tiring and stressful.

Finally, add to all this the fact that you simply can’t relax and indulge yourself when you have to keep talking to people and spending a day with other people is likely to be stressful in some cases. More so depending on the nature of your interaction and depending on what kind of person you are – i.e. if you’re shy or not.

How to Deal With Social Stress

So that’s where social stress comes from… but what can you do about it? There are a few things to consider…

Control the Situation

If you are fortunate enough to be in control of the situation then you might be able to decide who you spend time with and for how long. For instance, if you are hosting an event and you know you’re someone who deals often with social stress, then you should consider carefully inviting fewer people and keeping the time you spend with them as short as possible.

You may not have the luxury of controlling who you work with in your office but if you’re often suffering with social stress you might want to at least consider changing jobs or asking to be put in a different department. Perhaps you could do better in a more solitary line of work?

Take Breaks

As mentioned earlier, part of the problem with socializing is that we aren’t able to just kick back and be ourselves. At home when you get tired you can just lie on the floor. When you’re angry you can punch a pillow. In social settings though these things are considered somewhat unacceptable so you have to be constantly ‘on’ and constantly ‘guarded’. You can’t even burp.

That’s why we often feel our whole body untense as soon as we get somewhere to be on our own and it’s why it’s a good idea to make sure you get this alone time occasionally. Even if you’re an extrovert. So if your colleagues ask if you want to go together for lunch, perhaps suggest that this time you’d like to go on your own. It might feel unsociable but you’ll feel better in the long run!

CBT

Really though, overcoming social stress is about understanding that it doesn’t matter too much what other people think, or if you occasionally argue. If you argue with someone you love, you should know they’ll forgive you – they value your friendship as much as you do. Likewise, if you really need to burp just do it quietly and apologize! And if you aren’t getting on all that well with your colleagues… presumably you have friends outside work so it shouldn’t really be the end of the world.

Caring less what other people think is perhaps the most important way to combat social stress and CBT or ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’ can help you to do this. This is a form of psychotherapeutic intervention that focusses on helping you to identify your damaging thoughts, challenge them and then replace them with more positive beliefs. If you’re struggling with social stress often – look into it!

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