Photo of woman in swimming pool
Regular exercise, such as swimming, is a great way to beat stress [Image: travisreitter - Wikimedia Commons]

De-stress, naturally

24 June, 2011

Stress has become an unwelcome but accepted part of modern life.

While a certain amount of stress can be considered a good thing – it can supply the adrenalin we sometimes need and can also give us a push towards making changes in our lives – if we’re under too much stress, the balance is tipped and unwanted symptoms like anxiety, sleeplessness, headaches or stomach pains may begin to manifest themselves.

The stress response of the body is there to protect and support us in emergency situations. What happens physically is that you release hormones and your heartbeat speeds up, your blood pressure increases and your breathing quickens; this results in your being able to move and think faster, hit harder, see better, hear more acutely, and jump higher than you could only seconds earlier.

What should follow the surge of energy released following such an event is a period of relaxation so that the body can fully recharge itself, and hopefully also a celebration of having survived (or for a hunter, the satisfaction of having caught a good meal).

What seems to have happened in modern life is that although we rarely have to escape from dangerous animals or hunt for our dinner, we constantly push ourselves on a daily basis; as the saying goes, we expect to ‘work hard and play hard’.

Also the same hormones are released during emotional stress as physical stress, so both will affect each other. Then you actually get used to living with a constant low-level of stress hormones being released all the time.

Eventually, if we don’t relax properly and experience feelings of happiness and well-being regularly, the feelings of stress build up in our system and we begin to get symptoms of dis-ease like tiredness, agitation and difficulty switching off when we want to.

When we experience the symptoms of stress, it is an indication that there is an imbalance in our life. Whether you are experiencing stress now, or you have recently been through a period of stress, you need to take steps to rebalance and repair the damage as well as build in some reserves to prevent further damage.

Step 1 – supporting your body

Nutrition – the basic elements of repair

It is impossible to feel fit, healthy and well if you eat a diet based on pre-packaged, chemical laden, mass-produced food that is high in unhealthy fats and sugars and poor in nutrients.

What you need is a diet based on fresh – preferably organic – whole foods, full of vitality and rich in the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that your body needs to continually repair itself.

Our bodies use up the B group vitamins particularly rapidly when we are under stress and a shortage of these can cause nervous system disorders such as feelings of agitation, increased pain, sleeplessness and also pre-menstrual tension. So it is important to get sufficient B vitamins in your diet, or if that isn’t practical, to take a B complex food supplement. Foods naturally rich in B vitamins include: yeast extract, meat, oily fish, eggs, brown rice, wheatgerm, beans, sunflower seeds, nuts.

Natural Remedies

One of the great benefits of natural remedies is that they support your body’s natural healing mechanisms as the way to creating health.

Try these remedies out to find what works best for you.

Herbal De-Stress Blend (Gotu Kola, Damiana, Lemon Balm, Skullcap, Vervain) – This is an effective blend of herbs that will support your nervous system and generally relieve common symptoms of stress such as sleeplessness and anxiety. Combine equal amounts of the herbs to make an infusion, or for greater convenience use the tinctures (a liquid preparation of herbs) and take 3 times a day as required (Note: This blend is not suitable to take during pregnancy).

Siberian ginseng – This is an herb known as an adaptogen, which means it increases the capacity of the body to adapt to and cope with physical and mental stress. Siberian Ginseng is used widely in Russia and has been proven to improve levels of stamina and endurance and also to increase resistance to infectious illnesses such as colds and ’flu. It also promotes the ability of your body to adapt better to environmental stresses such as pollution and various types of radiation damage. Take the tincture 3 times a day for several weeks. It may be taken in conjunction with the De-stress blend above.


Most adults need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night on a regular basis to feel good.

Obviously we can get by on less than that, as any parent of young children will know, but that is about what is needed to do more than just survive, and to really allow the body sufficient time to repair and restore itself. So to overcome the symptoms of stress you will need to build into your lifestyle the possibility of at least 7 hours of sleep a night, or a short nap in the day if 7 hours at night isn’t achievable.

Exercise – proven to reduce stress symptoms

For us to feel good in our body, and for our body to stay fit and healthy, we need to take regular moderate exercise – where you become slightly breathless – for about 30 minutes a day on most days of the week.

Exercise increases the release of endorphins (the hormones associated with feeling happy), reduces muscle tension and reduced excitability of the nervous system, as well improving self-esteem, and, obviously, physical fitness.

You will need to exercise for about 30 minutes a day on most days of the week.

The key is finding a type of exercise that you enjoy enough to do regularly.  Walking, cycling, swimming, playing sport at a low level, gardening and line dancing have all been shown to be effective for stress management.

Step 2 – supporting your emotional balance

The ups and downs of daily life will mean that we get to experience a range of emotions, some that we call good and some that we call bad. When we get stuck with a negative feeling, we may begin to recognise this as a symptom of stress.

We may start to get irritable and short-tempered with our loved ones or tearful over trivial things, or begin to feel anxious for no apparent reason or even have a panic attack. Sometimes we simply feel ‘not right’, but it is hard to define what the problem is. These are all indications that something is blocking our ability to change and grow and adapt joyfully to life’s experiences.

For many people in the modern world gaining a better emotional balance will mean reprioritising, so that more time can be spent on really satisfying things. Time management courses or books can help you to impose a more effective structure on your life, which can be a great antidote to feeling overwhelmed.

Try to create a bit of space in your life so that you can reflect on what other beneficial changes you can make. Try something different such as a regular massage or experimenting with Bach Flower Remedies.

There are many opportunities nowadays – such as counselling and life coaching practitioners, and retreats or ‘space clearing’ workshops – that can be very helpful in supporting you to make positive changes to your lifestyle.

Step 3 – supporting your spiritual self

It is essential to recognise that we do have a spiritual side to our lives that needs to be nurtured, just as our physical body does. The spiritual side of our life is that inner sense of self and creative energy that keeps us motivated and growing as people, and it requires us to be actively engaged in the process known as ‘becoming conscious’.

This means being constantly willing to think about what we do and how we live, examining all our old patterns and habits and opening up to life as a process of insight, inspiration and purposefulness. This may include something simple as developing a new hobby, or something more challenging such as considering a career change.

If you are feeling lost and uncertain as to what direction to take in life then the Bach flower blend called Direction will help to promote clarity, self-understanding and decision-making during times of doubt and uncertainty. It contains a combination of scleranthus, wild oat, cerato, walnut, mimulus and wild rose. Simply take a few drops in water several times a day.


Meditation can help us to restore our contact with ourselves, and scientific studies overwhelmingly support meditation practice to reduce stress, recover from or prevent certain diseases, and improve overall health.

There are lots of different kinds of meditation, some concentrating more on breathing, others on imaging, some using a word repeated over and over (mantra), others combined with exercise (certain types of yoga).

What they have in common is that they calm the active, ‘chattering’ part of the mind and connect us to an experience of ourselves that is beyond that of the petty personality, and linked to our source of joy, and feeling of true connection with the universe and our inner strength.

In fact there is no such thing as the best type of meditation, only the one that suits you best – you may need to try 2 or 3 different types of meditation before you find the one that feels totally right for you. It is similar to finding the best kind of exercise; the essential thing is to choose one that you can build into your lifestyle and do regularly.

Dealing with the symptoms of stress in a solely physical way, such as taking sleeping tablets for insomnia, may get the quickest results in the short term, but it rarely solves the problem for long. The feelings and symptoms of stress are likely to keep returning unless we also look at the underlying factors in our lifestyle that are contributing to the stress, and thus break the cycle. Following these three steps is a good way to begin addressing the things that are stressing you out, to get back into balance


  • Excerpted from Understanding Stress by Susan Curtis (Winter Press, £3.50). Susan’s book contains numerous tips for dealing with stress naturally.