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Stress is a term that is commonly used but has become increasingly difficult to define. It shares, to some extent, common meanings in both the biological and psychological sciences.

Hans Hugo Bruno Selye, the Hungarian endocrinologist did important scientific work on the hypothetical non-specific response of an organism to stressors. Selye published in 1975 a model dividing stress into eustress (The prefix eu- derives from the Greek word meaning either “well” or “good.” When attached to the word stress, it literally means “good stress’’ and distress. Where stress enhances function (physical or mental, such as through strength training or challenging work), it may be considered eustress. Persistent stress that is not resolved through coping or adaptation, deemed distress, may lead to anxiety, withdrawal and depression behavior.

A good example is afforded by observing passengers on a steep rollercoaster ride. Some are scared, seated in the back seats, pale, eyes shut, jaws clenched and knuckled with an iron grip on the retaining bar. They can’t wait for the ride in the torture chamber to end, so they can get back on solid ground and escape in the crowd. But up front are the wide-eyed thrill seekers, yelling and relishing each steep plunge that race to get on the very next ride. And in between, you may find a few with extreme boredom and totally expressionless. So, was the roller coaster ride really stressful or delightful? Therefore, any definition of stress should include good stress, for example, winning a race or election can be just as stressful as losing or even more. A passionate kiss and contemplating what might follow is stressful, but hardly the same as having a root canal procedure.

External and Internal Stress

Stressors can be broadly divided into external and internal stress. The external factors affecting us may include, hard physical conditions such have pain or extreme hot or cold temperatures; stressful psychological environments, poor working conditions, abusive relationships, rules and deadlines; grievances, death of a family member, failures, insults, etc. The internal factors affecting us can be both physically or psychologically. For example, too much caffeine intake, lack of sleep, overload of work, strenuous physical exercise or labor. Psychological stressors may include, pessimism, inferiority complex, over-analyzing, taking matters personally, personality disorder, rigid thinking, exaggerating, perfectionist, workaholic, prestige carvers etc.

Acute and Chronic Stress Stressors can also be defined as short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the fight or flight response. The threat can be any situation that is experienced, even subconsciously or falsely, as a danger. Common acute stressors include: noise, crowding, isolation, hunger, danger, infection, and imagining a threat or remembering a dangerous event. Under most circumstances, once the acute threat has passed, the response becomes inactivated and levels of stress hormones return to normal, a condition called the relaxation response. Modern life poses on-going stressful situations that are not short-lived and the urge to act (to fight or to flee) must be suppressed. Stress, then, becomes chronic. Common chronic stressors include on-going highly pressured work, long-term relationship problems, loneliness, and persistent financial worries.

Many of us have high levels of chronic stress, whether it is from workload, relationship troubles or to-do lists that are longer than the national highway. Our bodies respond to this stress the way our ancestors bodies did; triggering “fight or flight” chemicals in the brain, meant to prepare our body for action. These hormones elevate blood pressure, heart beat, breathing rate and encourage muscle tightening. Anxiety causes the liver to release glucose into the bloodstream for quick energy. The higher levels of cortisol or ephinephrine when dealing with stress; which affects the function of their immune system. These responses over long haul, may deplete the body’s nutrient stores, lead to exhaustion and lower immune system function.

Gender difference exists in terms of the relationship between immunity and stress, where women are most susceptible to autoimmune disorders compared to men, due to the difference in levels of estrogen (in women) and testosterone (in men). In addition, some individuals are more prone to react to stressors than others. It is difficult to define because it is so different for each of us.

In fact, many addictions are linked to a stressful lifestyle, such as overeating, smoking, drinking, and drug abuse. These are used as an escape or a temporary way of “switching off,” but they do not address the underlying problem.

Stress Busting Foods

Comfort Food. This can be one of the best stress busters. After a long day, a simple meal, like a bowl of barley porridge, lentils soup or rasam saadham, could boost levels of serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter.

Complex Carbohydrate. In fact, most carbohydrates prompt the brain to make more serotonin. However, for a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it is best to choose complex carbohydrate foods, which are digested more slowly. Good choices include whole wheat chappati as well as old-fashioned finger-millet pancakes (ragi adai).

Citrus Fruits. Fresh orange juice or lemonade is yet another stress buster. Studies suggest that vitamin C can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system.

Omega-3 Fatty Fish, such as tuna and salmon, can prevent surges in stress hormones and may help protect against heart disease, mood disorders like depression.

Dairy. A bedtime stress-buster is the time-honored glass of warm milk. Research shows that calcium eases anxiety and mood swings linked to PMS. Dietitians typically recommend skim or low-fat milk.

Ayurvedic Stress Management

Physical stress is caused by abuse of the body, such as strenuous exercises or working for long hours at a job that is physically taxing. This can cause a person to experience fatigue, mental fogginess, difficulty in concentration, and overall dullness. Certain foods are natural stress busters according to ayurveda. These include walnuts, almonds and cottage cheese (paneer).

Emotional stress can be caused by a problem in a relationship, the loss of a relative, or any situation that might hurt the heart. Emotional stress shows up as irritability, depression, loss of sleep, eating disorder and emotional instability. To balance emotional stress, one should follow a well-balanced diet as a lifestyle. A typical balanced diet may call for lots of fresh vegetables, juicy fruits and completely devoid of junk food. And practicing yoga and meditation is recommended too. Drinking a cup of warm flavored milk (roja kulkand, cardamon or saffron) before bedtime may help to wind down. A daily habit of head massage with cooling amla or coconut oil should make you feel better.

Mental stress, according to Ayurveda, is caused by abuse of the mind. For instance, pessimism, taking matters personally and intense mental work many hours a day, or if you work long hours on the computer. The first symptom of an imbalance is losing the ability to handle day-to-day activity. As the person becomes more stressed, it affects the memory. Some may become hyperactive, yet lose the ability to make clear decisions. It is important to get plenty of rest and to avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. Choose herbal tea, tender coconut water, seasonal fruits and citrus juice to hydrate yourself.

Relaxing aromatherapy and meditation can help calm the mind.

Herbs and Concoctions. Ayurveda prescribes concoctions of various herbs as rejuvenating tonic for chronic stress. But, individuals may require different approaches and therapies. General stress reducing herbs are called nervine sedatives, which include  brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi), valerian root, shankha pushpi (Convolvulus pluricaulis), vacha(Acorus calamus), yashtimadhu (Glycyrrhiza glabra), guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), amalaki (Embelica officinalis), aswaganda (Withania somnifera), bala and much more.

Malar Gandhi is a freelance writer who specializes in culinary anthropology and gourmet Indian cooking. She blogs about Indian food and can be reached