We’ve all had nights when we collapse into bed after a stressful day of juggling work, family, caretaking and more. But even on days when we don’t overtly feel “stressed,” it’s often there—impacting our health in hidden ways.
The way we treat our bodies—from how we move and eat…to the people, objects and energy surrounding us—has a direct impact on our stress response whether or not we realize it, promoting inflammation, accelerating aging and hindering the body’s anti-stress efforts.
If we know where stress hides in our lives, then we can combat it. Headaches and digestive issues are common, but here are five hidden sources of stress—and how to overcome them…
Hidden stressor #1: Poor foot biomechanics. Feet are true taskmasters, keeping us moving while bearing the brunt of our weight. Poor foot biomechanics—the way the toes and feet function as they interact with our muscles and gravity—can reach up the body, making it hard for the other muscles and joints to work properly and leading to hip and back pain, poor balance and more. When feet are under stress, the whole body feels stress!
Ill-fitting shoes are a cause of stress in your feet, as are hard- or thick-soled shoes that prevent feet from receiving the stimulation they need—stimulation that forces them to work and keeps them strong and supple.
The fix: Walk barefoot. Feet are built to walk on varied terrain and need the stimulation that comes from that. Walking barefoot engages the bones, joints and dozens of muscles that work together to keep communications flowing through your body and improve your balance and feeling of stability.
Even better: Walk barefoot outside. The subtle negative electromagnetic charge from grass, moist soil and sand helps balance the positive electromagnetic charge that builds up in the body from the stress of daily living.
Also: Stimulate and massage bare feet by rolling them over a tennis ball for five minutes a day. Strong, flexible feet translate into a strong, flexible body.
Hidden stressor #2: Nighttime eating. We all know that eating at night is not good for digestion and metabolism. But research shows that late eating puts stress on the brain and the body, both of which interpret the incoming calories as Food is coming in…time to start producing energizing hormones. That, in turn, interferes with sleep.
The fix: Stop eating by 8 pm. This will help lead your body toward restful sleep. If you crave the nightly ritual of snacking on the couch, try replacing food with a cup of herbal or decaffeinated tea. You may discover that the routine itself is what is enjoyable, not the food. And with less food in your belly, your sleep will improve.
Up for a challenge? Once or twice a week, try a 16-hour overnight fast. Finish dinner by 7 pm or 8 pm. When you wake up the next morning, drink a large glass of water—this is always a healthy practice, even when you are not fasting. Don’t eat your first meal before 11 am or noon. Fasting for 16 hours kicks off a detoxification process called autophagy during which stress-induced cellular debris is cleared away. Does 16 hours feel too daunting? Begin with 14 or 12 hours.
Hidden stressor #3: Clutter. In a study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, women who described their homes as “cluttered” or “disorganized” (as opposed to “peaceful” or “comforting”) experienced cortisol levels that indicated chronic stress. Our brains like structure and order. Piles of paper and overflowing closets can hinder concentration and are linked with procrastination, both of which further contribute to stress.
The fix: Purge, hide and donate. Toss or donate unused clothing. Use decorative baskets and bins to store unfolded laundry, magazines and other household items. Consider hiring a professional organizer to guide you through the process.
If you have time to tackle only one area: Focus on your bedside table. It often becomes cluttered with books, tissues, beauty products and more. Seeing a big mess right before you go to sleep can cause your stress hormones to spike…precisely when you don’t want them elevated.
Hidden stressor #4: Out-of-whack light and dark cycles. Humans run on an internal 24-hour body clock that naturally syncs with the sun and moon. Morning light signals the brain to stop producing sleep-inducing melatonin and increase levels of energizing hormones. As darkness falls, melatonin production ramps up in preparation for sleep.
But modern life makes it easy to ignore these light and dark signals. Smartphone, tablet and TV screens emit a blue light that is similar to the color and wavelength of daylight. Looking at these screens at night tells the brain to stay awake.
The fallout: Poor sleep, which is linked with a laundry list of bodily stressors—mood fluctuations…immune system suppression…system-wide inflammation…and impairment of the body’s glymphatic system, which cleanses and clears the brain of toxins created throughout the day while you sleep. When these toxins accumulate, they can lead to cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Important: Inadequate sleep also causes widespread stress and inflammation that shortens telomeres, the caps at the end of chromosomes that protect DNA. As telomere length shrinks, so does life span. Recent finding: When researchers examined telomere changes in 239 postmenopausal women over a year-long period, they found that telomere shortening could be predicted by the number of stressful events the women experienced…except among women who engaged in higher levels of protective health behaviors such as getting quality sleep.
The fix: Expose yourself to bright light in the morning. Help reset your body clock by throwing open the curtains as soon as you wake up. Even better, step outside. As your eyes adjust to daylight, your hormones will program your internal clock to help energize you all day.
At night, power off screens by 10 pm and dedicate at least 30 minutes to a relaxing transition activity—take a warm bath, read a book, etc.
Hidden stressor #5: Stressful texts and e-mails. Junk e-mail…unnecessary texts…robocalls—we’ve come to accept these intrusions as normal parts of modern life. But anything that makes you feel annoyed, angry or harassed triggers the same fight-or-flight hormonal stress response designed to propel you out of dangerous situations. The stress-inducing 24-hour news cycle is similarly toxic—levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise with every frightening or depressing story you hear or read. Following the 2016 election, a psychologist coined the term “Headline Stress Disorder” to describe this media-induced stress and anxiety.
Surprising: Even happy texts can create stress if announced with a Ding! on your phone—it diverts your attention and creates a sense of anxious anticipation that won’t dissipate until you check the text.
The fix: Unsubscribe! Turn off your phone’s notifications so that you don’t hear that ding every time a message arrives. When you receive unwanted e-mails from companies and websites you’ve shopped at, scroll to the bottom and click “Unsubscribe.” Reduce robocalls by enrolling in the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry at DoNotCall.gov. And limit your time reading or watching upsetting news…or at least try to balance things by purposefully seeking out feel-good news at sites such as GreaterGood.Berkeley.edu or