The various demands of our fast-paced society often result in exorbitant amounts of stress. Living a stress-free life seems unimaginable and unachievable, doesn’t it? Luckily it doesn’t have to be! While we may not be able to eliminate stress from our daily lives we certainly can change the way we respond to it.
Let’s first take a moment to examine the toll that chronic stress takes on our physical health and our psychological well-being. It’s important to understand that stress isn’t always bad. Stress in small doses can provide just enough motivation to help us perform well and adapt to tricky situations. Our body’s initial fight-or-flight stress response also helps us respond quickly and appropriately to immediate danger.
The trouble arises when chronic stress gives rise to an overactive nervous system response. Consequences of this chronically elevated state include cognitive changes such as difficulty concentrating and short-term memory problems, emotional changes such as depressed mood and irritability, and cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure. Inflammation in the GI tract can lead to heartburn, nausea, and diarrhea. Blood glucose levels may rise secondary to prolonged elevation of the body’s stress hormone (cortisol). Muscle tension can lead to migraine headaches, TMJ pain, and exacerbation of pain from tension in the neck and shoulders. Chronic stress can even impact testosterone production in men and menstrual cycle regulation in women! As you can see, chronic stress impacts nearly every system in our body. Even worse, when we’re feeling stressed we often fall victim to unhealthy “stress traps” as a means of coping, such as overindulging on junk food, skimping on sleep and exercise or self-medicating with alcohol or caffeine. These traps further compound the problem.
What can you do to manage stress more effectively and mitigate its harmful health effects? It’s time to develop and implement your own stress management intervention. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to stress management. Read below for helpful tips and tricks, then start incorporating one or two at a time until you find out what works best for you.
- Exercise. Exercise is one of the best stress-relieving activities but it is often the last thing we feel like doing when we’re highly stressed. You don’t have to schedule a daily gym visit to achieve the stress-busting benefits of exercise. Exercise of any type counts – even taking the dog for a walk or climbing the stairs instead of riding the elevator. Consider downloading an app such as 7 Minute Fitness to help you get moving. You might also consider beginning and ending your day with a brief yoga sequence.
- Get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to increased blood levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Prolonged periods of high cortisol can wreak havoc on our mood, motivation, and cognition. Don’t miss out on sleep to get more done. Remember, if you’re well rested you’ll have more energy, be clearer-headed, and be more efficient and productive. How’s that for stress reduction?
- Make time for play. Sometimes we sacrifice the things that bring us pleasure in the name of stress. This only compounds the problem by making us feel overwhelmed and overworked. Set aside time in your day for play and leisure activities such as reading a book, working in the garden, or watching a favorite TV show. Remember that running yourself down will only lead to reduced productivity and efficiency. Twenty minutes of leisure time a day is a very worthwhile investment.
- Reach out. Take the time to connect with a friend or loved one. Meeting in person is best but a telephone call can still provide an opportunity for some casual conversation and interpersonal connectedness. Grab coffee with a friend or ask your neighbor to join you while you walk your dog around the block.
- Take a short break. Give yourself permission to step away from a stressful situation to take a brief mental break. Take a quick 20-minute breather then return to the task once you’re feeling more clear-headed. You might consider using that time to do stress-busting activity such as going for a short walk, practicing breathing techniques, listening to a favorite song or prepping a favorite meal.
- Breathe Deeply. Breathing exercises are effective because they de-activate the body’s fight-or-flight response. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Click here for a quick tutorial on breathing exercises to help you get you started.
- Eat healthfully. Study after study has linked unhealthy diets with poor psychological outcomes such as higher rates of depression and anxiety. The vitamins and nutrients found in whole foods play an instrumental role in the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. The best place to start is to focus on incorporating healthy foods into your diet rather than eliminating unhealthy ones.
- Reduce muscle tension. Place a warm compress or heat wrap around your neck and shoulders. Sit with your eyes closed for 10 minutes while the heat help to relax your tense muscles. Use this time to practice a deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation exercise.
- Laugh. Laughter really can be the best medicine. When stress leaves you feeling grumpy or blue take a minute to make yourself laugh. Play an old rerun of America’s Funniest Home Videos or search YouTube for a compilation of funny cat videos.
- Practice gratitude. We often suffer from a negativity bias any time stress levels are high. This leads us to focus almost exclusively on negatives and overlook or get little joy out of positives. Take a moment at the end of every day to list three to five things you experienced that day for which you’re grateful. No item is too small – sunshine, a smile from a stranger, hearing your favorite song on the radio during your morning commute, finding that ball of dog hair on your pants this morning to remind you that Fido is anxiously awaiting your arrival home. This practice will help you notice the little things that go right and take joy in them.