You're probably used to hearing that stress is bad. And that stress can increase your risk for heart problems, make you gain or retain weight, and overall decrease your quality of life.
Well...yes and no.
Stress is a useful and important (crucial) biological response. When we are experiencing stress, the brain sends messages to our system and prepares us for survival (hold on to those calories, a famine is coming!) or for action (speed up that blood flow so we can run from the lion!). It has good intentions, but yes, too much stress too often can be debilitating and have a negative impact on our short and long-term health.
Stress is a useful and important biological response.
These days, most of us don’t have to worry about famine or lions, but our primitive stress-response in the brain doesn’t know that. If your stress level is higher than you need, it may feel more like overwhelm...leading to things like anxiety, indecision, low mood, irritability, procrastination or fatigue.
Let’s look at some practical strategies for reducing your stress in the short and long-term.
1. Focus on your breathing
Our bodies respond to current fears the way our cave ancestors did (preparing us for flight, fight, or to freeze & observe/assess). This response is often not needed or helpful in today’s daily situations. When stressed, we tighten up and restrict our oxygen intake, reducing the blood flow to our brain and clouding our thoughts. To combat this, get in the practice of taking slow deep breaths at regular intervals during the day. This soothes your emotions and increases your sense of control, both of which impact your stress levels and ability to problem solve.
Regular meditation and mindful breathing practices have been studied extensively and the benefits are undeniable. Two minutes, ten minutes or 30 minutes per day (whatever you can be consistent with) will train your brain for calm and shift the way you perceive events.
Short-term action steps:
When you notice yourself feeling stressed, remind yourself to breathe.
Breathe deeply from the gut as if you're grabbing enough air to blow out candles on a cake. Then exhale as if blowing out those candles. Slow and steady. Repeat 10 times.
Search for free guided breathing meditations online (start with YouTube); there are tons of options. Start small, with 5 minutes or less. Also, there are a lot of great, free phone apps that have breathing meditations: Happify, Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, Breathe2Relax.
2. Sleep better
We are not getting enough sleep! Most adults need 7-8 consecutive hours. When asleep, your body repairs physically, mentally, and emotionally, all of which are crucial for stress management. If you sleep poorly or too little, you will struggle to manage stressors.
Short term action steps for better sleep:
make small increases in your current amount of nightly sleep to get yourself closer to the desired 7-8 hours;
try to maintain a standard bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends (our bodies love consistency). If that feels too hard, try to only vary an hour either way on the weekends.
use a sleep/mood journal to observe the connection between the number of sleep hours you get and how you feel the next day
Use a sound machine and/or a diffuser for lavender oil to calm your body and relax the room.
3. Increase relaxation & rejuvenation time
Leisure time is also crucial for the mind to have a break from stress as well as to process & assimilate information into creative ideas and problem solutions. But sadly, when we feel overwhelmed we think we need to do MORE. This prevents rejuvenation and keeps our engine revving, dumping more stress hormones into your system. Instead, block off time for things you truly enjoy and it will recharge your battery. Even if it’s only 20 minutes.
Schedule a regular activity at least once a week that is relaxing or rejuvenating;
Engage a friend or loved one in your relaxation time so you are accountable to doing it
For a quick pick-me-up when stressed, try listening to comedians or funny podcasts, watching silly videos on Facebook or YouTube, or reading jokes. Laughter has a host of positive benefits: an overall enhanced mood, a decrease in stress and hunger hormones, decreased anxiety and fear, increased immunity, and lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol.
4. Add in some movement
It’s not just about your waistline. Physical activity decreases feelings of anxiety & stress and positively affects your overall sense of well-being. It increases blood flow and oxygen to your brain, which increases alertness and concentration to deal with your stressors. Exercise also releases endorphins into your bloodstream (your body's natural painkillers and mood elevators) and reduces those pesky stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Being active also lowers your heart and blood pressure levels, making you less susceptible to the effects of stress and improves your immune system overall. A most recent finding is that exercise creates “nanny neurons” in the brain to help regulate emotions, making you less vulnerable to extreme emotional and physical responses when under pressure. The maximum benefit comes from exercising for 30 minutes or more, but every amount helps.
Add in short 10-minute bursts of activity to elevate your heart rate (stairs at the office?)
put on music and dance around;
walk the dog a little longer than the poop walk;
walk or bike to the store;
park your car far away and walk it in;
play ping-pong or an activity-based video game with your friends or kids.
5. Put time towards social connections
Social supports and connections help us feel more able to cope with our stress. Loneliness, on the other hand, is associated with a wide variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, diminished immunity, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. Consider your long-term vs. short-term values. Meaningful relationships will matter to you 5 or 10 years from now, when a stressful situation at work simply won’t. Make time for maintaining and enhancing relationships with those you care about.
your chances of becoming happy increase by 15% if someone in your immediate social circle is happy
A note....choose your social network carefully. Your chances of becoming happy increase by at least 15% if someone in your immediate social circle is happy; more so if they live close by and you interact often. Negative people will increase your stress.
schedule regular time with friends, just as you schedule in your work hours;
connect more online: use Facebook to reach out to old friends
send thoughtful texts to reach out and keep connections alive
make a video chat date with remote friends or family.
explore Meetup.com for new clubs in your local area. Follow your interests. If you like hiking, singing, carpentry, tennis, or local politics, start there. You’re more likely to connect with people who like what you like. Join a club, a class, or take a volunteer position that will allow you to meet similar others.
6. Be mindful of your Eating
Food is yummy! And it’s also fuel for our mind and emotions. The food we put in our bodies has a huge impact on our ability to manage stress. Volumes are written about nutrition & diet and often the literature and eating plans are in conflict about what’s best. It can feel really confusing to make the right choices!
The following basics are tried and true, but make it a priority to visit your doctor or dietician to get guidance on what’s ideal for your particular health history and physical needs. You only get one body!
Drink at least six 8-oz. glasses of water every day
Make small sustainable changes to settle on a diet that has long-term potential for your actual life
Increase your intake of fresh, natural fools, whole grains and vegetables. These items are typically on the perimeters of the grocery store.
Reduce or eliminate refined and processed foods from your diet as much as possible (you will know these by the chemicals on the ingredients list). These items are typically packaged in a bag or a box.
Reduce your consumption of caffeine, nicotine, and stimulants (they often mimic and increase the sensations of stress in the body).
Avoid eating to the point of feeling “stuffed” or bloated (except those special holiday occasions!)
Pay attention to your emotions and energy after eating certain foods (do you feel guilty? Lethargic? Bloated? On-edge? Foggy?) Listen to your body.
Have healthy snacks available in the car, at work, on the counter at home to prevent eating unhealthy comfort foods to cope with stress.
We lead stressful lives. And our communities, workplaces, and society have many additional stressors outside of our control. Things that you can control:
your social connections
The people I know that manage stress most effectively are the ones who have intentional plans and strategies in regular rotation. How about you...which of these ideas will you actually try? Is there one stress-reduction tip here that you could implement today or this week?
If you feel overwhelmed trying to reduce stress on your own, therapy can offer you the strategies, guidance, and accountability you need, tailored for your specific situation. Reach out, I would be happy to help!