How to Manage Stress for Better Health
These days we are inundated by stress. It is rare to find someone not overwhelmed by work, family, or responsibilities. The problem is, our daily stressors today affect our bodies just like the stressors of old (lions and saber tooth tigers and bears, oh my!) Yeah, that's right, sitting in traffic on the way to work, dealing with the humdrum of office work, running around to the kids' games, getting to all the social engagements... those things that eat away at us and add to the pressure; they all add on their little layers of stress and our bodies respond just like they are being attacked by the towering grizzly. So what's the problem with that?
Well, stress is not kind to the body. In a stress response our bodies' nervous systems switch from the parasympathetic dominant (rest and relaxed) state to the sympathetic (freeze, fight, or flight) state, and often for a prolonged time (like years sometimes). Our modern lives lead to us being in a chronic, stressed out state. The adrenal glands are the hormone glands that help us deal with stressful events. Under this chronic assault these little glands (which sit above the kidneys) secrete a hormone called cortisol. This hormone helps us deal with stress, but it also has the unfortunate side effects of raising our blood sugar (leading to more issues with diabetes and weight gain), raising our blood pressure (leading to hypertension and heart disease issues), it breaks down connective tissues (leading to more pain, joint problems, and gut issues), it makes it difficult for our brain to remember things, it makes it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep (leading to other issues with memory and brain health), and it makes us just feel like giving up. It's true, it becomes difficult to stay motivated and keep up with the daily tasks when we are overwhelmed by the stress of it all. It should come as no surprise that reducing your stress and reducing those cortisol levels can go a long way to improving your brain health, gut health, hormonal regulation, heart health, and more.
So how do we mitigate the damage of our stressful lives?
1) Well, number one is obvious, decrease the amount of stressful activities and events in your life! I know, this seems like, "duh," but really, I implore you to make a real effort to look at your life and all of your responsibilities. Make a genuine assessment of what things are causing you stress and damage and which are bringing you more fun, joy, and life satisfaction. Eliminate or outsource the things that create such a heavy burden and start embracing those items that make you feel alive and give you purpose. As you create the intention to move in this direction you will be able to select and eliminate the activities in your life that will create a most fulfilling balance.
2) Use techniques that reduce stress. There are numerous therapies, exercises, and techniques that can help you decrease your stress response, increase the activity of the vagus nerve (the one that calms everything down), and find a beautiful balance in life. Let me go through the best techniques to reduce stress in your life:
Deep breathing exercises
Taking the time for sitting and focusing on your breath can go a long way for slowing your heart rate, reducing blood pressure, and getting into a calm, parasympathetic state. Try sitting in a quiet space while observing yourself breathing in for 6 seconds and out for 6 seconds. Each time filling the belly and chest with air, breathing through the nose, and allowing all of your tension and negative feelings to wash through you, down your legs, and out into the earth.
Do something fun
Duh, anything you do that you enjoy is going tip the balance away from stress. Read a book, play a board game with friend or family, go to some stand-up, check out some live music, go dancing... Whatever it is that brings out the joy, gratitude, satisfaction, and all those warm, ooey gooey, good feelings :)
Exercise (especially walking in nature)
The forest is amazing at taking our stress away. Trees secrete chemicals that will make us feel at ease, the views of natural environments takes our stress away, and feeling connected to all things makes us relax and feel a little less self-important. Getting a good hike in, walking through the woods, and otherwise exercising in nature is a great combination. Exercise itself is well known for managing stress, but combine it with the power of the natural world and you have one of my all-time favorites for healing. I highly recommend everyone who can get into a routine of walking in nature do so starting today.
Writing down your thoughts, observations, intentions, and other musings of the inner mind can be quite powerful. If nothing else, jotting down your thoughts is helpful for processing them and coming to a new understanding. The physical act of writing our thoughts on paper is much more powerful than typing things out, so be sure to take the time to actually write. Consider a practice called, "free writing," where you sit with a notebook and pen/pencil and simply write down anything that comes to mind. You will be surprised at just how cathartic this process is.
Luckily it is not too hard to laugh these days. Attend a comedy show, watch a movie, hang out with friends. There are many places to turn for a good laugh. Laughter itself will relax you and get you into a parasympathetic state. It adds so much joy to life.
This one will take some dedication and practice. Starting off with meditation can be as simple as sitting in a quiet space and focusing your attention on your breathing. The goal is to train your mind into being in the present moment, not thinking about the past and future. Most of our stresses come from things that have happened to us and our reactions to it (the past) and worries or anxieties about what might come to pass (the future). The more time we practice keeping our mind in the present, the less stress and inhibitions we experience. Meditation is tremendously powerful and I highly recommend you seek out a tradition that resonates with you and that you can stick with on a daily basis.
Music has an amazing ability to impact our brain, emotions, and experience of life. If you are feeling stressed a bit of relaxing music can really turn things around. Maybe Enya is coming to your mind, but really it can be so many things. Seek eastern meditation musics, certain types of jazz, blue grass, classical music, chillhop, or other genres that may bring on a relaxing state. Make it a point to listen to what works for you on a regular basis, to unwind from the day, and to add joy to mundane activities.
Removing caffeine (especially coffee)
Caffeine acts as an adenosine blocker. Adenosine builds up in the brain and nervous system to shut things down. If this chemical is blocked, the brain cannot become quiet and relaxed. Caffeine can also take very long to breakdown. Sometimes that single cup of coffee in the morning is enough to keep you on edge, anxious, and stressed feeling late into the night, impacting your sleep and general experience of life. I highly recommend weening yourself off of the caffeine habit to reduce your stress response.
Sometimes we just take on way too much. If you feel like you are always going from one thing to the next, or you never have time for yourself (or anything for that matter), then you probably need to learn to say no. If you are asked to do something, are invited to another birthday party, are requested to pick up extra hours work, whatever it is... learn to say no. Take things off of your plate. Carve out time in your day to do things that nourish you and create better health (like all the other things I have mentioned in this article). This just might be the most important change you make in your life.
Singing or humming
These activities actually stimulate the vagus nerve. This nerve comes from the brain and is responsible for relaxing your heart, lungs, and muscles while simultaneously increasing your ability to digest and relax. The nerve comes down through the neck and research has shown us that activities like singing or humming that vibrate the neck will stimulate the vagus nerve. As a result, they help us get into that relaxed, parasympathetic state. Plus, singing and humming will bring us all kinds of joy, silliness, and fun; surefire antidotes to stress.
Spend time with those you love
Hanging out with friends, family, and loved ones is generally great for relaxing us. Many of the things we do, love, and relax us are done with those we love. Much of our recreation time is done with those we love. As a byproduct of committing to spending time with these people we will inevitably enjoy life more and experience less stress. (Of course the exception to this is when we have family or friends that stress us out and we feel obligated to interact with... maybe it is time to find a different way in these situations.)
Yoga was originally developed to prepare folks for the prolonged sitting of meditation practice. Today it has evolved to become a very relaxing and meditative practice in and of itself. Yoga will help you get into your body, focus on the now, practice mindfulness, and relax those tense muscles that are a result of your stressful life. Find a local class that advertises restorative yoga. Hot yoga and other disciplines can be more intense and not the relaxation you are looking for, so do you research before attending a class.
Talk to your ND about the best supplements to reduce cortisol and feel at ease
Naturopathic doctors are experts in the herbs, vitamins, and nutrients that can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol and get you into a more relaxed state. Common recommendations are b-vitamins and adaptogenic herbs. Talk to your ND about which ones are best for you and will start to get you feeling more relaxed and ready to handle the daily stresses of life that are thrown at you.
For professional grade supplements, shop my online medicinary FullScript here.
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Yours in health,