Stress: Public Health Enemy #1 and How to Manage and Eliminate It
noun \ ˈstres \
: constraining force or influence: such as
a : a force exerted when one body or body part presses on, pulls on, pushes against, or tends to compress or twist another body or body part; especially : the intensity of this mutual force commonly expressed in pounds per square inch
b : the deformation caused in a body by such a force
c : a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand that can be caused by both good and bad experiences in your life. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood called cortisol. The original fight or flight chemical was very useful during our hunter/gatherer evolution—especially when our old caveman selves had to escape lion or bear attacks and call upon a rogue surge of super-human strength to survive. But in our modern day lives rife with running from activity to activity in heavy traffic, trying to do it all perfectly and the constant comparison created through our vast social media networks and constant attachment to our electronic devices, cortisol is often streaming through our veins in epic proportions without the intended and invigorating release of reaching that tangible goal, killing the lion or saving a life. In fact, cortisol has become “Public Health Enemy Number One” according to Psychology Today. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “stress kills.” Truth be told, it actually does whittle away at your overall well being and health in many subtle and not so subtle ways. Elevated cortisol levels can interfere with learning and memory functions, greatly denigrate your gut health, affect your sexual performance, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain and block fat loss, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, mental health issues and a whole slew of other medical problems.
In our modern day lives, stress has become something that most of us have simply learned to live with and cope with on a daily basis. Whether you’re fighting the carpool line to pick up your kids from school before your off to a multitude of activities or multi-tasking on your way to work (conference calls in the car or makeup on the way to work, anyone?!), we rarely simply do just one thing. What this equates to is more stress in your life, but this doesn’t have to be your story. You get to decide if you want to continue like this or find a better way. You have a choice regarding if you will react or respond to whatever challenges you are facing in your life. With a little mindful help, we can work together to eliminate Public Health Enemy #1 from our lives in order to live a happier, healthier and fuller life.
- OWN IT. Own the things that cause you stress. Take stock of how you’re spending your days, weeks and months and be honest about what really truly annoys you and bothers you. Sometimes even the act of acknowledging the things that get beneath your skin and trigger you have the sweet result of release. You may find that once you examine why they bother you, that you’re able to move past them a little easier.
Take a moment to think about what things make you happy and fill you with joy? What things or people make your stomach do flip-flops and tie in knots—I’m not talking about first love or crush heart pitter patter, but the kind of doom you feel when you really don’t want to do something, talk to someone or see someone. Are you regularly doing things that you dread? If so, stop it! Sounds easy, right?!
Take out a piece of paper and think about your day/life. Shut your eyes. Type or write exactly how these things make you feel in a flow state. There is no right or wrong answer. Write a paragraph about all of the things that “Feel good” and another for everything that “Feels Bad.” Look at your relationships, where you spend your time, what you’re looking forward to, what you hate doing and how you feel. Be honest with yourself.
When you identify and “own” the things that you really truly don’t like, you can find a way to stop the madness for yourself or a way to reframe it and thus eliminate some stress. I give you permission to just let it go. You have only one time around in this body on this earth, if something really doesn’t agree with you, why waste even one more moment?!
- TAKE TIME TO DO NOTHING. That’s right. Do absolutely nothing for 15-30 minutes each day. At first this may seem like hokey new age baloney, but practice just being with yourself in your own body for that short period of time every day. You’ll be surprised at how challenging it actually is to do nothing and to think nothing. Notice and observe the thoughts as they drift by in your mind and let them go. Don’t be discouraged if you are surprised by how hard it is to just breathe and not think about your task list for the day. Be gentle with yourself and take this time to just be YOU. In sweet, quiet stillness.
There are many different apps available now to download onto your phone that help to guide you in a meditation. I like the Omvana App and the 6 Phase Meditation because it seems to cover a lot of ground and makes me feel good when I’m done. Plus, I love the fact that it gives me free license to really visualize and feel my dreams and desires for the future.
Studies have shown that during meditation changes actually happen in your brain cortex where your amygdala (the “Fear Center” and part of your brain responsible for your emotional reactions including the stress “fight or flight” response) is proven to decrease in size when meditation is practiced regularly. This directly correlates to a decrease in stress and cortisol throughout the body. There is also an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions of the brain and the auditory and sensory cortex as well as the frontal cortex which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.
- GOOD CLEAN FUN. Play like you did when you were little and you didn’t care who saw you or what they thought. Laugh silly giggles, have an impromptu dance party, crank up your music in the car and belt out your favorite song—even if you’re a little off-key and people are in the car next to you at the red light. Enjoy at least a small part of your day. Whether your personal jam is finger painting, cooking up a storm, hanging with your bestie or even watching a funny old movie—make the time for yourself to enjoy. Something. Every. Single. Day. Have fun. It’ll do your body (and mind) good.
- BE GRATEFUL & MINDFUL OF THE GOOD THINGS IN YOUR LIFE. Taking a few moments to focus on all of the good things in your life every day is proven to improve your mood and outlook in your life. Get a Gratitude Journal and jot down a few lines of what struck you as good that day. You’ll be surprised to notice that you are even suboncsiously looking for the good in your day, the good in your life and the people around you. Things will begin to not trigger you as much and you’ll eventually find less stress in your life.
- GET YOUR BODY MOVING. SWEAT IS GOOD. Earn your shower each day. Feel perspiration on your brow as you elevate your heart rate and get your blood pumping. Go for a walk outside and feel the sun on your skin and breeze through your air. Even better if you can exercise with a friend—it’ll deepen your friendship and make the time go by much quicker if you’re able to share the experience. Go for a weekly hike or bike. Walk your dogs together. Notice the scent of spring flowers as you walk or run by that garden on your path. Make an appointment with yourself for yourself each day to do something for your heart—literally and figuratively. <3
- DO SOMETHING FOR YOURSELF. Take up a hobby that you’ve always secretly wanted to try, but been too chicken to sign up for. Want to learn how to center 5 pounds of clay and throw a big pot, take a pottery class. Always wanted to complete a triathlon, but never really mastered the swim leg? Take a swim class and sign up for a local sprint event. Envied your neighbor’s garden from afar, join a gardening club and try your hand at growing some things from seed for the first time. Whatever your fancy, lean in and invest a little of your time and money into yourself and those soft hopes and dreams you’ve been carrying around for far too long. Buy yourself the massage chair that you've been thinking about for far too long. ;)
- FEED YOUR SOCIAL LIFE TOO. Keep your relationships strong. They matter and are a big part of the fabric of your day and your emotional health. Your friends and family (sometimes we’re lucky and they’re the same) will be there through the good and the bed. Allow yourself to have a soft place to land, and be that for those people that you care about too. There’s nothing like the give and take of a good friendship, partnership or relationship. The joy you feel in helping someone else and the sometimes foreign feeling of accepting it is priceless. Plus, it’s been proven that people with a strong and close social network live longer and healthier lives.
- CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be perfectly YOU. Start being your own best friend. Be good to yourself. What do you say when you’re talking to yourself? Are you complimenting yourself or cutting yourself down. Be your own advocate and cheerleader. The truth of the matter is that you’re with yourself in your head every single moment of every single day. Treat yourself as you would your best friend and with the same love and compassion. Sometimes that’s easier said than done—but at the very least be mindful of it.