No one is immune to stress – yes even we yoga teachers and counselors experience it from time to time. According to a recent American Psychological Association poll, nearly a quarter of Americans confessed to currently feeling under “extreme stress.” With the American economy still struggling to recover, it is not surprising that work, money and the economy are some of the leading causes of stress for Americans.
Stress is a normal biological reaction to positive and negative situations in your life, such as a new job or the death of a loved one. Stress itself isn’t abnormal or bad. Stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the energy to help us through situations like exams or work deadlines. In fact, stress is caused by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is an adaptive biological feature that kicks in automatically in response to a perceived threat or danger. It is probably responsible for the survival of our species (think caveman being attacked by a wild animal). During this kind of reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin, cortisol and other corticosteroids are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, sending blood flow to major muscle groups, and a whole host of other automatic nervous system functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.
A lot has changed since the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. While the threat of a bear attacking is relatively low, the “fight or flight” response is now being activated in situation like stressful work environments, dysfunctional families, financial problems/poverty, challenging personal relationships, etc. This kind of stress is referred to as chronic stress and it is becoming more and more prevalent in our society. With chronic stress one experiences unrelenting demands and pressures for a prolonged period of time. The parasympathetic nervous system, an automatic response of the nervous system designed to counteract the “fight or flight” response, does not have an opportunity to respond. And this kind of extreme, prolonged stress can have a negative impact on one’s overall health and sense of wellbeing.
Chronic stress destroys our bodies, minds and lives. Stress has been found to play a role in so many of the diseases of modern life – from heart attacks and cancer to diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and asthma. Chronic stress can weaken the immune system leaving us more susceptible to infections. Allergies and autoimmune diseases may also be exacerbated by stress. There are even studies that link chronic stress to infertility and physical pain. At a conference on “The Profound Impact of Stress” in Washington, D.C. last year, George Chrousos explained, it is likely that chronic stress accounts for more than half of the country’s healthcare-related expenses.
Now here’s the good news! You have the power to make changes in your life to help you cope with life’s challenges more effectively. The key to managing stress is recognizing and changing the behaviors that cause it. This is one of those easier said than done kind of things, I get it. However, there are small steps that you can incorporate into your life that will help reduce stress, as well as improve your physical and emotional health.
Breathe: Start to become aware of your breathing. You will probably notice that when you are stressed out, your breathing becomes sharp, short and shallow. Taking a few seconds, literally seconds, to close your eyes and witness the breath, your life-force energy, as it moves effortlessly in through the nose, down the back of the throat, filling up the lungs, expanding the belly. Retain the inhalation for a second or two. Then carefully observe the breath as it moves up through the belly to the lungs and the back of the throat then out of the nose smoothly and evenly. Repeat this breathing technique a few more times, especially when you are feeling stressed. It will help you find some calm and balance.
Move: Being physically active is a small but powerful change you can make to manage stress. Physical activity increases your body’s production of feel-good endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter in the brain, and helps in treating mild forms of depression and anxiety. It might be hard to find time to fit exercise into your already busy schedule, but the benefits are worth it. Try taking a yoga class – many studios offer great beginner or basics classes for those who are new to the practice. In one hour you will have balanced your mind, body and soul. Or maybe try taking a 30 minute walk most days of the week. Studies have shown that individuals who take a short 20-30 minute walking break at lunch return to their desks more alert, focused and productive.
Eat a healthy diet: The food we put into our bodies is literally the fuel that helps us get through our day. Packaged, processed carbohydrates, sugary sodas and unhealthy fats are staples in many of the diets of people who experience chronic stress. Try to incorporate healthy whole grains, lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables as well as low-fat dairy products into your diet. Perhaps you can go to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon and stock up on fruits and veggies for the week. Portion out some carrot sticks, celery sticks, cucumbers and even those baby grape tomatoes (my personal favorite) in individual snack packs for the week. For breakfast, I like to make a big batch of low-fat, plain Greek yogurt with frozen berries (they last longer and are cheaper), a small handful of chopped walnuts for the healthy omega-3 fats, and a drizzle of agave nectar for a little sweetness at the beginning of the week which saves me time in the morning. Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Perhaps purchasing a reusable water bottle will inspire you to drink more. Squeeze some lemon into the water for a refreshing alternative to plain water. Try switching green tea for your regular coffee or latte. You can leave a box of tea at your desk or bring a few with you in your purse or briefcase. It’s that easy. Make a healthy salad with lean protein or a sandwich on whole grain bread with lean protein and veggies and bring it to work for lunch. If you crave a sweet snack in the afternoon, munch on an apple. If you crave a salty snack, my favorite thing is green apple slices or cucumbers sprinkled with a pinch of sea salt. If you prepare ahead of time, you will find that eating healthy will end up saving you time and money. Plus, you will feel great because you are giving your body the nutrients that it craves. You might even lose a few pounds, too!!
Get more quality sleep: Studies have illustrated the strong link between insomnia and chronic stress. Experts recommend going to bed at a regular time each night, striving for at least seven to eight hours of sleep and eliminating distractions such as television and computers from the bedroom.
Cultivate an attitude of gratitude: Everyday take a minute or two to remind yourself of all that you’re grateful for and all of the positive things in your life. This can have a profound effect on your overall sense of wellbeing. Remind yourself that you are loved and supported.
Try not to sweat the small stuff: So maybe you let the dishes sit in the sink a little longer so you can fit in a yoga class or an extra hour of sleep. They will get done, eventually.
Spend healthy, fulfilling time with friends and family: The caveat here is to avoid the friends and family that trigger stress, and to spend more time with the people who uplift and support you.
Take a hot bath: Honestly, taking a bath at the end of long and stressful day is a great way to decompress and it will help you get a more restful sleep.
I hope these tips help those of you who are experiencing a lot of stress. But remember, if a high stress level continues for a long period of time, it is important to reach out to mental health professional or other health professional who can help you overcome the barriers to living a healthy life and manage stress effectively. These people can help you identify behaviors and situations that are contributing to your consistently high stress level and assist you in making lasting lifestyle changes.
— Kate O’Connor, Breathe.Move.Flow.