Last month, we discussed some of the science behind stress. We all know that stress can take its toll on our physical and mental well-being. Research continues to probe the ways stress is linked to disease and can shorten our life span. And it can certainly make our remaining years less enjoyable.
So what can you do about stress? Of course there are a whole slew of suggestions on wellness and time management skills to help prevent some of the stressors before they even occur. Proper nutrition, regular exercise, a solid support network, a positive mindset, and sleep are all vital. But not all stressors can be predicted or planned around. Here are some simple tips to reduce stress via physical activity and healthy eating choices when you find that you are feeling unusually anxious or ready to shut down.
Take a Hike
If possible, get away from your stressor, even if just for a few minutes. Go for a walk, preferably in fresh air. It doesn’t matter if it’s a perfectly sunny day or not. If it’s raining, grab your umbrella. If it’s cold, bundle up. The point is to get a change of scenery, which helps alter your cognitive and emotional framework. Walk briskly if you can to boost the production of those stress-busting endorphins. If you can head to the gym or go for a run, do it. If you’re trapped in your office and unable to escape to the great outdoors, just get up and get moving. Go grab some water. When you return, you will likely be in a much more productive and healthy mindset.
Fuel your Body with Replenishing Nutrients
Stress depletes our bodies of several important vitamins and minerals. During and after a stressful event, our bodies need to have those essential vitamins and minerals restored. But how tempting it is to reach for whatever food is at hand, especially those comforting sugary snacks, baked goods, French fries, processed convenience foods, and caffeinated beverages! As you could guess, those “feel-good” foods and drinks quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy, worsening symptoms of stress. Look instead to foods with Omega-3 fatty acids to give your mind, and mood, a boost. The best sources are fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines), seaweed, flaxseed, and walnuts. You could even snack on a (very) small amount of dark chocolate. Also look to complex carbs such as vegetables, whole grains, and naturally sweet fruit. In addition to packing in the nutrients, these digest more slowly, resulting in more stable blood sugar. Drink plenty of water and give herbal tea a try. It is sometimes difficult to practice self-care when stressed. Don’t trouble your troubles by engaging in unhealthy eating habits during stressful periods.
Take Deep Breaths
Taking deep breaths is an extremely effective strategy when stressed. The physiological changes during stressful situations can lead to rapid, shallow, erratic breathing. Slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. You can learn to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation by practicing simple breathing exercises. There are many websites and tools that can guide you through breathing exercises, including this simple site with three common and useful techniques that can be practiced daily and mastered for use in stressful situations.
Meditation can slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, reduce your breathing rate and blood adrenaline levels, diminish your body's oxygen consumption, and change your skin temperature. You don’t need to drop to the floor and strike your best yoga pose to meditate, though that’s always an option. There are some simple things you can do even if you are at your desk at work. Try repeating a positive mantra, such as “This will pass,” “I have the information and skills I need,” “I am doing a great job facing this challenge,” “I am exactly where I need to be.” You could also read an inspiring quote or poem, or close your eyes for a minute and visualize a few things for which you are grateful and that bring you joy – anything that brings your mind to a more relaxed and present state of consciousness. There are also some great apps – Insight Timer is a popular one that offers free guided meditations.
Stretch it Out
Most of us don’t take enough time to stretch. Yet stretching has numerous benefits, including reducing muscle tension, enhancing muscular coordination, and increasing circulation, energy levels, and range of motion in joints. Stressed muscles are tight, tense muscles! By learning to relax your muscles, you’ll be able to use your body to dissipate stress. You can do stretching exercises right where you are to release tension and to experience the sensation of relaxation from your face down to your toes.
Invite Peace, not Stress
While some stress is to be expected and can even be a healthy motivator, prolonged or debilitating stress is hazardous to your health. By staying committed to healthy habits and activities that prevent or reduce stress, we can keep unhealthy stress at bay. This allows us to instead pursue our individual passions, and to live a healthy, purpose-filled life.