Stress seems to crop up everywhere in our modern world. It seems these days every time we turn on the television or radio, we are subjected to another round of stressful news detailing the latest national and world crises. And then there’s bad weather. Unexpected expenses. Challenges at work. Accidents and sudden loss or disability. Raising our children. Worrying over our grandchildren. Care giving for our aging parents. Becoming the aging parent.
The list can go on and on. Fortunately, our minds and bodies are built to adapt to stressful situations. We are wired such that, when needed, we can spring into action to escape danger. This is called the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system, which pumps blood to our muscles and brain, gets our heart beating fast and lungs breathing efficiently. This system is designed to be short-term, helping us to get away from danger and home to safety where our bodies and minds can calm down.
Unfortunately, this reflexive system cannot tell between true danger and the experiences we have every day—for example, dealing with bad drivers, or facing a demanding spouse or coworker. In fact, many Americans live in a state of chronic stress, always in the “fight or flight” state with their bodies and minds. When blood is shunted to the brain and muscles, it is shunted away from the gut and other internal organs leading to troubles with digestion such as ulcers or chronic diarrhea. Other non-essential processes in the body, such as our immune system, reproduction, and growth, are de-prioritized. Elevated stress hormones make us alert and vigilant in the short term, but in the long-term convert to agitation, anxiety, insomnia, and finally, depression. Stress hormones in the short-term free extra sugar to fuel our muscles to fight or run away from danger, but in the long term can put us at the risk of developing diabetes. They will also increase abdominal fat, making it difficult to lose weight when chronically stressed.
But don’t start to stress about stress! The old adage proves true: “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it that matters.” We all know people for whom stress seems to just roll off of them. We’re not all built to be so laid-back, but we can certainly learn ways to improve our own response to stress. While we cannot control what happens in our environment most of the time, we can work on our personal resiliency. If we invest in the things that keep us well balanced now, we will have greater capacity to move through difficult times now and in the future.
Here is a practical list of research-supported actions that calm our body’s day-to-day stress response.
• Spend more time outdoors. Time in nature is never misspent, even if it is just a few minutes. Participate in activities that recharge you, or just listen to the birds, feel the breeze, and put your bare feet on the earth.
• Exercise. Getting your heart pumping and working up a light sweat kicks in many healthy body processes for both your emotional and physical health.
• Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is a topic of its own; water is essential. Drink at least 64 ounces of water daily.
• Balance your blood sugar. Sugar is a stimulant just like caffeine. Our brains and bodies do best with not too much of either. Otherwise, when chronically stressed we end up “tired and wired:” exhausted, but over-caffeinated with a sugar buzz! Eat regular meals through the day to keep blood sugar even.
• Mindful eating. Eat slowly, preferably at a table with other people. Chew well and enjoy your food.
• Optimize nutrition. Avoid heavy foods that cause inflammation in your body such as fried foods, red meats, and baked goods. Look for foods that help your body heal, such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, avocados, berries, and other super foods.
• Sleep hygiene. Good sleep is so important to our health and healing. Prioritize getting a goal of at least 8 hours of sleep a night. If you struggle with insomnia, speak to your medical provider about options to help.
• Adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbs that help support and restore our health through times of stress. They can help to increase energy, improve immune system function, decrease anxiety and tension, and more. Ashwaghanda, Rhodiola, Eleutherococcus, Licorice (not the candy kind!), and more are all included in this group of herbs. Talk to your health care provider to make sure these are safe for you.
• Quiet reflection. For many people, prayer is a time of quiet reflection while laying down our burdens to God. Meditation is another practice of finding peace in the present moment. There are many other types of relaxation practices, such as deep breathing, that can also reset our stress response in the moment. Choose what feels right to you, and make it a regular habit.
• A Deep Breathing Exercise Example: Sit with both your feet on the ground, uncrossed, with each hand resting comfortably in your lap. Become aware of the weight of your bottom on your seat, the curve of your spine up your back. Shrug your shoulders a few times: up, back and down, up, back, and down, releasing any tension there. Gently roll your head in a circle, releasing tension in your neck as long as you like. Now sitting still, become aware of your breath, in and out. Just observe for a bit. When ready, as you slowly breathe in, say silently to yourself, “I am,” and as you slowly breathe out, “At peace.” With each in breath, “I am,” then holding a few counts, and then each out breath, “At peace.” Repeat as long as you like, gradually breathing more slowly and deeply.
• Have fun! The people, pets, and activities that bring us joy remind us of what is really important in life. As adults we forget how to play, use our imaginations, and laugh freely. If you haven’t done these things for a long time, think back… what did you used to love to do? What really fills your cup? Find a way to get back to it, in some version or another.
In the end, it is always useful to remember the Serenity Prayer, which continues to be as relevant as ever: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”