I know what you're thinking . . . there's no way your life could be stress-free. You've got deadlines, bills to pay, kids to get to soccer practice, and traffic to battle en route. And then there's the stress of news reports about crisis, tragedy, war and recession. None of that will change quickly. But by my definition, stress-free doesn't mean you'll not experience any stress in your life. Rather, living stress-free means you and your activities won't be determined by the inevitable stresses you face. Keep your own personal stress level low and you'll be free of the physical and emotional pressures that stress puts on your body.
The problem comes when the stress response is triggered over and over with no time for rest, as it does for most of us almost every day. You dodge the bus but then are late for work; your report is due but you get a call from your child's day care and have to leave work early to pick her up -- you stay up late that night to finish the report and start again the next day with less sleep than you really need. This is chronic or SuperStress -- you lurch from one stress to the next without a break! Unfortunately, your brain can't tell the difference between the danger of the oncoming bus and the "danger" of your deadlines. The physiological response is the same, and over time, the cumulative result isn't pretty: your digestion gets out of whack, your blood sugar surges, pushing the body into a near diabetic state; your immunity becomes compromised and with that, a myriad of serious medical conditions. In my previous post I explained SuperStress in detail and offered you a quiz to assess whether or not you have SuperStress.
So how can we keep the many, many stresses in our lives from accumulating and becoming super-sized instead of acute and manageable incidents? Here are 10 important strategies for reducing the impact of inevitable stress:
1. First and foremost, try to keep stress in perspective. Cultivate the attitude that whatever is stressing you will eventually resolve itself -- nothing lasts forever. You don't need to aim for a stress-free life in the literal sense, but rather should be aiming for a life with stress in it but not exclusively defined by stress.
2. Try to get 7 hours of sleep a night. Sleep repairs your body from the daily wear and tear and improves your immunity. Scientists have found that those who sleep less than seven hours a night (on average) are three times as likely to get sick as those who averaged at least eight hours.
3. Eat breakfast: starting with a healthy meal will give you more energy to cope with stress later in the day. You don't have to take a lot of time to prepare a good start. Try a fruit and low-fat yogurt smoothie. Berries are naturally sweet and they have vitamin C which tends to be helpful in combating stress. Furthermore, berries have some fiber -- which will decrease cravings by building up bulk in your GI track. Another great breakfast smoothie is banana (1), peanut butter (1 tsp), soy milk, almond milk, or skim milk (½ cup), honey (2 tsp) and low fat yogurt (about 6 ounces).
4. Take a 10 minute break in the middle of the day -- walk around the block or just push back from your desk and talk to a colleague about something other than your work. Even this short break will give you a mental energy boost.
5. Be sure to take a daily multi-vitamin: we use up more vitamins under stress and your multi will help replenish what you're burning through.
6. Steer clear of junk or highly processed foods. Your body needs nourishment when under strain so choose whole grains, fish and lean meats, veggies and fruits. But don't do without chocolate! Chocolate is rich in magnesium and potassium, two minerals that help promote the "relaxation response," as well as iron and zinc, which are minerals that many people don't often get enough of during the course of the day. Chocolate also contains a good amount of selenium, which enhances immune health. The ideal cocoa mass is 75% or more -- this will be clear on the label and is most often found in dark chocolate -- and the ideal portion is 1 ounce (about 1/3 of an average bar or roughly the size of the palm of a woman's hand).
7. Take a 20 minute daily walk -- around your neighborhood, to do an errand on your lunch break, or as part of your commute. Physical activity mobilizes endorphins, the "feel good" hormones. If you can't fit a full 20 minute walk, aim to simply add steps to your day -- take the stairs instead of the elevator or get off the bus or subway one stop shy of your destination and walk the rest of the way. Wear a pedometer to count your steps. People who use pedometers walk an average of one mile more than those who do not measure their steps!
8. Answer the question "What 5 things am I grateful for today?" You won't believe how good it feels to stop and take stock of all that is right in your life. Remind yourself of the abundance that you have. Reach out and appreciate those who contribute to making your life pleasant. Pin up a picture of your family that makes you smile or put up a quote on your refrigerator that inspires you.
9. Go visit a friend or loved one in person this week -- we all need each other and keeping in touch via phone or the internet is just not enough. Your oxytocin levels will rise with the pleasure and comfort of the company of a good friend. Oxytocin is a hormone that enhances a sense of belonging so get off email and stop texting -- spend some quality time with someone who makes you feel loved!
10. Do something kind for someone, compliment somebody, wish someone well. Reaching out to help someone reminds us of the interconnected nature of the human experience--and our capacity to aspire to our highest nature, something we often forget under stress. As the author of One Door Closes, Another Door Opens, Arthur Pine, put it "Caring can start a domino effect."
To reduce stress, and avoid SuperStress, try this today:
Simple as it sounds; focused breathing -- during which you think about your breath as you inhale and exhale -- is a very effective stress-management technique. A slow, full breath triggers physical and cognitive changes that promote relaxation. Deep breathing helps release tension and anxiety and is a great energizer because the deeper the breath, the more your body is flooded with life-fueling oxygen. A full breath begins with the diaphragm pushing downward so that the stomach extends out. As your lungs fill with air, your chest expands. When you exhale, the reverse occurs -- your chest settles first and then your stomach.
* When anxiety strikes or you find yourself focusing on negative thoughts, immediately exhale through your mouth.
* Now, breathe in through your nose, drawing in a fresh, cleansing air to the count of four.
* Exhale again slowly to the count of five.
* Repeat four times.
Roberta Lee, M.D., author of The SuperStress Solution, is vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine, director of Continuing Medical Education, and co-director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel's Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Lee attended George Washington University Medical School and is one of the four graduates in the first class from the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona conducted by Andrew Weil, M.D.