Are you feeling tired, irritable, fed up, or overwhelmed?
Do you find yourself eating too much or too little?
Are you struck by headaches, digestive issues, or physical or psychological pain?
Have you noticed yourself withdrawing from life, including from those you love?
These signs can all point to a single underlying cause: chronic stress.
See, there is a difference between acute and ongoing (chronic) stress. The acute stress response enables you to immediately respond to a threat. If a dog attacks, the stress response promptly preps you to fight or flee. Chronic stress, though, doesn’t stop. The relentlessness drains your reserves, harms your body and brain, and potentially leads to a raft of symptoms including those mentioned above.
Imagine a phone battery. When your phone is fully charged, the temporary use of an energy hungry app is effortless. Once the app is closed, the energy needs die down and revert to normal. But, if the app continues to run it will burn through power. The phone will slow down and glitch before the power drains and your device shuts down. The former demonstrates acute stress, the latter chronic stress.
Tip: To discover how stress impacts your physiology, read our article, How To Calm Covid-related Stress And Sleep Well.
So, how do you calm your stress and hop back in the driver’s seat of your life?
Move your body
Exercise might look like a dedicated workout, a structured Yoga session, or a timed jog. Or it might take the form of a garden walk, a morning stretch, or a bike ride through the streets.
While we can become enamored with the effects that exercise has on our physique, movement offers greater benefits than the physical alone. By reducing your body’s reactivity to stress, movement can profoundly transform the experience of stress, including anxiety and depression.
The study, Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood, showed that even one exercise sesh reduces anxiousness and depression. But the best results occurred with three or more sessions per week, for 15 - 30 minutes each, over the longer term.
The type of exercise that made the biggest difference?
The most improvements are caused by rhythmic, aerobic exercises, using of large muscle groups (jogging, swimming, cycling, walking), of moderate and low intensity.
In other words, you don’t need to push yourself to your limits. Low to moderate physical activity is the perfect antidote.
Enjoy safe sunlight
Do you catch daily rays?
Lack of safe sunshine can push your body toward stress.
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because of its role in responding to a stressor. This hormone is important in the fight or flight response. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose available for fuel and subdues non-vital organ function. This helps shunt all available energy to the threat response.
While this is important in the short term and when appropriate, cortisol is not a hormone we wish to maintain at a high level. Long term elevated blood sugar and reduced organ function will take a toll…
But what does this have to do with sunlight?
Bright light exposure — sunlight exposure — significantly reduces the level of cortisol in the blood. This is particularly so at two points during the day: the rise and fall of the cortisol rhythm. That is, in the wee small hours and as soon as you stir.
In the real world, this means as soon as you wake. So, open your eyes. Rise from your bed. Head outdoors, expose some skin, and catch some safe rays. Think of this as bathing in sunshine.
Learn to say no
Life is stressful enough without adding unnecessary items to your plate. If you don’t want to do something – and there is no need for you to pick up that mantel – practice the art of saying a gracious no.
Do you meditate regularly?
If yes, you will already know the relaxation — even bliss — this practice can bring. If not, we need to talk!
Meditation has an eon long, revered history. But many have been slow to fully embrace the practice as a habit. This could be, in part, due to the perceived time investment. People have told me that they like the idea, but life is hectic, responsibilities are vast, and they “just can’t fit it in”.
Yet, micro-meditation has been shown to be effective at enhancing emotion processing and reducing stress.
A study published in the journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience, investigated the effects of a 15-minute meditation program. The authors found that what they dubbed brief mindfulness meditation triggered “significant decreases in emotional intensity, response time for emotional memory, and duration of attention bias toward negative emotional stimuli.”
To learn more about meditation, read our article, How Mindfulness And Meditation Can Supercharge Your Health And Life?
Do you actively engage in practices of self-love? Practices that bring you to the present moment, and allow you to surrender the stress of tomorrow and the worry about yesterday?
Self-love practices can be brief or extended, easy or complex, subtle or deliciously blissful. A mix is ideal. Here are some ideas to whet your appetite:
— Stop comparing yourself to others. Yes, now!
— Say yes to what you want and need
— Practice being assertive
— Be fully present
— Cultivate gratitude
— Enjoy a luxurious bath, a relaxing massage, and a tasty bite or two of dark chocolate
— Forgive yourself and others
— Set down your inner critic
— Learn to manage your stress
When you don’t sleep well, you don’t function as well. Poor slumber makes it tougher to concentrate, problem solve, maintain a stable mood, and cope with unexpected surprises. Yes, it becomes easier to stress!
But even if you have trouble catching zzz's, there is hope. Read our article, 6 Ways To Improve Your Quality Of Sleep.
Breathe with the conscious intent of relaxing
Think about the moment just before reading these words. Were you aware of your breath?
As we rush around ticking off daily tasks and “doing” life, the flow of our breath remains subconscious. This wonderfully regular and automatic process keeps us alive. But, when we bring our conscious intent to inhalation and exhalation, we open a powerful gateway to relaxation.
Deep, conscious breathing enables us to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The opposite of the fight or flee sympathetic system, the PNS is focused on restoring balance and reducing stress. It’s a simple way to activate ease.
Need guidance? The Diaphragmatic Breathing Demonstration from Michigan Medicine will step you through a simple, effective breathing exercise.
The consequences of chronic stress are extensive. Fatigue, irritability, overwhelm, changes to appetite (and potentially body size), physical and psychological pain and problems. But there is power in your choices and habits.
To soothe stress… Move your body often. Enjoy safe sunlight. Learn to say no. Micro meditate. Practice self-love. Sleep well. Breathe with the conscious intent to relax.
Stress doesn’t need to be a permanent state of affairs. With the right steps, you can reduce your stress, simply and naturally.