Even if you're unaware how damaging long-term stress can be, you may be acutely familiar with its immediate side effects.
According to Psychology Today, “The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… the list goes on and on. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase the risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy as well.”
But let's back up a little. The stress response is a natural and beneficial process, one that serves us well in moments of physical threat or danger. Hormones course through our bodies preparing us to fight or flee and then replenish lost stock once we’ve outrun or fought off the proverbial chasing tiger.
Here’s the kicker: Our bodies don’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived one. This means that even though there may not be any physical threat when our boss calls us in for a serious meeting or our spouse is angry with us, our minds perceive a real threat and our bodies respond exactly as though we were being chased by that tiger.
Since it’s not socially acceptable to run into the woods or fist fight the boss in response to the hormonal alarms, we have no way to express these biochemical events. We can end up stuck in them.
Yet, not all stress is bad. Eustress (as opposed to distress) refers to the good kind of stress that can motivate us and keep us productive when we’re moving toward goals. Eustress is also a byproduct of exercise.
Interestingly, how we perceive the very stress we’re under at any given time can help or hurt us. When you perceive stress as eustress, it can lead to a productive response that resolves the situation. So, not only can stressors be real or imagined, but our perception of them as beneficial or painful can determine whether it will heal or hurt us.
This is very good news. It opens to door to have a direct and conscious influence over stress. Challenging situations are bound to happen, and here are some ways to reduce stress on the inside and make it more likely that we’ll perceive stress in a productive light, regardless of what's happening on the outside.
Reframing: Change Your Point of View
When dealing with stress, mindset is everything. Our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes determine how we will respond to the circumstances of our lives, and whether or not we view them as a threat. Working to put things into perspective by challenging our beliefs about everyday occurrences can reframe your point of view and thereby reduce stress.
Diet: Restore Balance with the Right Foods
The right diet can have a significant impact on your ability to handle day-to-day stress. Eating whole, real, minimally processed, fresh foods will help restore hormonal balance, balance blood sugar, and calm the mind. In particular, food high in the B vitamin complex, magnesium and vitamin C will be beneficial for stress.
Of course, eliminating often tempting but damaging substances (alcohol, junk food, caffeine, nicotine and drugs) will do wonders to reduce the negative effects of stress.
Relax: It’s All In Your Mindset
Learning to slow down, taking time to breathe, and cultivating a more detached awareness of our lives and the various stressors in them is key to managing and eliminating unhealthy stress.
Essentially, any technique that helps to occupy your mind with a specific focus or task will reduce activity in the DMN, and induce a more relaxed state:
Breathing – this can be as simple as taking a few slow, deep breaths, or a more involved yogic practice (Pranayama);
Meditation and Mindfulness Practices – serves to calm and focus the mind; over time, a regular meditation practice helps to re-pattern the brain, re-wiring our responses to challenging circumstances;
Yoga – a double benefit, a regular yoga practice can calm and focus the mind, and create some of that eustress through physical exercise;
Nature Therapy – activate the healing effects of the parasympathetic nervous system with regular time spent in nature;
Physical Relaxation – a hot bath, a good massage, or an engaging hobby can all serve to tame the DMN and relax the body and mind.
Exercise: Cultivating Eustress
Exercise is a potent, well-studied way to burn off and balance stress hormones, cultivate some of that beneficial eustress, and heal the mind. Find something you enjoy and will stick to, and make it a regular habit.
Sleep: Get Your Beauty Rest
Lack of sleep is known to increase stress hormones, and negatively impact your ability to handle stressful situations and events. Make getting adequate, restful sleep your number one priority.
Connection: Healthy Relationships for Sound Mind and Body
Loneliness, feelings of not belonging, and a sense of disconnection are all big contributors to anxiety, depression, addiction and stress. Make time to connect with family, friends and community, and to build healthy relationships with the people in your life.
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