Over forty million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And it’s true: stress is everywhere. It dogs us at work. It plagues us at home. It travels with us on the road. It shares our relationships. It even sleeps with us. Symptoms of stress include, but are not limited to, rapid heart beat, cold and clammy hands, dizziness, shortness of breath, muscle tension, jumpiness, gastrointestinal discomfort, feeling on edge, fatigue, and feelings of fear or dread.
The more I study stress, the more sensitive I become to how pervasive it really is. With stacks of evidence to support it, researchers have found that the consequences of stress in the U.S. have become very real. According to the latest estimates, experts tell us that 80% of all disease may actually be stress-related. 80% is a very big number, especially in a country where more than $2 trillion is spent on health care services. When it comes to who stays healthy and who gets sick, stress may very well be the #1 factor.
Unfortunately the solution to stress doesnt come in a quick fix and a “60 Second Stress Buster” or stress ball won’t help us cope long term. Our solutions need to be more realistic and focus on lifestyle changes to have a real impact. The first step is identifying what triggers your anxiety in order to develop strategies to control it. This means ruling out behavioral factors that may be impacting your level of stress. Behavioral factors include such things as exposing yourself to too much news, excessive caffeine consumption, poor nutrition, drugs, and alcohol. Below I’ve listed a few elements within your control that may adversely affect your stress level. If you struggle with anxiety, becoming mindful of the following potential contributors may be a good place to start.
Common Stress Triggers you CAN control:
Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can trigger an anxiety attack. It is also extremely acidic, which leads to inflammation (bad for overall health) and a diuretic (contributes to dehydration). Be mindful of your consumption of caffeine; cut back if you need to and moderate your intake.
Alcohol: Along with caffeine, alcohol is acidic and dehydrating. Drinking can also overwork your liver and may interfere with your body’s ability to properly use oxygen, which can make you more sensitive to stress. Also, alcohol masks the symptoms of stress and is a form of self-medication that ultimately exacerbates the problem.
Dehydration: As mentioned above, alcohol and caffeine lead to dehydration, as do processed, sugary foods and a general lack of sufficient H20. Dehydration interferes with proper brain and body functioning, which can be a trigger for anxiety and depression. Aim to consume half of your body weight in ounces of water per day. Click here for my tips on hydrating properly.
Sleep Deprivation: Lack of sleep can make you more vulnerable to stress by making you edgy, unfocused, and hormonally imbalanced. Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is recommended for your body to renew, restore, and replenish. Make sleep a priority and work towards getting 7-8 hours nightly.
Along with resolving any of the above lifestyle factors, here are some ideas for effective natural methods to ease and prevent stress. Talk to your doctor before starting any exercise or natural supplement regimen.
Don’t Medicate, Meditate! All Natural Ways To Ease Stress:
Aim to do any sort of physical activity for a minimum of thirty minutes a day. It does not have to be thirty solid minutes, just MOVE your body. Take the stairs and walk whenever you can. Do some crunches and pushups while watching television. If you are not sure what to do, don’t stress about it! Whatever you enjoy doing that ups your heart rate is perfect. Exercise helps flush toxins and lowers anxiety and depression-provoking chemicals and hormones while it increases feel-good hormones. It also fosters deeper sleep an important piece in managing stress well. If you are short on time and looking for quick, stress relieving guided workout routines, check out my YouTube Channel.
Meditation and Yoga.
Studies show meditation actually changes the brain. Brain scans of regular meditators show increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex (area of brain associated with joy and equanimity). Meditating also creates silence and stillness, increasing mental focus and the ability to stay in the present moment. Meditation can be something as simple as sitting still for several minutes and focusing on your breathing while clearing your mind or as complex as guided meditation with music and chanting.Yoga is a perfect hybrid, giving you physical activity AND meditation. Want to get your “OM” on but don’t know where to start? Here are some guides to help you:
Watch Your Thoughts. Much of what we say to ourselves when experiencing stress in fact causes us to feel more anxious. Instead, use calming self talk. Work on practicing empowering, stress relieving phrases such as:
“This will pass.”
“I will get through this.”
“I am safe.”
“I am calm.”
“I am relaxed”
Find an affirmation, mantra or phrase that feels right to you and repeat it to drown out negative self talk when feeling stressed.
Set Boundaries. If you really want to alleviate stress, you have to set healthy boundaries. It’s important in every area of your life, but I find it is most crucial to set boundaries with technology. Lets get real – our world is addicted to the cell phone and email. There’s a reason the nickname the Blackberry has become the “Crackberry,”. Don’t get me wrong, technology’s great but it’s supposed to serve us; we’re not supposed to be slaves to it. We must learn to unplug from these things and plug back into our LIVES in order to truly thrive. To eliminate stress and increase life satisfaction, make it a priority to set boundaries when it comes to technology. You could make a goal to shut down email at a specific time per night or resolve not to bring your iphone to the dinner table to actually experience your meal without distraction. There are many different ways to set healthy boundaries with technology, personalize a few that work for you and stick to them!
. Inhaling essential oils can alter brain activity. Seek out scents that induce calm, such as lavender, jasmine, rose, and sandalwood. Use scent as a part of a calming ritual like a warm bath with lavender oil before bed with a cup of chamomile tea. You can also carry a small bottle with you to use while taking breathing breaks throughout your day.
Drink UP. As mentioned above, dehydration interferes with proper brain and body functioning, which can be a trigger for anxiety and depression. Aim to consume half of your body weight in ounces of water per day. Foods high in water content also count—so feel free to load up on the fruits and veggies. Increasing water intake flushes toxins and other depression contributing elements from your system at a faster rate and keeps your brain, digestive, and circulatory systems in their prime.
Breathe. Release. Repeat.
Deep breathing slows the body’s rhythms and restores calm. This is a super effective and completely free way of ritualizing relaxation and being present. Schedule your cell phone to vibrate every three or four hours to signal time for a breathing break. Sit tall with both feet on the ground and take five deep, relaxing breaths. Work to breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale out of your mouth with a sigh. On each exhalation, visualize any tension or fatigue leaving your body and allow your muscles to relax. Repeat as long as needed to de-stress.
Practice the STOP Technique. The final technique for managing stress that I often recommend is the STOP technique. The STOP technique is a simple strategy to help you pause and get centered. The four letters stand for the following:
S = Stop
T = Take Three Deep Breaths
O = Observe the feelings that are going on in your body
P = Move forward and practice gratitude and compassion for yourself and others
I’m a big fan of the concept of pausing to check in with your breathing and state of being. By simply taking a moment to do this, you can move forward from a calm, centered place instead of a reactive one. I also strongly believe that no matter what, acting from a place of gratitude and compassion can help you overcome obstacles. Next time you are in a situation and feeling stressed take a few seconds to use the STOP technique and let me know if it helps!
What’s most notable about all of the recommendations above is that each of these techniques takes practice and not much can be done in the short term. It is the truth, if you really want to manage stress in your life, you have to take a daily approach to it and practice these techniques routinely. In order to create positive change in our lives we must take the suggestions above into action. In doing so, you’ll master the art and science of handling stress and live a life that feels as good as a nice deep breath.
Which of the above techniques will you be taking action on this week? Leave a comment below with one way you’ll be proactively caring for your mental health. I know Ill be working on the art of meditation in a lavender bubble bath!
Yours in health,
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