Jamie Foti Contributed to this Article
Stress is everywhere. It’s impossible to escape. So, there’s not a question of if you are going to have stress. Living in a world with no stress is unrealistic, especially in this day and age that is flooded with demanding schedules, packing in a million things, always being on, and viewing rest as ‘unproductive’. The better question is: how are you managing your reactions to stress?
Chronic Stress Can Lead to Chronic Disease
Elevated cortisol levels from poorly managed stress can wreak havoc. They are linked to a number of health issues, namely high blood pressure, accelerated aging, weakened immune system, and depressive symptoms. These outcomes can be due to a number of factors. First, increased cortisol levels raise inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is tied to many health conditions like various cancers and autoimmune diseases. Stress is also directly tied to decreased neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for emotions and cognitive function.
Finally, stress can wreak havoc on your digestion and gut microbiome. There is a reason for the term “nervous stomach” and that is because the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) directly opposes the parasympathetic nervous system (rest + digest). As the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the body puts digestion on hold, causing digestive upset in the long run. To compound this issue, stress has been shown to change the population of bacteria within the gut, reducing diversity. This issue can be somewhat self-perpetuating as reduced bacterial diversity can actually impact your ability to respond well to stressful events.
Adaptogens Serves as a Band-Aid
People are always willing to make drastic dietary changes to reduce the effect of stress but its less common for people to make the harder changes in their mindset and actions. I’ve written an article about adaptogens and nutrients that curb the stress response and while they can help, they serve as a band-aid if you don’t change your response to stress and many of your behaviors. The way that you and your body react to these stressors is completely within your control. Think of it this way, someone like the Dalai Lama likely experiences stressors but that doesn’t mean he reacts to those stressors. See below for my top tips on how to manage your stress response and thus work towards preventing chronic disease.
1. Change the Way You Look at Things
This one is easier said than done but a little practice can go a long way! Try framing the stressors that you encounter in a more positive light. Choose to look at stressors as challenges that can be overcome versus threats that are beyond your control. See every obstacle as an opportunity for growth and awakening. It’s being presented to teach you some sort of lesson, if you allow it. There are no accidents in life. Your job is to learn to see situations differently. And as Dr. Wayne Dyer always said: “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change”.
In a study of patients shown threatening images, those who positively appraised the images had decreased activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that responds to fear and stress, ultimately setting off the HPA axis. In a real-world context, look for the silver lining the next time that you are in traffic, stuck in the airport, or overwhelmed by your children. It’s very likely that people living in third world countries would love to have your problems.
The breath is arguably one of the most powerful, underutilized ways to lower stress. Instead of breathing through your chest all day, take time to breathe through your belly. That means taking deep inhales and exhales through the nose. If you are faced with stressful times, you will immediately notice a lightness after taking in more oxygen. I’m a big fan of the 4-7-8 breathing technique that was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. You can also just take deep inhales and exhales through the nose.
3. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation can have powerful effects on how you automatically respond to stressors because they allow you to go inward. Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of sensations in the moment, acknowledging them in a non-judgmental way. Meditation has also been shown to increase alpha waves in the brain, the waves responsible for reducing negative moods. In these studies on meditation as a stress reduction technique, participants reported lower perceived levels of stress and a reduction in stress-related health issues. There is a program created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and there are many, many studies indicating the benefits for stress. The practice helps modulate emotional and cognitive reactivity, mindfulness, rumination, and worry as identified by a 2015 meta-analysis.
Carve out 10 minutes to sit in stillness and acknowledge your thoughts and emotions (or you can use an app like Headspace). You can also check out this resource or book for MBSR. For those advanced in mindfulness, I’d recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s other book: Wherever you Go: There you Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
4. Set Boundaries
Boundaries are something that I’ve always struggled with. I feared that other people wouldn’t like me if I set boundaries. Setting boundaries, especially for women, can feel harsh or rude. By not doing this, you are choosing to please others at the expense of not honoring myself. Setting boundaries and telling people no leads to more opportunities to say yes to yourself and lower your stress levels.
5. Buffer your Schedule
Give yourself plenty of space throughout the day to rebound after higher exertion periods. If you have a meeting that will require a lot from you emotionally, block 15 minutes before your next call to go for a walk. If you don’t have control of your own schedule then mentally block 20 seconds to focus on deep belly breathing, in and out of your nose. You will run yourself down if you expect yourself to go all day long with no breaks.
6. Embrace your Imperfections
Humans have the ability to create their own misery and can be the case when perfectionism takes over. Let go of needing things to be perfect and learn to embrace your imperfections. Step out of the shackles of your judgmental mind and start to accept yourself fully. You have been perfect since the day you were born. Remind yourself that you are always doing the best that you can with the resources that you currently have access to.
7. Spend Time in Nature Everyday
The average American spends the majority of their time indoors. And you have probably experienced the difference that you feel sitting inside for an hour versus being outside in nature. Just stepping outside for a 15 minute walk on a trail or along the beach is shown to improve a person’s mood and memory. When I walk along the beach in Florida, I can immediately feel my cortisol levels drop. In addition to nature being relaxing, there are also benefits of being exposed to natural light throughout the day. It helps regulate your circadian rhythm which may even help you sleep better at night. Even if you don’t have access to the beach or a nice hiking trail, try to get outside for at least 15 minutes a day.
8. Prioritize Sleep
Sleep affects just about every area of your life, your response to stress not excluded. In a study on sleep and stress response, those who had good quality sleep had a lower cortisol response to stressors, demonstrating higher tolerance for stressful situations. Prioritize getting your 7-9 hours in roughly the same time period each night to start reducing your stress response.
9. Make Exercise a Part of Your Routine
Exercise helps to reduce stress by increasing blood flow to the brain. In a study on mice, those who were subjected to an exercise regime had more neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain directly affected by stress. Aim for moderate activity that for 30 minutes a day, five times a week. It’s key to find a workout that you enjoy and avoid pushing yourself too hard to the point that you are light headed and dizzy. Bonus points for moving in nature, as being in nature can help reduce stress.
Journaling can be an extremely healing and stress-reducing exercise that allows you to express emotions that would otherwise be internalized. It’s not just having a demanding schedule that can create stress but also the lack of space that you have to process your emotions. Journaling provides a safe space for you to do that. You can do this in a notebook or on a notepad in your phone.
Though stressors are likely unavoidable, there is so much you can do to take control over your bodily response to said stressors and thus avoid the consequences that come with increased cortisol, empowering you in protecting your own health.