I was recently featured in Inc. Magazine for a piece on healthy stress management techniques, and I wanted to extend my observations and tips for stress relief to our incredible community here as well.
We all have stress and stressors in our life. Although stress has a negative connotation, it's actually not inherently bad. Stress challenges you. It makes you tougher and more resilient to adversity. If you survive it — and recover from it — you grow stronger and learn from it. This is true of both psychological (mental) and physiological (physical) stress, including environmental stress.
However, stress should be handled properly; when external stress becomes internal, it affects the body. Prolonged, uninterrupted exposure to stress slowly and gradually erodes the immune system. The physical manifestation of stress in the body increases your susceptibility to sickness and decreases your ability to recover from illnesses — both temporary and long-term.
When Psychological Stress Becomes Physiological
Stressful situations produce emotional reactions. This emotional reaction, be it fear or anger, sets off a hormonal response that activates the nervous system's emergency survival mode. This chemical response to external forces has real health implications.
Stress produces a physiological response — your heart races, your face and body feel hot, you sweat, and your breathing may become shallow and fast. Inside your body, your muscles tense and prepare to act. Your blood pressure increases, your liver floods your blood with sugar, your pupils dilate, and you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. This phenomenon is called the fight-or-flight response, and it's an evolutionary advancement that developed to help you survive when your life is at risk.
Although the stressors of modern humans look less like wolves and more like an overstuffed agenda or an upset client, your body still responds (or overreacts) to these situations as if they come with claws. Daily stress pushes the fight-or-flight response to be on all the time. High-stress events activate the autonomic nervous system and produce the symptoms described above and inhibit the body's detoxification process. Generalized stress, like the worry that nags at the back of your mind, is more insidious. It flies under the radar, but still has the same hormonal, neural, and physical effects on the body.
How Stress Management Affects Your Health
Unrelenting stress eats away at the body and weakens resolve. Emotional and mental stress causes stress at the cellular level. Your mental state, mood, productivity, and health are all affected when you're constantly subjected to stress and anxiety. This state leads to both an overactive and underactive immune response that many scientists believe is the root cause of many chronic diseases. Thus, it stands to reason that when you find effective ways to manage stress, you'll not only improve your standard of life, you'll support your health. Below are a few beneficial effects of stress management.
Preserves DNA Integrity
Telomeres are the stretches of DNA on the ends of chromosomes that don't contain genes but they do protect your chromosomes from degradation — sort of like the cap on the end of a shoelace. Although telomere shortening is a normal part of aging, not taking care of stress accelerates the process. People who are constantly stressed out or who had stressful childhoods have even more exaggerated shortening. You might be 35, but if you've led an extremely stressful life, you could have the telomere length of someone much older. Stress management helps you maintain the length of your telomeres and protect the integrity of your DNA.
Encourages a Healthy Diet and Lifestyle
When you're not stressed out, you're better equipped to plan for healthy living and more suited to carry out those actions. For example, if all your mental energy is spent worrying about a house repair, it's easy to forget to pack a healthy lunch and put yourself in a position where you're forced to eat unhealthy food on the go. It doesn't stop there; people who are chronically stressed tend to be more reactive than proactive and engage in unhealthy habits like overeating, drinking, smoking, avoiding physical activity and not sleeping enough. These behaviors can become a downward spiral that leads to even greater psychological and physiological stress.
Promotes Weight Maintenance
If you're trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight, stress management is something that should be at the top of your mind. Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, rise with stress level. This hormone increases insulin levels and causes blood sugar to drop — it's essentially the catalyst that sets off your appetite and incites cravings for unhealthy food. The more stressed you feel, the more you overeat. Long-term stress often leads to weight gain.
Impacts Cardiovascular Health
Effective stress management has the potential to impact cardiovascular health positively. First, many activities that reduce your physical response to stress — such as exercise — are, in their own right, an important part of maintaining heart and blood vessel health. Additionally, stress can elevate blood pressure and heart rate to not only degrade your cardiovascular health but even increase your risk for arterial hardening, hypertension and therefore stroke and heart attack.
Supports Digestive Health
Maintaining a calm nervous system is essential for proper digestion. When your body perceives danger (the fight-or-flight response), it halts all nonessential, energy-intensive processes, including the rest-and-digest response. Chief among these is digestion. Acid reflux, ulcers, diarrhea, and constipation are other symptoms that manifest when you're constantly stressed out.
Speeds Recovery Time
When the immune system is on high alert, it has trouble prioritizing its tasks. So instead of healing a bruise or cut, it's putting out smaller fires in other areas of the body. Studies related to wound healing reveal that psychological stress impedes the body's ability to repair itself.
How to Manage Stress
To thrive under stress, you have to take the opportunity to de-stress. This might mean making time to do the things you enjoy, getting adequate exercise and sleep, and taking breaks instead of powering through your exhaustion. Stress management techniques can foster recovery from the physiological response of stressful events.
- Time Management
- Prioritize Daily Breaks
- Deep Breathing Exercises
- Cultivate a Healthy Gut
- Get Enough Sleep
- Take a Mental Health Day
When you cram things into your schedule that you don't have time to accomplish, you only set yourself up for failure and inevitable disappointment for not living up to unreasonable expectations. There's certainly a lot you can accomplish in a day, especially if you work on your time management skills, but be mindful of your capabilities. First and foremost, give yourself realistic time frames and plan breaks to collect your thoughts and prepare for your next commitment. Give yourself a buffer in case things run long or go wrong.
Prioritize Daily Breaks
Working lunches and desk lunches at the computer have become the norm in offices everywhere. Although the effort to stay productive comes from a good place, sometimes it's just good to step away. Your brain isn't capable of staying perfectly focused for hours-long stretches and trying to force it to do so just adds stress to it. Taking a break to refocus and recharge is key to recovering from life's daily stresses.
Exercise is the most underutilized stress reliever. Many people say they don't have time to work out, but what they mean is that they're too exhausted to go to the gym or even step outside for a walk. Getting enough daily physical activity not only relieves stress, but it also helps you sleep better — another key element to relieving stress. Ironically, working out helps you feel more energized because it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine.
Meditation has been practiced in the East for millennia and is a practice that offers real, measurable, observable effects. Comparing MRIs and PET scans of people who meditate regularly to people who don't reveals a remarkable difference in their brains. Meditators have more gray matter in the hippocampus — the area of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system. Meditation relieves stress, helps you control your emotions and thoughts, tune out distractions, and improve your memory and ability to think. It's also my favorite way to relieve stress. There are many meditation techniques. If you're a beginner, try getting your toes wet with this easy guide on meditation.
Learn How to Meditate with Dr. Group
Length: 16 minutes
Deep Breathing Exercises
When you feel stressed, your breathing becomes shallower. Shallow breathing activates the autonomic nervous system and feeds the stress response. Deep breathing exercises force you to slow down. It reduces blood pressure, increases the amount of oxygen that diffuses into your blood in the lungs, and relieves feelings of anxiety. 
When you're feeling stressed, take nine deep breaths to calm down. Inhale and exhale through your nose. At the top of your inhale, leave your throat open (your epiglottis, technically) and continue to inhale. See if you can breathe in just a little deeper for a second or two, then slowly exhale to the count of eight. Repeat this nine times, elongating the duration of your inhales and exhales as you continue.
Cultivate a Healthy Gut
Within the gut, live the helpful probiotics that support many important functions, including digestion and immune response. You can cultivate a strong, robust community of bacteria by incorporating fermented, probiotic-rich food, such as kombucha, into your diet. Alternately, a daily probiotic supplement can also provide a steady supply of beneficial probiotics and act as a vitamin for the gut. People who have a healthy, diverse gut microbiota appear to be more resistant to some of the negative health consequences of stress. It turns out that some probiotics help regulate human fear and anxiety responses.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is essential to cognitive function. Too little sleep worsens stress by affecting memory and the ability to focus. There's really no question about it — a good night's rest is the best way to feel less stressed and reduce the physiological toll of stress.
Wind down a few hours before bed to fall asleep more easily. This, of course, means putting your devices away and turning off the television. Treat yourself to an herbal tea and meditate to ready your mind and body for a good night's rest.
Take a Mental Health Day
Taking a day or two to rejuvenate your mental and physical well-being can be instrumental for achieving mental and emotional balance. Give yourself permission to take time to rest. You'll be a better, more productive person. Schedule and plan for longer vacations, too. Leave the country if you have the time and means to do so. One study found that vacationers who traveled abroad came back happier.
How to Curate a Tranquil Environment
There are many small changes you make to your daily routine and environment to curate a tranquil environment. Here are my top recommendations:
- Let in as much diffused natural light as possible; harsh, inadequate, or irritating lighting has a very real effect on your stress level.
- Surround yourself with plants, even a simple succulent or lucky bamboo on your desk will do. Adding a little greenery around you helps relieve stress.
- Take a stroll through a park to help lower your stress level.
- If a noisy environment is an issue, get a pair of noise-canceling or over-ear headphones to shut out auditory annoyances. Play relaxing music or white noise to de-stress.
- Aromatherapy is an effective means of significantly reducing mental stress. Add a few drops of essential oil of bergamot, lemon balm, lavender, or sage to your humidifier to enjoy the benefits. If you don't have a humidifier, rub a drop between your hands and inhale.
Sustainable Changes for Stress Management
Effectively managing stress isn't something you should do every-so-often when things pile up and you feel overwhelmed. You should incorporate stress management techniques into your day, every day. View it with the same importance you give to eating!
Identify a few areas for improvement and commit yourself to them. If you're lacking regular and consistent restful sleep, ask yourself (honestly) what's standing in your way and change it. If you can find time for a few hours of television, but have "no time" to exercise in any form, you may want to make an honest assessment of your priorities and make a few adjustments.
Don't try to change your entire life overnight, though. It's not reasonable, and it never sticks. Doing a little every day is much better for building the momentum that will serve you well over the long-term.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.