Last week we talked about positive ways you can deal with stressful situations. Today let’s get into how we can help our bodies respond more effectively to stress. Remember, our bodies respond with the “Fight or Flight” response to all stressors, whether they are real or imagined, physical or psychological. So let’s get to it!
Be sure to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night. We all can “get by” on less, but we don’t function as well. After two consecutive nights of less than 7 hours of sleep, we start to experience some of the effects of sleep deprivation including (but certainly not limited to) impaired vision, low energy, poor judgement, and a shorter temper to name a few. And get this! When we sleep less, we tend to eat more, thinking that food will help with our low energy. So make an effort to get more sleep. It’s the ultimate “me time”!
Not sure exactly how much sleep you really need? Try setting an alarm to wake you 8 hours after you go to bed. If you wake rested and ready for the day before the alarm goes off, then you’ve had enough sleep.
Do you have trouble getting to sleep at night? Try slowing things down a little earlier in the evening, drink some herbal tea (no caffeine) or do a little stretching. If you have a “monkey mind” that won’t let you relax, write down what is on your mind. Physically transferring those thoughts from your brain to the paper can help tremendously. And don’t forget to turn off those electronic devices at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Studies show that exposure to these backlit screens can keep our brains stimulated and “awake” for up to 2-3 hours after exposure.
2. Love and Laughter
Get those endorphins flowing, baby! Two great ways to do that are with laughter and sex. Both release endorphins that make us feel good, release tension and get our minds off of other stressors for the time being. So surround yourself with people who make you happy, laugh and feel good. Watch a comedy you enjoy or go to a live comedy show. And, if you have a willing partner who wants to help you release your tension and stress (or not), you can have a little fun between the sheets!
Breathing exercises and meditation practice both train us be become more present. They help us slow down our minds, connect with the present moment, and become more mindful and aware. When we are more connected, we make more conscious decisions and respond more effectively to stressful situations versus unconsciously reacting from a place of defensiveness.
Here’s an easy breathing exercise to get started with. First, make sure you are sitting comfortably with both feet flat on the floor and your hands relaxed in your lap. Take a slow, deep breathe in through your nose, hold the top of the breath for a moment or two, then slowly release a controlled exhale out through your mouth. Pause again at the bottom of the breath and then repeat again with the inhale. Try doing this about 10 times and see how you feel. If you lose count, just start back over at one. When you finish, you may notice that your heart rate and blood pressure have decreased, your awareness and mental acuity have increased. Hopefully you will also experience a feeling of relaxation and peace. Ahhhhh…..
If you are intimidated by the thought of meditation, have no fear. There are several great meditation apps out there that provide guided meditations for everyone from beginners to advanced meditators. Some of them include Omvana, Insight Timer, and Gaiam Meditation. Those are just a few that I have used. But there are a whole lot more out there. FYI: Omvana has many more in-app purchases than the other two mentioned.
4. Move it!
Exercise is key to getting your stress hormones back in check. As I mentioned earlier, our bodies respond with the “Fight or Flight” response regardless of what type of stressor we are experiencing. If you are being chased by a bear, your “Fight or Flight” response kicks in. The stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol and oxytocin) are released into the blood stream causing heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure to increase. Gastrointestinal function slows down and the senses are heightened. Then blood sugar and clotting factors are released into the bloodstream. If being chased by a bear, we would run! The physical action of running would help us to metabolize those stress hormones and bring their levels back down to their pre-stressor levels. However, when our stressors are more psychological and have more to do with life’s demands not being in line with the resources we have to meet those demands (like time and money), we can’t physically run away from our problems (at least not usually with much success). But we can trick our bodies into thinking that we are with regular physical activity. Exercise simulates running from the bear, thus bringing those stress hormone levels back down to baseline.
5. What you eat makes a difference.
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates. What we eat has a tremendous impact on our health, as well as our ability to effectively combat stress. Focus on eating foods that nourish, and avoid foods that deplete you. Since your blood sugar is already elevated during the stress response, don’t try to manage it by running to sugary comfort foods. This will only increase your blood sugar that much more. Besides, that dessert or sweet treat may make you feel better while you’re eating it, but once that last forkful or spoonful is gone, your problems are still there. Instead, try eating more whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. These foods are all high in fiber, low in fat and loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that our bodies need to perform optimally.
Try to avoid caffeine. Your nervous system is already stimulated. Caffeine will only exacerbate the problem. If chocolate is your go-to stress food, you’re in for a double whammy (sugar and caffeine). Sorry.
So what should you eat? Here are a few healthy snack ideas. How about fresh veggies or whole grain crackers with hummus or yogurt with fresh berries? Celery or apples with a handful of nuts or 1-2 tablespoons of nut butter is another good choice that has a balance of nutrients to make you feel satisfied without exacerbating the stress response.
I hope these few tips are helpful to you. If you have anything to add, please share and leave a comment below.