Stress is my favorite topic to teach others about because its something that impacts everyone in such various ways that not all understood or appreciated. Experience in studying stress has taught me that we cannot always avoid it, but we can manage it. Stress relief doesn’t mean you are avoiding or eliminating it, but without the proper tools to manage it, it becomes our #1 predator. In other words, we are our own worst enemy. Stress is good at progressing the aging process, which comes with illness, injury and disease. The reason I love teaching others about stress is because the positive impact is so much greater on health and fitness once an appreciation and understanding has been identified and management has been implemented. You can eat clean and train mean all the live long day, but if you’re not managing your stress, it could all be for naught.
Consider this: the majority of modern diseases is almost always linked back to stress! And while you’re over there thinking you’re not stressed right now, think about this here factoid: Stress comes in many forms including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, environmental/chemical and eletro-magnetic (radiation) (or EMR), and you know what? Our bodies don’t have a biased segregatory system of reactions per category of stress. We’re not set up that way. Our bodies actually feel and react to each form of stress the exact same way, each and every time. The nutritional stress of dehydration triggers the same system of response as stress caused by exercise, alcohol, drugs, injury, financial or relationship stress. It’s all channeled through the same system of response. The level of response, or the magnitute, can vary by degree but it’s all the same. So that is why it’s important to learn coping mechanisms and strategies to take control of your stress and master the ability to manage it before it manages YOU.
Now, the following directions for stress management may appear to you so simple you might think these things cannot possibly change the complicated impact of stress, but therein lies the problem. If you are so chronically or perpetually stressed out (one way or another) that a simple stress relief solution sounds idiotic to you, then you’ve raised another red flag that you need to work on this. Think about it; if counting macros, weighing your food, working out twice a day, taking your temperature every 3 hours, logging your food, writing meal plans and organizing shopping lists with compiled recipes, stepping on the scale and noting ounces in body weight changes, googling “thyroid”, “adrenal fatigue”, “can’t lose weight”, and “carb cycling”, spending $100s- upon- $100s on labs (that probably don’t give you any insight, but rather MORE questions), popping a ton of supplements, and spending all your “free time” reading and writing posts in diet and health forums to get the answer you want sounds like the more “logical way” to approach stress related health & body issues, then you need to stop everything you’re doing and… I dunno…. start your life over from the beginning? Like literally learn how to walk and talk again. Just typing all of that out caused my blood pressure to rise.
I can’t even.
If you’re with me, then get ready to print this out and tape it to your refrigerator, dashboard, or bathroom mirror. These following items, as subtle as they are, should be your mantras everyday. If you’re skeptical, then at least entertain yourself by laughing at my simple directions. Because laughing is good for stress (see item #10). Here we go, y’all ready?
1. One thing that can be hard for many of us is recognizing that an invitation is not an obligation. We value and weigh our significance on how much happiness we can bring to another person. Does it bring you joy to make another person happy or feel special? Sure! It should, too. But when that “joy” become a chore or task simply because it’s now expected of you, it’s just a “check the box” situation. You know it. And others will pick up on it. That = waste of time. You don’t need excuses or explanations. This is your life, your choice, your freedom and people will love you even if you don’t show up to a birthday party, baby shower, company happy hour or optional “after work meeting”. If you cannot avoid stressful situations then, again, draw some boundaries.
CHANGE YOUR PERCEPTION
2. If you can’t change a stressful situation (job, commute, family members) right away, then change yourself. My favorite quote from Johnny Depp – playing Captain Jack Black – is, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude
about the problem.” We’re programmed to think we don’t have power in changing circumstances around us, so we become victims to our environment. Yes you need a job to pay bills but if you hate your job then your other choice is to change the way you look at it. Instead of focusing on everything negative, frustrating and stressful about it, turn more of your attention to the things that it provides you: paycheck, stability, security, insurance, a funny co-worker who is now your friend, learning opportunities, the ability to observe and identify problems and then more opportunity to suggest ideas. Don’t waste your time being pissed off because this sucks or that sucks simply because you accept the fact that things will suck. You know what that is? That is you determining that you’ve got to get used to being miserable, and when you simply accept that – because you think acceptance makes it better – then you are just inviting that reality to be ever-present in your life. Every coin has two sides, so always try to see the good in everything, no matter what. Remind yourself and write it down if you have to, it makes a huge difference.
ALLOW YOURSELF A TIME-OUT
3. Take a break from a stressor. It may seem difficult to get away from a big work project, a crying baby, or a growing credit card bill, but when you give yourself permission to step away from it you can gain a new perspective and feel less overwhelmed. The notion that walking away or giving yourself a break is some form of laziness is a cultural & social sigma programmed into all of our brains. Separating ourselves from a problem (yes, even a crying child) is not laziness. This does not mean you are going AWOL or ditching your problems on your co-workers, or babysitter. It does not mean that you are trying to escape. Taking a break from issues and events that overwhelm you is essential for you to get re-centered so that you can tackle the problem(s) with a clear mind. That means the problem will be solved in an optimal way, rather than pushed through with the vigor of frustration, anger and/or sadness. Vigor should come from clarity, not impatience. It’s important that you don’t avoid your stress (those bills have to be paid sometime), but even 20 minutes of self-care can make a big difference. Know the difference between avoiding and taking a break.
4. Breathing is the foundation to de-stress and heal. Our normal shallow breathing starves the body and brain of oxygen, which affects the immune system and cardiopulmonary systems. In fact, improper breathing affects every system in the body, including the limbic system. A good way to practice mindful (and correct) breathing for stress reduction is to visualize with your breathing: (1) inhale clarity, peace of mind, joy, happiness, positivity (visualize things that make you feel that way), (2) exhale the negative, conflict, stress, noise, pressure, pain, bullshit, and worry (and visualize those things literally leaving your body as you exhale (then visualize them disappearing in the distance). “Develop the practice of taking several deep diaphragmatic breaths in a tense moment; it clears the mind, body, and soul.” (The Stress Institute)
QUIET THE MIND
5. Science is continually showing up in support of meditation; a practice that quiets the mind, body, and soul offering an abundance of rewards for our health. This can be done anywhere, and just about any place. Simply find somewhere comfortable to sit or lie down, and find an affirmation you’d like to zone in on. For example- “I am blessed and feel at peace.” Perform the breathing as noted above, and repeat this affirmation or phrase of choice (out loud or in your mind, whatever feels good to you) with each inhale. Once you have inhaled completely and said the affirmation, take a pause for 3-5 seconds holding that breath, visualizing that thought to expand and fill your body until it has reached your toes, then exhale through your mouth and repeat. Practicing this literally changes the way your body physically reacts to stress by activating the release of those important mood-boosting neurotransmitters and hormones.
IDENTIFY YOUR –UNHEALTHY- COPING HABITS
6. When you are stressed, what is the first thing you do? If you are the type of person who needs to “unwind” by winding the body up with alcohol or unhealthy foods, be mindful to recognize these behaviors for what they are, as well as what they are not. Contrary to how you feel (distracted or calm for instance), these behaviors actually require more of your energy to process, which creates even higher blood pressure, blood sugar levels (thus crashes) and cortisol responses. The outcome is continued limitation to natural stress adaptations and coping mechanisms which, in the long term, reduce your ability to handle stress even more. Eventually, you will be tapped out and that means you will require more alcohol, more food, more exercise or stimulants/depressants to manage it. Keeping a journal is helpful for learning healthy coping skills for stress. I provide these stress journals with clients often. Write down a stress trigger and how you reacted to it, as well as how you coped. Then write down how you felt afterwards. Example: “I got a negative review at work. It made me feel ______. To cope, I grabbed beer and ice cream and spent the evening indulging. I felt better during this time. Afterwards, I woke up and felt guilty and ashamed for binging.” As you can see, coping mechanisms will usually provide temporary relief or distraction, but it always ends with even more negative emotion and even more stress. “Be aware of your unhealthy coping methods to dealing with stress. Turning to food, alcohol or drugs often just turns one set of problems into another that can balloon out of control. It’s better to avoid those unhealthy coping mechanisms from the start, and find good ways to keep your stress under control. “(Psych Central)
WRITE IT, PAINT IT, DRAW IT
7. Writing (or journaling), as well as activating your creativity through artful expression has amazingly therapeutic benefits. In order to be creative, we must activate the right side of our brains. This creates a balance, as well as helps us to reduce the noise of our left brain, which is responsible for analyzing, objectifying, realizing, quantifying etc – which all may be in the form of stress. When you activate the right brain, you are shutting down that over-stimulated (and grouchy) left brain. “For Einstein, insight did not come from logic or mathematics. It came, as it does for artists, from intuition and inspiration. As he told one friend, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.” Elaborating, he added, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration…. At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.” Thus, his famous statement that, for creative work in science, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (Calaprice, 2000, 22, 287, 10).
“The practice of journaling has health benefits. Journaling reduces stress by removing the worry and thoughts racing over and over in your mind. You move these worries, concerns, hopes or dreams out of your body onto the paper. “(The Stress Institute)
AFFIRM AND BELIEVE
8. Affirmations aren’t just for Stuart Smalley. Though laugh all you want at that remarkable Saturday Night Live skit (because laughing is good for stress, too), the undeniable fact is that his character proved one thing; affirmations make us feel good. Affirmations are simply positive thoughts or, sometimes, words spoken out loud. There is evidence that using simple, yet powerful statements to reinforce positive thinking releases chemical reactions throughout the body that enhance your mood and thus, outlook on issues and events. Studies done at Northwestern State University and University of Kentucky published findings that showed an increase in self-esteem, and a reduction in negative thinking within weeks of participants beginning the study. Using positive affirmations can help alleviate and control negative emotions such as anger, frustration, or impatience. In terms of stress, whether emotional or cognitive, some examples would be “ I am superior to negative thoughts and low actions,” or “Everything that is happening now is happening for my ultimate good.” The proven success of using affirmations for a variety of reasons takes you back to the oft-quoted statement from Buddha; “Thoughts become things”. This study reveals how every living cell in our body reacts and responds to our thoughts. Positive affirmations, thoughts, and uplifting internal dialogues release neuropeptides, which are chemical compounds signaling the feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. It’s hard to feel pissed off when you’ve got a hippie parade float marching through your body.
FRIENDS & FAMILY
9. I realize that friends and/or family can often be the cause of our stress, so if that’s the case in any given stress circumstance, then ignore this section. But let’s say your stress is triggered by work, the economy, a relationship or grief of loss, etc. Friends and family can offer you something in the way of stress management that nothing else can: unconditional love. They are people who not only serve to love you and support you, but they are interactive human beings that provide a very fundamental human need, which is community. Tribal association makes us feel secure, and as simple as it may sound to just be near any of these people, the assurance of being safe, adopted, accepted and loved is enough to reduce anxiety and stress levels. They also provide a unique position of being outsiders with inside interest, meaning that they can help you through a problem as the outside observer but with the motivation and interest of helping someone they love. “Friendships are strong indicators of mental, physical and spiritual health. Friendship is not a luxury, but is essential to work-life balance and your health. Studies show that isolation decreases immune functioning and increases mortality risk. “(The Stress Institute)
SMILING & LAUGHING
10. I don’t have to get into this area too deep, do I? If you’ve ever listened to Mitch Hedberg or Brian Ragan then you can identify how laughter distracts your entire attention away from everything but the side stitches of giggling so hard. Side note, it can be a good core workout too… try listening to the comedy station on pandora while balancing both knees on a swiss ball. (That happened. Once). Also, did you know that laughing increases the amount of fresh oxygen you take in, which – in turn- stimulates the organs and releases endorphins? (unless you’re laughing at a truck stop) If you didn’t already know that, then now you do. So go find a comedy club near you and and have fun. Instead of drowning your stress and anxieties in the bottom of a beer pitcher at the end of a stressful week, hit the comedy scene with your friends, co-workers or partners. Another suggestion I give clients is to add the comedy station to their Pandora listening accounts. It’s so much easier to drive in traffic or be stuck on the highway when you’re laughing your ass off! (that happens regularly)
REST, RECOVER, SLEEP
11. Chronic or short term stress takes a physical toll, so it’s important not to discount that. Even though we think it’s just a mental or emotional impact, the fact is that it’s all connected no matter how separate it feels. We tend to see things black or white, or in this case tangible and intangible. But remember that when we are stressed, no matter what kind of stress, it releases the same chemical responses in our bodies which send a chain reaction into motion affecting, for example, the process of peristalsis & enzyme production (digestion), thus putting the immune system and every other system in the body (tissues, organs, nerves etc) in a vulnerable position of weakness. So get some rest. Not only for your mental health, but to prevent those triggers from bringing down the house, so to speak. Take a nap, get a massage, go to bed early, sleep in, take a “personal health day” from work, or refer back to #5 “Quiet the Mind” and get your R&R by meditating. Or do all of the above! Look past the stigma of laziness in this case and just sleep it off. As I said earlier; there’s a difference between managing your stress and running away from your stress. Further reading on this can be found in Paul Chek’s book “How to Eat, Move, and Be Healthy”.
MOVE AND MOVE SOME MORE
12. Contrary to what I just said, moving can help you manage stress if done appropriately for you. Everyone is different so we can each tolerate (or not tolerate) certain exercises and movements for stress management. Exercise releases endorphins, and endorphins make us feel good so they are great for stress management. However, before I suggest some exercises, I will list a few that I don’t suggest. These include long-distance cardiovascular activities (45+ minutes) such as running or road cycling, cross fit (or WOD-like workouts) and aerobic or spin classes. Those activities require more catabolic energy, which lays down a very fine line between beneficial and flat out dangerous. Chemically and hormonally you must be healthy to achieve the great benefits of catabolic workouts, but that is unlikely if you are chronically stressed, live a very stressful lifestyle (in all aspects of that nature). So with that said, and not to confuse you, here are some good exercises to choose: walking, weight lifting (assigned carefully to remain anabolic), yoga, tai chi and, in some good conditions, HIIT routines with a 1:2 work-rest ratio lasting no more than 15-20 minutes. Zero activity can be just as bad – if not worse- than too much activity, so use your intuition and logic with this. If you do not feel energetic or motivated to workout, then don’t do it. If you don’t enjoy it or feel like crap afterwards, it’s not serving you in any way. But do not forego exercise altogether, even if your use of exercise is just walking the dog 30 minutes a day, having some awesome sex, or getting up at work to stretch and walk around for 3 minutes (<– several times a day, ahem). Use your body to move, but don’t abuse your body to move. Make sense?
REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE
13. Speaking of sex! This is a good example to bring up how sex can alleviate stress, but it’s not the only touch method in the toolbox. Can I just talk about orgasms real quick? Check this out, orgasms not only release bounties of healthy feel-good hormones, they also reset every energy system in the body to neutral. Plus they feel good, so… But to illustrate, think of a kindergarten class full of noisy kids back from recess and the teacher keeps saying “Shhh”… the kids do not hear her so she gets the gong stick and rings the gong. That sudden and overbearing sound distracts every student and brings them to military attention. That’s what an orgasm does; it takes the “shhh” to “BOINNNNGGGGGG!” and like a switch, all seven of your energy centers have vibrated back to neutral. Mutual or self-pleasure both work! I won’t judge. Aside from the orgasm, touch (and it’s benefits) can be achieved with cuddling, holding hands, hugging, throwing high-fives or knuckle bombs. You can get a lot of those same benefits from your kids, friends, lovers, family and even pets. Imagine cuddling a soft, wrinkly, furry little warm puppy. Makes you want to punch someone in the face, doesn’t it? No. It doesn’t.
HEIGHTEN YOUR AWARENESS
14. This could be a sub-category of #5 or #11 but I am pulling it out separately because there are so many ways you can achieve a heightened awareness other than to meditate or rest. You can increase the space of your awareness with mindful activities such as visualization, visual focus and object concentration. For example, I do this while lying in bed and looking up at the ceiling. I focus harder every 5-10 seconds seeing every space, gap, and ridge in the paint, observing the grooves and patterns, colors, and shapes…moving closer and closer narrowing the focus on smaller areas of the ceiling. That’s an example of mindful focusing, and you can do that with any object or scenery. Note: This is not safe to do if your eyes can shoot laser beams.
The other two ways you can practice this to expand awareness is through touch and taste. Using the same key observation methods. Imagine, for a moment, that you are blind and deaf and you must identify an object in front of you, or that you are blind and have no sense of smell but you are challenged to identify a new food. Take your time, go slowly. You can go even further with this once you’ve mastered the mindful seeing, touching and tasting and use the sense of hearing. When I coach breathing or tai chi workshops, I encounter individuals who have a very hard time quieting the mind so I request for them to close their eyes and in five minutes of breathing or movement identify as many sounds as they can. This forces you to quiet the mind and the more you practice it, the more sounds you will hear! And in the end of doing this, you have successfully turned the volume down on your stress.
BE A KID
15. When was the last time you played? Like really played! I’m talking about swinging from the monkey bars – jumping on the bed – digging in the dirt – climbing up a tree – making faces with your food …really playing. The kind of playing that we’re taught is ‘inappropriate’ after a certain age and eventually outgrow. Why is it suddenly “uncool” to wear a costume on Halloween in once you’re 12? Or is that back in style again? I don’t know. Or what about “inappropriate” to play with your food once you learn how to use a fork? Who said? Who made those rules? And why are there rules in those places anyway? You can mircowave-radiate your food into becoming parasite petri dishes but you can’t “play” with it? Tap into your inner kid and recall some happy memories from your childhood. Think about some things you used to do when you were 5, 10, 15 years old and go do them, no holds barred. If you have kids (or know any), then spend some time observing them and allowing them to be free to make choices based on their own pure needs for instant gratification- and take notes. Then join them! Let them be your guide. I enjoy watching kids, and not even my own, for inspiration. There is a four-year-old boy that lives next door to us that reminds me everyday how to live with playful joy. Whether he’s running around the yard naked, doing the robot dance, or supplying his endless inquisitions of curiosity in my studio about body charts, pictures or equipment, his spirit (and every other child’s) reminds me to be playful and curious. As a tool for stress management, this is my favorite one. Here’s an exercise I give clients (but also love to do myself): recall some joyful memories of your childhood between the ages of 4 and 10, then write a list of 5 things you enjoyed doing between those ages. What things did you do that brought you absolute joy, what activities hold the best memories for you? Once you have your list go do them. No need to thank me. (But I do like hugs).
I do realize this is just the tip of the iceberg, but practicing these things can and will improve your life dramatically. And if you are happier, you are free, and when you are free you have the clarity to make healthy and intuitive choices. I know it’s difficult, and so much easier said than done but you’ve got nothing to lose. Even if you just pick ONE item on that list and stick to it. If you’re starting to recognize that the cause of your health and weight may be or is related to stress, you’re on the right path. If you would like to jump start it all quicker, many clients have had major breakthroughs with just one hour of stress management and CBT counseling. You can read more about that here.