Stress and anxiety - we all experience it and know how unhealthy it can be to our lives. While short bursts of stress are actually good for you, it's the continual, long-term stress that is damaging.
Stress has been linked to almost every major disease, as well as weight gain and obesity. When you're stressed out, your body produces excess cortisol, the stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. This can lead to premature aging and excess belly fat.
Stress and anxiety interfere with your immune system, putting you at an increased risk of allergies, autoimmune diseases; hormone disruption, heart disease and digestive issues, as well as making us age faster.
Although stress is life and life is stress, the key is to build resiliency when challenges arise. Stress management is recognizing the best way to respond to challenges that will inevitably occur in our lives.
Rest and relaxation are important, and may take the form of meditation, a hot relaxing bubble bath with Epsom salts and lavender, restorative yoga, listening to classical music, spending time in nature, or reading something spiritual or uplifting.
Most of the stress in our lives can be managed or eliminated with some of my simple winning formulas:
• Breathe: Deep breathing releases endorphins that create feelings of happiness. It is the foundation to de-stress and heal, revitalizing and energizing every cell in your body. Allow yourself five minutes in the morning and evening to focus on deep, belly breathing versus chest breathing. Studies show that this lowers blood pressure, releases healing hormones into your body, increases creativity and productivity, and enhances your ability to handle stressful situations.
• Moderate exercise: Aside from strengthening your heart and lungs (two organs that can become physically affected from too much stress), exercise is great for your mental health, too. Exercising increases the levels of endorphins in your body, which stimulate your immune system, reduce stress and put you in a better mood.
Don't overdo it though! Include daily exercise lasting 30 to 60 minutes, such as weight training, yoga, hiking and walking your dog. You must be healthy, nourished with wholesome foods and well rested with balanced hormones to benefit and recover properly from more intense exercise. Working out too hard without addressing these other important variables compromise your immune system and endocrine/hormonal system.
• Restful sleep - the fountain of youth: When we sleep, the stress hormone, cortisol, is lowered, but when we're sleep deprived, cortisol levels rise. Lights out by 10 p.m. According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), the physical body repairs between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. The mind/emotional/spiritual body repairs between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m.
• Turn off all communication devices at a set time each night: This includes your cell phone, computer and fax. Remove electronic devices from your sleeping area to eliminate electromagnetic stress.
• Get rid of clutter: Clutter will make your life feel more complicated than it needs to, while a clutter-free space is one where you can truly feel at peace. Also, commit yourself to eliminating anything that is not improving the quality of your life. Manage your "to-do" list and set boundaries.
• Wholesome nutrition and hydration: Providing your body with the nutrients and water it needs is vital to reducing stress (and staying healthy). Stress can actually deplete your body of nutrients. Zinc and magnesium are the first minerals to be depleted when under stress. Make sure to include smaller, more frequent meals of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and enough protein. These foods contain stress-reducing vitamins such as magnesium, calcium, vitamins C and E, folic acid and B-complex. Our bodies require more protein when we're stressed.
Snack on some walnuts. A diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil may prepare the body to deal better with stress, according to a team of Penn State researchers.
Avoid all sugar, white flour products and processed, junk foods, which cause more stress and damage to your body. Doing so will help regulate your insulin levels. When blood sugar drops, adrenaline is released to compensate, which increases anxiety.
Drink a minimum of half your weight in ounces of water daily. Add a pinch of unprocessed sea salt or Himalayan salt to your water. Many people are chronically dehydrated, which may reveal as dry skin, brittle bones, hunger and is actually thirst and even depleted brain chemistry (neurotransmitters function in water).
Hydrate properly, eat mindfully, chew your food and enjoy your meals. Eliminate news, television, loud music, cell phones, computer and stressful conversations during meals.
• Sex: Hundreds of major medical studies have shown that an active sex life leads to a longer life, better heart health, a healthier immune response, reduction in chronic pain symptoms, lower rates of depression and even protection against some cancers.
• Listen to music: Listening to slow, quiet, classical music is proven to reduce stress. Countless studies have shown that music's relaxing effects can be seen on anyone, including newborns. Upbeat music can take your mind off what stresses you, and help you feel more optimistic and positive. This helps release stress and can even help you keep from getting as stressed over life's little frustrations in the future. Researchers discovered that music can decrease the amount of the cortisol produced by the body in response to stress.
• Spend time in nature: Children and adults are spending more and more time indoors. As a result we are seeing more problems such as ADHD and obesity. Spending time in nature creates a positive effect on mental and physical well-being; induces a sense of connectedness, spirituality, meaning and purpose.
Environmental psychologists have demonstrated that contact with nature restores attention and mental focus and helps the mind to recover from mental fatigue (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).
• Relax with water: Water has been used since the dawn of humankind for reduction of stress. Schedule time to soak in a relaxing bath and add 4 to 6 cups of Epsom salts. The magnesium from the salts excretes into the skin aiding in muscle relaxation. Add 10 drops of essential oils like lavender as aromatherapy are very powerful for relaxation. Light candles around the tub. This is one of the most powerful ways to relax and connect to your mind, body and soul.
• Release attachment to control: You cannot control other people, events or circumstances. Direct your energy into things in which you can control.
• Build strong friendships/relationships: Stress can lead to feelings of depression and isolation. Keep a network of social ties. Surround yourself with like-minded people who make you feel good. Decide who and what is most important to you and center your life around those people and items. Resign from negative influences and situations, "energy vampires" and commitments that are not fulfilling to you. It's OK to say "no" to invitations and events you really don't care to attend.
• Take the edge off and balance neurotransmitters: Consider natural stress relief supplements such as: Kava, St. John's wort, 5-HTP, or Biotics VHP (a blend of Valerian, Hops and Passion Flower). Always consult with your health practitioner prior to taking any of these.
• Listen to your heart: Turn off your brain and get quiet with yourself. Listen to the voice of your heart. While the mind is the content of who you are, your heart is your essence.
• Be charitable: Charitable acts have been shown to decrease stress, improve quality of life and increase lifespan for the giver, while a person who receives, but does not practice charity, doesn't experience the same benefit. Dr. Kathleen Hall, a world renowned expert and stress and founder of The Stress Institute, says that "altruism creates a physiological responses or ‘helpers high' that makes people feel stronger, more energetic and counters harmful effects of stress."
• Attitude of gratitude: Being grateful for what you have allows you to focus on the positive elements in your life and value the gifts you've already been given. Every night I pull out my gratitude log and list five to 10 things, events or people I am grateful for. Studies tell us daily gratitude exercises result in higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy.
• Laugh: It releases endorphins, your body's natural pain killer. Laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones and boosts your immune function.
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Paula Owens is a nutritionist, fitness expert and weight loss coach with more than 20 years of experience. Reach her at www.PaulaOwens.com.