It’s no secret that we Americans struggle with too much stress in our lives. As a nation, we work longer hours and spend less leisure time than essentially any other developed country in the world. We place great demands on ourselves and find that we are working for a dream that only tomorrow holds, but tomorrow never quite comes. As a result, we work ourselves to exhaustion and have become a very unhealthy people, despite our great accomplishments and impressive productivity. This lifestyle is quite literally killing us.
When we are stressed - our brain can’t function optimally. When stress becomes chronic it can cause permanent cellular changes within our brain and throughout her body.
The stress response
The human stress response served our ancestors well 10,000 years ago. For them, stress was almost always induced by physical danger and those dangers demanded the physical response. So when they came face-to-face with a predator their brains shot out chemicals that alerted them to activate the fight or flight response.
But today that same biologic stress response can work against us. In the course of our modern chaotic lives our stress response may be activated numerous times throughout the day. But unlike our ancient relatives it’s almost always in response to mental or psychological threats that do not elicit a physical response like fighting or running. Instead we internalize the stress which ultimately leads to a significant inflammatory response within our bodies. Ultimately the effect of stress causes us to be hungrier and worse yet - have a higher likelihood of storing fat, even if we are eating healthy.
So what is a person to do?
1. Deal with it
Throughout our lives we have each developed our own patterns for coping with stress. Unfortunately for many of us that means turning to food, alcohol or medication. Instead, maybe it would be healthier to confront the problem head-on.
First - put your problem in its proper place. Is the stress that you’re dealing with really worth it? Stress is really just another word for ‘worry’. What are you really worried about? What would happen if things don’t go the way you want? Odds are - the issues are not life threatening or significantly life altering.
Second - give yourself some credit. You couldn’t have survived this long in life if you didn’t have some special skills or talents. Take some time to reflect on your strengths and your abilities. Recognize that while there are certain situations you have no control over - there are others that you do. So channel your energy toward restructuring your environment to a healthier one. For people who are under chronic stress, it can be extremely liberating when they get to the point where they decide to take action on an issue that has been weighing on them and stifling their ability to be fully alive.
2. Release it
In the section above, we discussed the importance of identifying your stressor and working toward resolving it. However, that may not always be possible. It’s important to note that the feeling of stress is a normal reaction to a perception of an imbalance in your life. For some of us it’s more practical to accept the fact that there is stress in our life and then find a way to cope. As we discussed previously, the effect that stress has on the human condition is that it elevates a level of a certain chemical known as cortisol (among others). Cortisol, when elevated, can cause increased cravings for certain foods and can lead to storage of fat - even if a person is eating healthy. So the solution is to either; a) not let the cortisol levels elevate in the first place or (b) find a way to reduce the levels if they become elevated.
My favorite stress reduction technique is referred to as the Progressive Relaxation Exercise. Now, I don’t want to get all ‘kumbaya’ on y’all but this is something I personally practice and recommend to our patients struggling with stress. Simply stated it works. You have to have a bit of an open mind and a few minutes in the quiet space and you will be able to measurably lower your stress level to a feeling of calm and enhanced mental focus. Here’s how it works.
Find a quiet comfortable place to lie down. (Once you become more comfortable with the technique it can be done sitting).
Close your eyes and begin focusing on your breathing. Your primary focus should be on taking a deep breath - in through your nose and then out through your mouth. Notice the feeling of the air as it passes through your nostrils and into your lungs - and then focus on the expansion of your chest. Just as you begin to exhale notice the relaxation in the chest of the air passing through your mouth. Spend 30 seconds to one minute just breathing - trying to eliminate all other thoughts. When your thoughts are diverted away - recognize that and bring them back to your breathing.
Begin tightening and then relaxing your body progressively from your toes to your scalp. Start with your feet. Take a few seconds and tighten the muscles in your feet. Curl up your toes and push them into the floor. After 10 seconds, relax the feet and feel them melt into the floor. Do two more cycles of deep breathing and then move up to your calf muscles. Do the same as you did with your feet. Continue moving up doing a breath cycle between each muscle group. Include your thighs, buttocks, belly, your lower back, chest, hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, face, and then finally your scalp.
Spend a few minutes absorbing the new state of relaxation.
This exercise has been shown to lower the heart rate, lower pressure and more importantly lower cortisol levels that are sabotaging your hard work to lose weight.
Other effective methods of releasing stress include prayer or meditation. Yoga has also become a popular form of stress reduction.
3. Burn it off
Another very effective way to lower the unwanted stress hormones circulating throughout your body - is to burn them off. As you recall, the primary purpose of these stress hormones is to prepare your body for a ‘fight or flight’ response. Well, if that’s what your body is prepared to do, then do it. Take 10 minutes and go for a walk. A brisk walk around the office complex or out to your car in the parking lot, or even taking a few trips up and down the staircase could be enough to place your mind and body in a healthier place.