4 Proven Methods to Manage Stress
By Heather Freudenthal, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach
As unique as we are, there are certain things that make us all human: We all need air, food, and water, we all need rest and love, and we are all afflicted by stress in one way or another. Whether we experience daily, low-grade stretches, or intense bursts every now and again, none of us make it out of this life alive, or stress free.
Thousands of years ago, our primary source of stress came from the fear of getting eaten by a lion. Upon seeing a lion, our “fight or flight” response kicked in. This stress response was designed to protect us from these dangerous types of situations – our heart rate goes up, our eyes widen to take in our surroundings, and our blood diverts from our organs to our limbs so that we can fight or run for our lives!
Today the threat of a lion no longer exists, but in its place are bills, bosses, deadlines, family obligations, and hectic schedules. Though not life-threatening, these stressors evoke the same biological processes: Our cortisol shoots up, preparing us to fight or flee, and in the process, our hormones get thrown off balance, our digestion and sleep are compromised, and other aspects of our wellbeing go down the toilet. This is especially true when we are chronicallystressed (our body never has a chance to recover).
While our ancestors would probably raise an eyebrow at our modern-day problems, the fact remains: We are stressed. So much so, we end up on the exam table. Between 75-90% of doctor visits are from stress-related concerns.
Since we can’t eliminate stress (nor should we try) it’s important to identify ways to manage stress. Despite popular opinion, meditation is not for everyone. So, what then? Don’t panic. Here are four fun suggestions to help get your stress under control.
1. Make a To-Don’t List.
To-Do lists are helpful for staying organized, of course, but we’re still constantly looking at a never-ending list of things to tackle. Rather than focus on all the things you have to do, make it a daily or weekly practice to write down everything you DON’T have to do that day/week.
Seeing all the things that are not urgent can elicit gratitude and decrease overwhelm, as well as highlight what is and isn’t a priority. A To-Don’t list gives you permission to let go of anything that is not necessary in the immediate future.
Your To-Don’t list items may include things like, “Do laundry” because you still have plenty of clean socks, or “Get stamps” because you’re going to pay all your bills online this month, or “Go to the gym,” because it’s perfectly okay to skip a workout here and there.
Utilize this list the same was you would a To-Do list – reference it throughout the day to guide you on your actions (or in this case, inactions). Every time you glance at an item on your To-Don’t list, take pleasure in knowing you are not to do that thing today.
2. Find Your Flow State.
A flow state is the psychological term for the state of mind one finds themselves in when they’re totally engaged in an activity. During these moments of deep focus, we’re able to detach from worry, stress, and responsibility. Instead, we get completely absorbed in what we’re doing. We’re most productive, engrossed, and inspired while in our flow states.
If you’re not sure what puts you in your flow state, ask yourself what makes you lose all track of time. What could you do for hours on end and happily forgo sleep, food, and bathroom breaks for?
Anyone has the capacity to be in a flow state, but the medium to get there is different for everyone. If nothing currently makes you flow, pick up an instrument, a paint brush, a pen, running shoes, or a spatula and experiment!
3. Give Yourself a (Phone) Curfew.
In our go-go-go world, we feel pressured to get it done, get it ALL done… yesterday. This mentality can keep us burning the midnight oil, while worrying about how we’re going to get it all done. The irony is, we’re more productive and the quality of our work improves when we’re well-rested and less stressed.
Giving yourself a “lights out” time can help you compartmentalize responsibilities, to make more time for your personal needs. It can be helpful to remember that our to-do lists will never end. They are constant conveyor belts – some tasks get crossed off and new ones get added. Remind yourself that it’s okay to pause. You won’t get it all done tonight, and that’s okay!
Bonus points if you stop using all electronics during “lights out,” even if scrolling through social media is a way to unwind. The constant barrage of images, news, and information gives us a boost of dopamine, which makes us feel good momentarily, but leads to addiction and eventually drains us. Besides, comparing ourselves to impossible standards on Instagram creates more stress, not to mention anxiety and depression.
4. Breath Out for Longer.
Breathing has long been used to help alleviate stress, if for no other reason, it forces us to be fully present. We stop worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. But there’s one simple rule about breathing that instills the most calm in the mind and body: Make your exhalation longer than your inhalation.
By extending the exhalation, our vagus nerve (the central nerve in the body that connects the brain to all other organs) tells our heart rate to slow down, in turn, making us calmer (in comparison, think about how fast your heart rate is when you’re stressed or anxious).
Next time you’re stressed, take a deep breath in for four second, then exhale for six seconds. Do this a few times, then when you feel ready, increase the seconds (just make sure the exhalation is longer).
Stress is a unique experience. We don’t get stressed for the same reasons, nor does stress show up in the body in the same place for everyone. What we do have in common is that stress affects us all in one way or another, and if left unchecked, can impact our health. If meditation and yoga aren’t your cup of green tea, try experimenting with these tips instead. We’d love to know how it goes!