I want to share a personal story with you. This past year has been one filled with many incredible blessings, memories, beautiful and hilarious moments. It has also been the most stressful 12 months of my life.
I have been extremely fortunate to be one of the co-founders/co-hosts of the Mental Wellness Summit -- the first of its kind online summit featuring 33 of the best and brightest minds in the forum of mental health and wellness; an event that is going to help re-shape our approach to mental health and wellness. And, the beautiful irony of it all -- I've never had more stress to deal with!
In addition to running a very busy practice, writing commitments, volunteer and charitable work, keeping physically active, writing a major board exam, and maintaining strong relationships with family and friends -- throwing the summit into the mix really allowed me to test (read 'stretch') my stress management tools. I love challenges, and I would not have changed this experience for anything. When challenged, we grow STRONGER.
My story is not unique in any way nor is it to be taken as some incredible feat -- as it is neither. What I hope it does is show that even those who are armed with knowledge and skill set to manage stress; this does not always make it any easier to implement. We ALL have our own 'summits' going on in our respective lives, whether that be looking after household of young children, juggling work stress, financial worries, health concerns, relationship issues, etc. So what's the trick? It is learning how to manage the stress that comes into our lives in a more efficient and pro-active manner.
So what's really the problem with chronic stress? Consider the following:
- $300+ billion per year spent by employers on stress related issues and missed work
- 77 per cent of people report physical symptoms caused by stress
- 73 per cent regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress
- 48 per cent feel their stress has increased in the last five years
- Stress increases risk for heart attack by 21 times.
- Stress has also been shown to increase the likelihood of cancer spreading (metastasis), which is a major cause of cancer death, by 30 times
Gone are the days where we don't look at the mind body connection. In fact, the more research that rolls out the more we see it as the ABSOLUTE connection needed to bridge the gap not only for treatment of, but also in prevention of the many chronic diseases facing developed nations today.
Here are my top five secret weapons for managing your stress that you, your family and friends can all use going forward.
1. Be mindful
Meditation reduces anxiety and lowers cortisol levels, full stop. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol. The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation that activates your 'Fight-or-Flight' response take 10 deep breaths and feel your entire body relax and decompress. Setting aside 10-15 minutes each day to practice mindfulness or meditation will create a sense of calm that permeates throughout your entire nervous system. There are many different types of meditation, and truthfully the best for you is the one you can commit to doing daily.
2. Food is your friend (not your crutch)
Nearly 40 per cent of North Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress. While it may seem tempting to drown your anxiety in a bowl of ice cream or calm your nerves with a bag of cookies, eating junk foods while stressed may be particularly dangerous to your health. One study showed that for chronically stressed women, eating foods high in trans fats and sugar lead to concerning health effects, including a larger waistline, increased abdominal fat, more oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance. In addition, junk foods will only give you a moment of reprieve. After the initial pleasure wears off, you may find yourself battling mood swings, irritability, and other unpleasant emotions ON TOP of the stress. Choosing healthy and whole foods can actually impact your mood on a positive note, relieving tension, stabilizing blood sugar, and giving your stress the pink slip.
Is laughter truly the best medicine? Harvard seems to think it is certainly one of them... From brain scans and other tests, neuroscientists are compiling evidence that laughter triggers chemical responses in the brain that lead to feelings of pleasure and a sense of well-being. Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Laughter also appears to go beyond the belly and the brain -- arteries respond to it in healthy ways that could improve blood flow and long-term health. As Harvard Health Beat says in regards to reducing stress; "Practice deflating cognitive distortions. Rent funny movies and read amusing books." Try to find ways in your daily life to laugh and joke as much as possible and you'll lower cortisol levels -- and that alone will have a tremendous impact on your health.
4. Identify and Correct Nutrient Imbalances
As a practitioner who is board certified in Functional Medicine, I spend a lot of time looking 'under the hood' of my patients biochemistry. One of the most important ways to help someone is to ensure their nutrient levels are exceptional. I have yet to find a patient NOT have a nutrient deficiency in their first test and a simple blood test can help determine this. Those who are low in B vitamins, amino acids, and certain minerals (i.e. magnesium and zinc) have a higher chance of feeling anxious, and have a tougher time coping with daily stressors of life. While many people just start taking copious amounts of supplements blindly, my motto is 'when you test -- you don't guess'.
5. Have a strong sense of community
Close knit human bonds -- whether it be family, friend, or a romantic partner -- are vital for your physical and mental health at any age. Recent research is backing this up. Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his team found that isolating mice known to have a genetic predisposition for mental illness during their adolescence triggered 'abnormal behaviors' that continued even when returned to the group. They found that the effects of adolescent isolation lasted into the equivalent of mouse adulthood. This amplifies what certain 'Blue Zone' communities throughout the world are doing in common -- in that they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can.
For more information on how to manage stress better and achieve optimal mental health naturally, tune in to the Mental Wellness Summit here!
In health, Dr. John Dempster, ND, FAARFM
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