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
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
It’s the best medicine, right? A real belly laugh can quickly help you forget more minor stressors and give you a bit of respite from the bigger ones. Subscribe to a funny podcast like WTF with Marc Maron or Friends Like Us, or make a YouTube playlist full of clips of your favourite stand-up comedians. If you have a bit more time, watch a favourite episode of a sitcom or even your favourite funny movie. Before long you’ll be feeling looser and lighter.
"It’s been proven time and time again that getting your body moving releases endorphins and can instantly lift your mood,” said Nitika Chopra, a certified life coach and wellness entrepreneur. Exercise helps you relieve stress because it causes a release of mood-boosting endorphins, the Mayo Clinic says, and the effects only increase over the long term. Getting more exercise doesn’t mean that you have to hit a gym. Buddy up with a friend for regular walks or runs together, or join a local rec-league sports team. Even a night out dancing counts!
Stretch: It’s hard to remember to get a good stretch into your day, whether it’s around a workout or simply because it feels good. But taking a break to get in a few stretches can be a great stress buster, especially for desk workers — stretching those shoulders out helps to relieve some of the tension we can carry there. This guide by Walking Spree outlines easy stretches you can do in a few minutes at your office, and this one from Beauty High has a great yoga routine you can do at home.
Chopra admits she wasn’t always sold on the relaxing powers of essential oils, but since incorporating them into her routine over the past year, she’s been wowed by the effects. For example, she uses a bit of lavender oil on her wrists to help her unwind before bed, a time that she said can be the most stressful of the day for her. "I now use that to calm my mind and relax my body to allow me to sleep,” she said. If a boost is what you’re looking for, try citrus or peppermint. But ultimately, the most relaxing scent will be one you enjoy — get a candle with a scent that reminds you of a place you love, for example.
It would be nice to have a personal masseuse, but that’s just a dream for most of us. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the relaxing benefits of massage every day. Self massage can help you loosen your muscles and release tension. Try yoga poses with massaging benefits like these ideas from Shape, gentle shiatsu-based techniques, or a massage ball.
"This technique is often used on people who are experiencing trauma or have deep-seeded emotional blocks” Chopra explained. "When we get stressed out, it’s often because something at our very core is being triggered.” It’s not necessarily about the specific event as much as it’s about the emotions tied to it. "With EFT you actually tap on the meridian points on your body while saying an affirmation,” she said. “This helps you release emotional energy and release stress at the same time.” If that sounds intriguing you can learn more here.
We all have overloaded lives these days, and that can really amp up our stress levels. But what if we started to simply decline some of the invitations that come our way? You don’t have to attend every event, especially if going actually adds stress to your life instead of enjoyment. And you don’t have to sign up for every committee. In her new book Better Than Before, author Gretchen Rubin suggests considering how you would feel if asked to do a particular task next week; it’s easier to know if we really want to do something if we imagine it happening sometime very soon as opposed to in the distant-seeming future.
Chopra referred to your “Love Entourage” — "the people in life you love you, lift you up and have your back for real.” When stress is really getting to you, these are the people you want to talk to. "Some times we need to release stress verbally, so when you speak to them, let them know that you need to vent and would love a listening ear,” she suggested. If you can’t meet in person, even a call or a chat session by text can help you unwind and let go.
: A great song can really transport you in powerful ways. Take advantage of that and load up your phone with your favourite albums, or put together a playlist of songs that make you feel happy — whether it’s because they remind you of a great time in your life or just because you really love them. A string of songs that put a smile on your face can turn your mood around more quickly than you’d suspect.
Have you heard of the idea of writing a letter to someone you’re upset with, then getting rid of it without sending it? There’s something to that. "Writing out what is stressing you out is just another way to get that stress out of your body and on to paper,” Chopra said. Writing your feelings out can help you make sense of them because you’re forced to articulate them. And just putting it down can help you on your way to letting it go.
Sweden has a concept called fika: it’s like a coffee break, but it’s a real break. When it’s time for fika, you leave behind whatever it is you were doing and take a few minutes to truly enjoy your coffee or tea and a snack — sometimes alone, sometimes as a short social break in the day. Doesn’t that sound more relaxing than getting your coffee to go or eating lunch at your desk?
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