We recently discussed the two nervous systems and our body’s reaction to stress. If you missed it, you can read it here. Now that we know how our body reacts to stress, how do we manage it?
Stress is inevitable, so we need to be prepared to deal with it when it starts to cause problems. Everyone’s body is unique so try implementing multiple strategies and see what works best for you. Here are nine easy ways to manage stress.
1. Get enough sleep. Do you have good sleep habits? Do you have a routine, like you did when you were a kid. Remember? You had dinner, relaxed, had a bath, then got in bed to read; you had “lights out” and went (and were expected) to be asleep. (And short of a nightmare, you didn’t wake up until morning). It’s no different as an adult (except Mom or Dad don’t read to you). Create a similar bedtime routine for yourself each night so you can relax and go to sleep.
Have a consistent bedtime and stick to it. This not only trains your brain to begin sleep every night but it also starts the release of melatonin and a cascade of other sleep-dependent signaling molecules. The brain likes consistency!
Ensure your bedroom is cool and dark. Cover LED lights from smoke detectors, TV sets, etc. with a tab of black electrical tape.
Take a warm shower or bath; you can add Epsom salt to baths. Epsom salt has magnesium in it to calm the muscles and detox the tissues.
Do not look at phones or other screens an hour or two before bed. The light from screens – blue light -- tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daytime and it doesn’t switch to sleep mode. Keep electronics out of your bedroom in general. If you must have a TV, turn it completely off or unplug it. If you have to sleep with TV shows on, you’re not getting good, deep sleep – you're distracting and stressing the brain at a time when it’s trying to slow down and reset you.
Try a calming herbal tea such as chamomile or “sleepy time” an hour before bed. Be sure to check ingredients to ensure it is decaffeinated. And make sure you pee before hitting the sack.
2. Exercise regularly. This can help ease some of the “fight or flight” responses of the body. It doesn’t have to be hard. Go for a walk around the block every morning, especially at sunrise. This sets the body on its natural circadian rhythm. Regular movement can help train the heart and sensitize the body to properly managing glucose; this keeps your energy and mood stable. Harder exercise – where you break a sweat – is recommended at least once per week. Hard exercise releases endorphins which naturally both energize and calm the body; done in the morning, it gives a lift throughout the entire day. You also sweat out wastes and toxins making it easier for your body to operate. When you lay down to bed at night, your body should have been active enough throughout the day to prepare you for rest.
3. Focus on your breathing. Breathing relaxes the body. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, stop and take a few deep breaths. You can also start a meditation or prayer practice. Take a consistent 10 minutes of quiet time for yourself at least once per day. There are dozens of phone apps like Calm, Headspace or Waking Up that gently guide your mediation. Done consistently, mediation or prayer calms the body and improves the mind – and can reduce the stress that causes hormone depletion. Yoga can be another great activity that lowers your blood pressure and promotes healthy breathing.
4. Set boundaries. Do others need you all the time? Some people just do and do and do. Stop and set clear boundaries to know what is and is not worthy of your time. Make a list of what is a “nice to have” vs “need to have” for all the tasks that run your life. Block out time for specific tasks and stick to it without distractions. You don’t need to do all things and you don’t need to do them all at once. Learn to tell people “no”. Look at delegating more tasks to free time for yourself...which leads up to....
5. Take time for yourself. Many do for others but never themselves. Prioritize yourself and how you feel. Take time out to relax. Have a spa day. Treatments like massage or cranio-sacral therapy, acupuncture, constitutional hydrotherapy can be relaxing and can help reset the body.
6. Eat right. The most subtle stress we encounter day-to-day comes from food. Many of our patients report that they “eat healthy” but there’s nary a piece of fruit or vegetable dish in their diet. We’re designed to eat mostly plants. (And no, hamburger buns are not plants). It’s not sexy in the convenience food age but the reality is that you should be getting 4-6 servings of fruits and vegetables per day; these contain vitamins, minerals and nutrients that fuel the body and its many processes. Fake foods don’t and often can’t. When you don’t get enough food and enough of the right foods, inflammation causes quiet stress. Eating more plants is rarely a surprise to people; it’s finding ways to get plant foods in that is often the challenge. Try adding one vegetable dish per week to your diet to start and build from there.
7. Try a calming supplement. You should not be stressed all the time. And when the hits keep on coming and you can’t calm down, there are many natural supplements that can help get the job done. One of our favorites is L-Theanine. This is the calming constituent of green tea. 100mg three times per day can generally take the edge off. There also are a number of calming herbs that can be helpful. Lavender and lemon balm are good examples. Herbs called adaptogens, such as ashwaganda, eleuthro and rhodiola, go where they are most needed in the body – often to calm stress response. CBD is now widely available and can be effective for many people, especially for sleep.
8. Ditch the caffeine. Yes, we love coffee. But -sorry- it’s not for stress cases. Or for first thing in the morning consumption. Caffeine stimulates the release of cortisol, which is lowest at sunrise and builds until about noon. We need cortisol around to respond to stress. But if you’re chronically stressed and have low cortisol; caffeine gives those levels a whack. Cortisol also helps to release stored glucose from the liver, which can cause energy crashes – which necessitate more caffeine, which causes more crashes, which requires more caffeine.... getting the picture? If you must have a morning cup of joe, shift your consumption to mid-to-late morning to allow your cortisol to rise to its peak; then, coffee will then have less of an impact and provide a healthier lift.
9. Get your hormones checked. Excess or deficiencies in hormones like testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, cortisol can exacerbate our stress response. Make sure yours are at an age and activity-appropriate level. Stress can be exhausting - and we’re not meant to be like that. Often, treating hormones can help us to handle day-to-day stress better. Hormonal balance also can provide the much-needed motivation to do the things that ordinarily lag due to stress and burnout, which improves overall well-being.