We live in one of the most dangerous times in human history. Not because the world is any more physically dangerous than in the past or because we have difficulty meeting our basic survival needs, at least not in developed nations. No, our world is dangerous because of how we perceive and react to it. Most adults experience more chronic stress than is considered healthy by any measure, to our serious detriment. Stress compromises the immune system, increases blood pressure, damages the heart, destroys the metabolism, increases fat production, and negatively affects brain chemistry. In fact, stress is a prominent factor in nearly every disease. We are literally stressing ourselves to death.
The really sad part is that unlike environmental factors like pollution or crime, our stress levels are at least partially under our control. We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond to it. Learning how to prevent and release stress reactions is one of the most important things we can do for health, longevity, and ability to enjoy life. Here are a few ways to keep stress from ruining and shortening your life.
This one is first for a reason. Stress is directly related to how we breathe. Stress causes us to slip into shallow, chest-only, “oh god I’m going to die” panic breathing. Otherwise known as the way most people breathe on a daily basis. If your shoulders are moving when you breathe, your abdomen is not moving when you breathe, or your breaths are more like short pants, then you are in stress-breath.
And on the other side, breathing shallowly can create more stress in the body. We only get the full exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bloodstreams when we breathe deeply. That means that our brains and other organs are only nourished by freshly oxygenated blood when we breathe deeply. Shallow breathing reduces the health and functioning of every cell in the body. It also inspires the adrenals to produce more adrenaline and cortisol, because it causes the body to think we must be in danger and so we need some fight-or-flight chemicals to help us survive – why else would we be breathing shallowly?
This is an old standby because it works. Stopping to feel and express gratitude for everything in life pulls us out of our reptilian reactive habits and into present time. It helps us have clarity and reduces our propensity to worry. If we are actually in a dangerous situation, a moment of gratitude helps us pause the fear responses so we can have the mental clarity necessary to take the appropriate action. In the 99% of the time when we are not truly in danger, gratitude helps us recognize the truth of our circumstances.
Go For a Walk
Exercise. Important for a healthy and happy life for many reasons. Physically it both moves the stress hormones out of our systems faster and gives us a more calm physiological baseline. It also stimulates the production and release of dopamine, serotonin, and other brain chemical and neurotransmitters that regulate mood and perception and counteract stress.
On a more subtle level, exercise gives us something to do. Most of stress is created in the mind. It comes from feeling powerless, our brains spinning because we are uncertain how to deal with our current situations or afraid of what might happen. Exercise helps bring us into present time and channels our energy into something productive.
And it need not be intense exercise. Even a moderate 20 minute walk can do wonders for our wellbeing and mental clarity. It can be enough to get our heart rates up, break a good sweat, and help us have the mental space for new ideas and solutions to arise.
Stretch It Out
Movements that include deep breathing and cultivating mental focus like yoga, Pilates, and even simple stretching are also great for reducing stress. Like more vigorous exercise they move stress hormones, inspire deep breathing, generate positive brain chemicals, and boost the metabolism. And they have the added benefit of inspiring mindfulness, which is a big key to reducing stress.
Shift your perception and you shift your reality. One of the most direct ways to change our perception of reality is meditation. It takes some time to reap the benefits, and consistency is key, but meditation and other mindfulness practices have been proven to substantial reduce chronic stress. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique has been implemented in businesses and organizations across the world with great success.
Among its many benefits, meditation improves our ability to pause in the space between observation and reaction. Instead of seeing or thinking about something potentially stressful and immediately reacting, we can observe what is happening with more clarity, and we have the opportunity to respond mindfully. From a place of witnessing we can label a situation or experience in a way that might still require our attention (“It would serve me to pay that bill as soon as is feasible.”) but not as an irrational stress trigger (“I have to pay that bill today or I will die!”).
Lack of sleep stresses the system as much as dangerous situations, increasing cortisol and adrenaline production. It also makes us groggier, which means we are more likely to make poor decisions and have trouble with cognition and problem-solving – which will add to our stress levels. Strive for at least seven hours of quality sleep in a cool, dark and quiet room on a comfortable bed. You may be surprised how much calmer and more balanced you feel after a few weeks of consistent and plentiful sleep.
Eat Like Your Life Depends On It
The food we eat greatly affects our stress levels. Sugar, salt, processed foods, and caffeine stimulate the production and release of stress hormones. Sugar and caffeine are particularly dangerous, as they make us feel good by the very same process that creates more stress in our systems. They make us dependent on them to relieve the results that they are actually causing, like fatigue and fogginess. And caffeine and sugar intake make it harder to get good sleep.
One of the best things you can do for your health is eat nourishing whole foods that are as fresh as possible. To help with stress, eat foods that are high in B vitamins, folate, and amino acids such as fruit, nuts, dark leafy greens, beans, and whole grains. Magnesium is particularly important for calming the nervous system and alkalinizing the body, though it can be challenging to get enough from foods so a high-quality ionic magnesium supplement may be advised if you have high stress.
Does It Really Matter?
As previously stated, stress is caused by the mind. It is not what happens to us, but our perception of it, that determines how much stress is created in our bodies. One of the ways to reduce stress is to prioritize.
There are two aspects of prioritizing. The first is short-term stress management. When you notice that you are feeling stress about a current or potential event or circumstance, ask yourself if it is truly important. At the end of your life, would you look back on that situation as something truly worth giving your energy to, and potentially damaging your health over?
The other aspect of prioritizing is setting yourself up for long-term stress reduction. Part of relieving stress is reducing overwhelm, and we do that by recognizing, acknowledging, and acting in accordance with the truth that we have a limited amount of time and energy on any given day. If we spend our time and energy on things that are not really important, we will miss out on the goods.
In business it is advised to stop “putting out fires,” that is to stop setting up situations where you are doing damage control because the important things were not tended to early enough, and instead establishing procedures and protocols so important tasks are handled in timely and organized fashions. Then nothing ever gets to a crisis point. In our personal lives, this means discovering and choosing the people, work, and activities that are most important to us, and scheduling time for them and only them. Listening for what your heart really wants you to be doing with your life, and following that inner guidance.
Do What You Can
Sometimes we create stress about things in the past. We make mistakes, or believe that we should have been able to do something we could not do, and then beat ourselves up with shame and recriminations. But this retroactive stressing does no one any good. Yes, it is important to learn from our mistakes and integrate our past, but stressing about what we think we might have been able to do better is just hitting our heads against a wall. It creates headaches and kills brain cells, too. Reduce unnecessary stress by always doing your best, doing what you can do, and letting that be enough.
Let Go of the Rest
We are seduced in today’s world to want more, more, more. Do more, be more, be better, be faster, own more and you will be happier. It’s a lie. Learn what “enough” means to you. Learn what you actually need to do, be, have, accomplish, and experience to be truly happy. And let everything else go. Let other people be better than you, or have more than you have. Develop contentment and acceptance, and find joy in the simple things that make you come alive like your friendships and your favorite art. Reducing stress and getting your life back is not about more, but knowing what is enough and enjoying that.
Stress is killing us. Doctors and health experts in the entire developed world are telling us that we have to reduce stress, personally and collectively, or we are headed for early graves. The keys to reducing stress are also important factors in any healthy life – breathing deeply, exercising, eating and sleeping well, following our joy, and letting go of what is not important. At the end of the day and the end of our lives, it will not matter if we checked everything off the to-do lists, but rather that we lived as fully and healthfully as possible.