How to build a healthy brain
Part 4: Stress Management
No matter how great your nutritional habits and exercise regime may be, if you aren’t practice good stress management techniques you will not achieve the health and fitness you are striving for. Un-managed stress will have negative affects on your your nutrition as well as your ability to recover from exercise and activity. It will also negatively impact your quality and quantity of your sleep and this can create a vicious circle. In addition, if your stress becomes chronic it can:
- raise your blood sugars
- depress your immune system, potentially leading to illness
- cause leaky gut syndrome
- make you hungry
- reduce your ability to burn fat
- contribute to hormonal imbalances
- cause depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
- contribute to cardiovascular disease
I will suggest a few strategies at the end of this post to help you practice good stress management and to help you mitigate your response to stress when those situations arise.
Some stress, like muscular stress from resistance training is good, other stress, like getting into an unfortunate car accident, is obviously not. What I want to focus on in this post is helping you help yourself out of a stressful mindset. This starts, I believe, with recognition and acceptance that stress will happen in your life. I don’t think there is any way around it completely.
Take a minute to contemplate a few questions:
- Can we control how much stress affects us?
- Can we reduce the amount of anxiety we feel as a result of stressful situations?
- Can we do something to train ourselves mentally for when stressful events happen?
Think of one time when you were stressed in your life. This shouldn’t be too hard to do. Maybe you missed a flight, were late for a very important meeting, didn’t feel prepared for an examination, missed the deadline, maybe it was during a public speaking engagement, or you got into a fender bender? How did you feel in that moment? Anxious, sweaty palms, heart racing, ‘weak in the knees’, dizzy, sick to your stomach? All perfectly normal physical manifestations of the stress response. This stress response comes from how we perceive things in our environment and can be cultivated and controlled by our thoughts.
What is my point? Well, plainly that stressors are a part of life. We can either navigate blindly through the fog of anxiety or we can choose to be proactive and arm ourselves with the ability to cope with these sorts of things when they arise. And better yet, we can prepare ourselves with stress management practices that will help to reduce the impact of stress when it happens.
It’s true that we cannot plan for every event in our lives; what I am suggesting is that we train ourselves to control how we feel and how we act in stressful situations. Let me give you an example.
Our car was making an awful noise, the muffler was clearly not in the best shape. When we took it to the mechanic we were quoted over $1000 in repair. The initial reaction was a sinking feeling in my stomach, anger that the mechanic might be pulling a fast one on us and frustration that we had to invest in the car once again. After about 5 minutes of letting myself feel these things I took a deep breath, accepted that this was what needed to be done and reminded myself that this $1000 maintenance on a car we own was still much less expensive than making monthly payments on financing or leasing a new car.
Let’s outline some ways of mitigating stress in the moment.
- First, take the time to feel your emotions, let them flow before you act (or ‘re’-act). Not too much time though, if you dwell on it too long those emotions will only amplify and may paralyze your next move.
- Breathe. Taking a deep breath decreases your blood pressure and helps you to release the physical feelings associated with stress, like tightness in your chest, jaw and neck.
- Accept what is. Learn to let go of the things you cannot change.
- Changing your perspective of the situation. This helps us to recognize that there isn’t any reason for suffering longer than we have to and that we can choose to see the brighter side of what was initially thought to be a bad situation.
- Focus on what you are grateful for, and not on ‘what could have been’.
Stress management techniques and practices
- Play / Activity: This can be anything from talking a brisk walk to building a puzzle; cooking to having a water fight in the backyard with the kids; learning to play an instrument to practicing Yoga. Detach yourself from your responsibilities often and play. So much so that you are actually building play into your schedule.
- Meditation / Mindfulness / ‘You time’: Call it whatever you want. This is a practice that I build into my daily schedule. It helps to place me in the moment and gives me a space and practice to quiet my mind, connect with how I feel emotionally and physically and to transition to the next action that I want to take. There is an app that I like to use that called headspace. This is a guided mediation that is really great for beginners and advanced alike.
- Social engagement: Have fun, laugh, hang out with people that make you smile and are generally optimistic and happy. Being around people that bring you down or often discuss everything that is wrong in the world are not contributing to your better state.
I hope that you found this helpful, I would love to hear any feedback or comments that you have. I would also love to hear how YOU manage stress. What techniques or habits have you incorporated into your life that keep your mind and body happy?