LEVER 4: HOW YOU MANAGE DISTRESS
Among all the factors contributing to poor health and early death, stress is perhaps the most pernicious. In bygone days, the stress response was a lifesaving biological function, enabling us to run from predators or take down prey. Today, we are turning on the same “lifesaving” reaction to cope with fear of public speaking, difficult bosses and traffic jams. The sheer number of stress-inducing situations that face us on a daily basis can make it difficult to turn the stress response off. As a result, you may be marinating in corrosive stress hormones around the clock, and this can have serious consequences, from adding stubborn fat to your belly to elevating your blood pressure and triggering a heart attack.
How Stress Affects Your Body
To give you a quick overview, when you experience acute stress — be it real or imagined, as your body cannot decipher the difference — your body releases stress hormones (such as cortisol) that prepare your body to either fight or flee the stressful event. Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases, and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders. When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes increasingly desensitized to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control. Inflammation, in turn, is a hallmark of most diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, and cancer. Elevated cortisol levels also affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex. Stress may even trigger the onset of dementia. In one study, 72 percent — nearly three out of four — Alzheimer’s patients had experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis.
Developing Resilience May Lessen the Impact of Stress
Clearly, stress is an inescapable part of life — but it’s important to understand that it is how you deal with it that will determine whether it will translate into health problems later on. As noted in a recent article about stress in The New York Times, the stress reaction should dissipate as quickly as possible after the perceived danger has passed. The scientific term for this is resilience — “the ability of your body to rapidly return to normal, both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event.” Some people are naturally more resilient than others, and researchers have long pondered the reasons why.
One speculation is that people who are more resilient have learned to listen to their body. In one experiment, elite adventure athletes and Special Forces soldiers were placed in a brain scanning machine while wearing a face mask that made it difficult to breathe once the researcher pressed a button.
What they discovered was that these people were able to closely monitor the signals from their body indicating rising panic, and suppress their physical response. Quite simply, they were acutely aware of their biological stress response, but didn’t overreact.
The same test was later administered on “normal” people, who had first completed a questionnaire to gauge their self-perceived resilience. Those whose scores suggested high resilience had brain activity very similar to the former group — the soldiers and elite athletes. Those with low resilience scores on the other hand, reacted in the converse way. As reported by The New York Times:
“As their face masks threatened to close, they displayed surprisingly little activity in those portions of the brain that monitor signals from the body. And then, when breathing did grow difficult, they showed high activation in parts of the brain that increase physiological arousal.
In effect, they paid little attention to what was happening inside their bodies as they waited for breathing to become difficult — and then overreacted when the threat occurred.
Such brain responses would undermine resilience, the scientists concluded, by making it more difficult for the body to return to a calm state … Improving internal communications with our bodies may be as simple as spending a few minutes each day in focused breathing, Dr. Haase said.
Quietly pay attention to inhaling and exhaling without otherwise reacting, she said. Over time, this exercise should ‘teach you to have a change in breathing when anxious but be less attached to that reaction,’ Dr. Haase said, ‘which may help to improve your reaction in a stressful situation.’”
8 Expert Stress-Busting Tips
After you’ve gone to work, finished your errands or household chores and gotten your kids to bed, many are simply too tired to think about stress relief, so they zone out to mindless entertainment or social media and go to bed feeling frazzled and anxious… and not surprisingly start off the next day feeling much the same. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that’s easily broken by turning stress management into a habit.
You needn’t devote hours to stress relief every day. Instead, you’ll find that activities you already do can work wonders for calming your nerves, especially if you make a commitment to doing them on most days of the week. Try…
Exercise affects a neurotransmitter that has an antidepressant-like effect on your brain while helping to decrease muscle tension. Exercise also guards against the adverse physical effects of stress. During periods of high stress, those who exercised less frequently had 37 percent more physical symptoms than those who exercised more often.
2. Spend Time in Nature
Going outdoors helps to relieve your stress naturally, with research showing levels of the stress hormone cortisol lower in those who live in areas with the most green space, as are their self-reported feelings of stress. Even five minutes in nature can help reduce stress and boost your mood.
3. Focus on Your Breathing
Learning to breathe mindfully can modify and accelerate your body’s inherent self-regulating physiological and bioenergetic mechanisms. These changes are in large part due to the fact that you’re oxygenating your body properly as well as correcting your internal and energetic balance, and it has a direct impact on your nervous system. Ideally you should be breathing primarily through your nose; learning a simple technique called Buteyko breathing can help you restore normal and beneficial breathing patterns.
4. Participate in Activities You Enjoy
Engaging in a hobby gives you crucial time to play and simply enjoy yourself. A hobby can take your mind off of stress and adds more much-needed fun to your life.
5. Eat Right
Schedule time to eat without rushing, and make sure to maintain optimal gut health by regularly consuming fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables, or taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. Scientific evidence shows that nourishing your gut flora with the friendly bacteria within fermented foods or probiotics is extremely important for proper brain function, including psychological well-being and mood control.
6. Stay Positive
This is a learned technique that can lead to a more joyful life and likely much better health, as those who are optimistic have an easier time dealing with stress, and are more inclined to open themselves up for opportunities to have positive, regenerative experiences. Try keeping a list of all that you’re grateful for and make a commitment to stop any negative self-talk.
7. Stay Connected
Loneliness can be a major source of stress, so make a point to connect with those around you – even a quick chat while in line at the grocery store. Work your way up to volunteering, attending community events, meeting acquaintances for coffee or taking a class to meet others with like interests.
8. Take a Break or Meditate
Taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly and shut out the chaos around you can trigger your relaxation response. Meditating during your breaks can help you to decrease feelings of stress and anxiety even more.
Have You Tried the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) Yet?
Using techniques like energy psychology, you can correct the emotional short-circuiting that contributes to your chronic stress. My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is the largest and most popular version of energy psychology. There are many derivatives of EFT and some likely work even better — but EFT is the one that I have the most experience with and is the most established.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.
By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well. In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for stress relief. If you haven’t yet tried it… why not?