Are you overwhelmed, stressed, and unsure about the future?
You are not alone. Studies show that Americans are feeling remarkable levels of stress. While everyone experiences stress from time to time, when stress levels stay high for a long period, serious health consequences can result.
An estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress related issues.
If you are experiencing stress and chaos in your life, it’s important to identify the causes and take steps to lower your stress level, take care of yourself, and build strength and resilience going forward.
Read on to learn more about the physical impact of stress, and simple practices you can adopt to help you cope better.
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The Emotional and Physical Toll of Stress
In a 2019 Gallup survey of moods around the globe, 55% of Americans said they had felt stressed the previous day. People under 50 and those with a low income had the highest levels of stress.
In addition to stress, many people are also experiencing other negative moods. For example, loneliness is a significant issue. Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and the risk of stroke. Sadly, in the US, 40% of adults sometimes or always feel that their social relationships are not meaningful, and almost half say they feel lonely or socially isolated at least some of the time.
If thinking about the negative effects of stress is increasing your stress levels, that’s normal. Fortunately, stress, while serious, can be managed. Don’t discount the simple things that can help you lower your stress.
Stress reduction starts with simple self-care such as getting enough sleep, exercise, healthy food, and connecting meaningfully with others. Once you have the basics down, soothing practices such as meditation, connecting with nature, and practicing gratitude will help you build the internal resources to keep your calm, no matter what life throws at you.
Identifying What Makes You Worried and Stressed
In small doses, stress can be healthy and inspiring. When you stare down a difficult run on the ski hill, wait behind the curtain before you step out to give a speech, or walk into a new job for a first time, the butterflies you feel in your stomach are caused by stress. A little stress fires us up and gets us ready meet new challenges head-on.
Unfortunately, too much stress has the opposite effect, and can result in serious health consequences, as discussed above.
Humans tend to feel stress any time we experience change or loss. Common sources of stress including negative events, such the loss of a friend or family member, a serious health problem, a traumatic event such as a crime or natural disaster, or financial difficulties. Positive events such as starting a new job, getting married, or moving homes can also be very stressful because these events involve both the uncertainty of new situations, and the loss of the familiar.
Work and school are major sources of stress for Americans, with, at least 40% of Americans experiencing stress at work, and 80% of college students saying that they feel stress sometimes or often. Stress at work and at school can have many causes, and many are similar: worries about performance, interpersonal struggles with colleagues and bosses (or fellow students and teachers), financial worries, and overwhelm from too much to do and too little time to do it.
Worry about the news and world events, as well as the personal effects that larger forces may have, are also major sources of stress.
Whatever the cause of your stress, it can be managed with the “how to” and a little effort on you part. Simple self-care strategies can help you manage stress and perform at your best. In addition to following the self-care suggestions laid out in the next section, consider talking to a therapist or a life coach about your specific stressors. These experts can help you navigate your specific situation and teach you coping skills that are tailored to your own strengths and weaknesses.
Finding Peace in the Chaos
While there are many relaxation techniques that can help you find calmness and control in the midst of chaos, the simple truth is that most of our health comes down to four simple practices: sleeping well, exercising, eating well, and forging meaningful connections with others. If you don’t have these four parts of your life under control, start there.
Adults need around seven to nine hours of sleep each night, teens need eight to ten, and school-aged children need nine to eleven. Sleep is essential for our health, mood, and cognitive function. A lack of sleep increases your risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, mood disorders, and can even contribute to dementia.
In addition to the long-term effects, a lack of sleep lowers your productivity and reaction speed. Studies show that after 17-19 hours without sleep, driving ability is greatly impacted. It’s simply impossible to perform well when you are overtired.
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, getting more should be your number one priority. Without enough rest, it’s impossible to relax and find calmness in your life. To improve your sleep:
⦁ Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
⦁ Keep your bedroom temperature between 60 and 67°F (15-19°C)
⦁ Stop using screens, electronics or TVs for an hour before bed
⦁ Develop a soothing night-time ritual, such as reading a book, taking a bath, or sipping chamomile tea
If you have trouble falling asleep even after doing the above, here are a couple other simple things you can try.
⦁ Count backwards from 100. Do it slowly with a litle 1.2. in between each number.
⦁ Listen to relaxation music.
⦁ Try Autogenic relaxation. Autogenic means something that comes from within you. In this relaxation technique, you use both visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress.
You repeat words or suggestions in your mind that may help you relax and reduce muscle tension. For example, you may imagine a peaceful setting and then focus on controlled, relaxing breathing, slowing your heart rate, or feeling different physical sensations, such as relaxing each arm or leg one by one.
You may also like this article: Sleep, Let’s Get Some
When you are stressed, your body prepares for physical battle. This is known as the “fight or flight” response, and it occurs when your body releases stress chemicals, including cortisol and adrenaline, in response to a stressor. These chemicals help us fight our enemies or run from them, but if they circulate in our blood stream for too long, they can cause inflammation and a variety of health problems.
Fortunately, any kind of exercise or physical activity helps your body burn off stress chemicals and return to a relaxed state. In addition to lowering your stress levels, getting enough movement in your day helps keep your weight steady; lowers your risk of heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes; strengthens your bones and muscles; improves your mood; and keeps your brain and memory sharp as you age. Its a win win.
While exercise is one of the best ways to improve health, lower stress levels, and stay youthful, only 20% of Americans get the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate movement in per week
If you don’t yet get 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, start moving today! Whether you walk, run, bike, swim, dance, garden, or just play with the dog, the activity doesn’t matter as long you get your heart pumping. The key to sticking with an exercise plan is finding something you enjoy doing. If 20-30 minutes is too much right now, just do what you can. Even a couple of minutes is better than nothing – every bit counts!
What we eat dramatically affects our health, mood, and cognitive function. A poor diet raises your risks of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, and dementia. In contrast, eating well helps keep us healthy and combats the effects of stress on our body. Yet, in America, only one in ten people get the recommended 1.5 to 2 cups of fruits and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables each day.
Simply adding a serving of vegetables and piece of fruit to each meal, most Americans would feel a big improvement in their health, energy, and wellbeing.
Even though – or maybe because – most Americans don’t eat a healthy diet, we are surrounded by books, magazines, websites and social media filled with advice on exactly what to eat to get healthy, lose weight, make a million dollars, get famous, and walk on water. Despite the grandiose claims of most diet plans, the basics of healthy eating are simple:
· Eat plenty of:
o Ancient grains
o Fruits and vegetables
o Lean protein such as poultry, fish and legumes
o Healthy fats such as fatty fish, nuts, and avocados
· Reduce your consumption of:
o Heavily processed food (junk food)
o Red meat, and especially cured meat such as bacon and sausage
o Sugar-sweetened beverages and other sweets
· Eat at regular intervals to keep your energy up
Don’t worry about eating “perfectly”. There’s no such thing. Just eat healthy things that you enjoy, most of the time, and have a treat now and again because life it short. That’s all there is to it!
While the basics of healthy eating are simple, eating well can be a challenge for many people. Often, cost is an issue. Rest assured that some of the cheapest foods are also the healthiest. Staple foods such as oatmeal, rice and beans, apples, bananas, cabbage, carrots and potatoes are all cheap, tasty, healthy, and easy to prepare.
You can find many articles on healthy eating right here on this website, along with a number of healthy recipes. Check under the WELLNESS tab FOOD FOR HEALTH
Connecting with Others
Humans are social animals, and we need meaningful connections to other people to be at our best. Yet as mentioned earlier, in today’s society, loneliness is a growing epidemic. In 2019, more than three in five Americans reported feeling loneliness. Without regular human connection, our health and mood declines.
If you don’t have good friends you can turn to, your health may depend on making some. Build more human connections by:
⦁ Joining a club, team or group that does an activity you enjoy
⦁ Volunteer for a cause you believe in
⦁ Take a class in a subject you enjoy
⦁ Call, text or email an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a while
Powerful Strategies for Finding Peace
If you have the basics of sleep, exercise, nutrition and human connection sorted, you’ve taken huge steps toward making yourself the healthiest, calmest, smartest and most capable you can be. However, there are also many other powerful techniques you can learn to help cultivate relaxation and calm in your life.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Modern neuroscience is discovering what Tibetan Buddhists have known for thousands of years: meditation is a powerful tool for improving our health, mood, and intelligence. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can lower stress levels, improve mood, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and more in as little as ten minutes a day.
To begin a mindfulness meditation practice, all you need is a few minutes and a comfortable place to sit. Start paying attention to your breathing. Breathe in deeply and slowly, and pay attention to the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body.
As you try to focus on your breath, all sorts of other thoughts may pop up. That’s normal. It’s a misconception that meditation is about turning off all of your thoughts.
That’s not possible. Instead, the object of meditation is to teach you how to direct your attention. Keep your focus on your breath and let the other thoughts go. Over time, you’ll get better and better at ignoring random thoughts while keeping your attention where you want it.
If you prefer guidance in your meditation, there are many free or low-cost guided meditations available online or as apps for your smartphone. Calm and Headspace are two of the most popular apps. In addition, many yoga studios and community centers offer meditation practices.
If sitting still and simply breathing isn’t your style, many of the benefits of mindfulness meditation can be found in mind-body movement such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and some types of dance and martial arts. Mind-body movement practices seek to connect your mind, body and breath through various physical movements. These forms of movement give you benefits of exercise and meditation in one.
Here is an excellent E Course on De-Stressing and Meditation
Connecting with Nature
Humans intuitively know that being out in nature is healing. For thousands of years, poets and philosophers have extolled the benefits of being in nature, and particularly beautiful natural places have been worshiped for their sacred properties. Today, science is validating what we have long known: connecting to nature is profoundly relaxing.
In a recent study, scientists asked participants to spend at least 10 minutes three times a week connecting with nature. Participants could choose any space they liked that made them feel connected to nature, whether park, beach, forest, or backyard garden. Scientists then measured participant’s level of cortisol (a stress chemical) as they went about their day. Researchers found that spending just 20-30 minutes connecting with nature brought about a significant reduction in stress.
Even in the most crowded urban environments, it should be possible to find a bit of green space a few times a week. But, if you crave even more connection with nature, the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, might be for you.
Forest bathing is the name given to spending a couple of hours in a natural environment, drinking in the sights, sounds, smells, and texture with all of your senses. Wander at will through a forested area. Crush leaves in your hand and smell the sap or wiggle your toes in the dirt. Listen to the birds and feel the breeze in your hair. Studies show that two hours gently exploring a natural environment can produce real physical benefits, including reduced heart rate; improved mood; decreased depression, anxiety and fatigue; and increased vigor.
If meditation is not to your taste, the Dutch practice of Niksen, or doing nothing, might be more your style. To practice Niksen, simply do nothing. Just be for a few minutes. Stare out the window. Watch the wind play in the trees. Sip your coffee in complete idleness. Just a few minutes of letting yourself relax and do absolutely nothing can be enough to induce a state of calmness and tranquility. For more information on the beautiful simplicity of Niksen, read Carolien Janssen’s book, Niksen, The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.
If you could make yourself healthier, calmer, and more resistant to stress in just a few minutes, would you? Studies confirm that practicing gratitude can do just that. When we reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives, even for just a few minutes each day, it has the effect of calming negative thinking and boosting positive thoughts, no matter how bad a day you are having.
To start your own gratitude practice, simply take a few minutes each night to jot down three or four things that you are grateful for. It can be something very small, such as the taste of a strawberry, or something very profound, such as the health of your children.
If you don’t care to write down your thoughts, try talking over what you are grateful for with your family or a friend. This also has the effect of bringing your loved ones closer. In addition, if you have children, sharing a gratitude practice with them gives them a tool they can use for better mental health and resilience for their whole lives.
Dealing with the Unexpected
In every life, unexpected stressors arise. Whether your experience a car breakdown, a sudden illness, an unexpected work deadline, or an unannounced visit from the in-laws, unexpected stresses can derail your life in big and small ways. The problem is, it’s impossible, by definition, to avoid unexpected stresses. What can you do?
The best way to handle unexpected stress is to build resilience. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, and it’s the answer to handling stressful events. To build your resilience, developing good self-care habits is key. Sleep well, eat well, exercise, and build a strong network of friends. Further enhance your resilience by meditating, practicing gratitude, and connecting with nature.
The more you develop stress-busting rituals and habits, the more you will be able to bounce back from stress, and stay healthy, happy, and calm.
Linda Carlson – Certified Nutrition & Wellness Counselor (retired) with 25+ years background.
This website (Only Today) and the author (Linda Carlson) do not provide medical advice. All content available on or through this website are for general informational purposes only.
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