by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
A month for spring rains, tree allergies, and taxes, it may surprise you to learn April is National Stress Awareness month. Learn how to reduce stress for your mental and physical health. This month, it’s your civic duty …
It may sound simple. But, in practice, stress-reduction is challenging. Modernity assists with everything from automatically reloading your Starbucks card to phone apps that schedule your life and track your whereabouts with the touch of a button. You may be at the forefront of convenient living, but where is your state-of-mind?
High-tech living makes a science of multitasking. The result: high-impact on the mind. As we enter the heart of spring, make it your mission to counteract the madness. Although calendars fill up and people emerge from winter’s cocoon, it’s not a race to summer. (Okay, maybe if you’re trying to fit into last year’s summer wardrobe by June.) Slow down. Relieve stress with these time-proven solutions. Hint: You won’t find them on your iPad.
Along with boosting the body’s immunity against illness, studies suggest exercise can help make you resistant to stress. Research reveals a link between physical activity and one’s physiological reactivity to tensions. Consider your workout a stress-desensitizing mechanism.
By improving overall health, fitness minimizes opportunities for illness and all of its secondary effects. The general lack of wellness common in a sedentary lifestyle is an ideal breeding ground for germs and the angst they cause. Missed wages and opportunities both at work and socially can lead to stressful situations, often endured in isolation while recuperating. The simple, yet sometimes debilitating issue of pain, chronic or temporary, also produces stress for self and loved ones.
In the shorter term, a lively sweat session can beat the fire out of stressful emotions. Let loose on the Exercise Floor or in a Group Fitness class. The positively charged atmosphere is a great motivator for releasing frustrations, anger, or any overwhelming mental state. Allow your mind to focus on the tasks at hand (and foot). Distract yourself from daily troubles with mindful movements. The clarity gained during such times of distraction often reveals solutions to the current cause of stress. Leave it all on the floor and breathe more freely when finished.
There cannot be a discussion about exercise and stress-relief without mentioning the benefits of yoga. The breathing, meditation, creation of physical and mental balance, and awareness. It’s worked for centuries, poses probably mapped out in hieroglyphics on mountainous cliffs for the earliest yogis. Try it.
Enjoyed among the camaraderie of other members, teammates, or workout buddies, you have the added benefit of social support during your fitness frenzy. Throw in the release of feel-good endorphins and a decrease of stress hormones that occur during exercise. Forget stress-relief, you are on your way to a fitness high.
De-stressing doesn’t have to be complicated. Create a stress-relief plan that includes activities you find personally fulfilling. If an activity helps you relax and feel emotionally recharged, include it. For one person, this may mean going to a movie or getting a massage. Another, who is always on the run, could find respite in a hot bath and quiet time at home. What works one day, may exacerbate stress at a different time. This life is complex; we must evolve with it, daily.
If committing to formal meditation overwhelms you, simply sit among nature and relax. Spring is an ideal time for such indulgences, when we can easily become replenished by nature’s surrounding work. For those who suffer the stress of care-giving, research proves gardening to be a positive outlet with its therapeutic tasks. We reap that which we sow. Grow beauty in life’s darker places.
Other proven de-stressors include escaping in a page-turner, mind travel to far-flung locales (Internet assistance optional), listening to uplifting music (not sappy break-up songs), and enjoying a quiet cup of tea/coffee with a piece of dark chocolate. A further bow to chocolate: A study published in the Journal of Proteome Research found eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily for two consecutive weeks was linked to a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Sweet relief!
Simple steps to reducing stress work because they create an upward spiral. Wear a smile, even if it’s a frown in disguise, and reflect happiness to you. Walk away from a stressful situation to help you feel in control. View the scene as a spectator and find a new perspective. Or, see it as it is– a moment in time, one that will shift and fade with the ebb and flow of your days. Reducing stress in small ways helps avoid the helpless feeling of being overwhelmed. Give yourself a break, even if only a bunch of small ones.
Instinctively, we all breathe. And, instinctively, our breathing reacts to our physical and emotional state. It speeds up during physical exertion — or when that rude driver cuts you off. It slows during sleep. It’s shallow when rushing through too many tasks in too little time. Pay attention to this amazing life-line. You could learn something about yourself. Consider it a biological version of those silly mood rings. While at it, learn the type of breathing suggested for stress relief:
- Sit or stand comfortably (no special poses required).
- Inhale deeply through your nose. Take your time with this, about five seconds.
- Breathe out through your mouth in an eight-count.
- Repeat about five times. (A note to the cynic: One mindful breath does not do the job. Just ask a huffy-breathed teen.)
Watch your abdomen expand and contract with breaths. Keep shoulders from creeping toward ears. This posture allows a more cleansing breath and deeper relaxation.
No one forces us to laugh. It’s a voluntary action. It can be done heartily or stifled, regardless, it feels good. It’s a release– a mini workout for muscles as you contract away a few cares of the day. Laughter promotes the production of feel-good hormones in the brain and relaxes muscles, both are critical for relaxation.
Choosing laughter during a stressful time allows us to feel in control. It lets us remove ourselves from a tense, tiring situation and relieve tension. During a crisis where humor is hard to find, check out a joke, read a funny book, or just think of something humorous. Recall some of your funniest moments. You may laugh harder about them during stress as your emotions find relief in this outpouring.
The Serious Side of Stress
Some people thrive on stress. The associated jolt of adrenaline helps them reach a project’s completion, tackle challenges, and get motivated. In today’s fast-paced competitive world, being “stressed” is sometimes even considered with reverence. If you aren’t multitasking and dealing with issues, there is fear of being considered lazy or boring. Being in a stressed-out state can garner sympathy and impress others by implying how important your life must be.
Chronic stress is anything but impressive. The effects build over time, starting with those nagging headaches and upset stomach pains. Falling asleep, or staying asleep, becomes difficult as you attempt to quiet your mind and relax. Ignore these warning signs and risk more serious stress-induced health issues, including heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety disorders, unhealthy body weight, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems. The mind-body connection is always at work.
Stress also indirectly affects lifestyle. In a compromised state, people are more susceptible to substance abuse, nicotine addictions, poor diet, and sedentary activities such as watching television. All of these further exacerbate the direct impact stress takes on the body.
Now Is the Time
April is coming to a close. Stress-awareness initiatives will be replaced with next month’s trending topics. Unfortunately, stress itself won’t be. It is a fact of life. How we deal affects us and our loved ones on multiple levels. Create an evolving stress-relief plan. Laugh. Cry. Run around the block. Jam on the air guitar Keep it simple, and make it work for you.
“Exercise and Stress Relief: Using Exercise as a Stress Management Tool,” by Elizabeth Scott at www.about.com.
“Maintain a Sense of Humor,” by Elizabeth Scott at www.about.com.
“Natural Stress Relief: 7 Ways to De-stress for National Stress Awareness Month,” by Amanda L. Chan at www.huffingtonpost.com.
Erase Stress: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4331097922/
Social networking: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/3908385830
Exercise break: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carolyncoles/2862274129/