About five years ago, I developed multiple Dysplastic Nevi — a spontaneous eruption of numerous "pre-melanoma" moles, brought on by decades of sun-worshipping, tanning beds and UV light treatments for psoriasis. My dermatologist and several other second opinions, told me that I was at the highest possible risk for developing melanoma — one of the deadliest forms of cancer.
I gladly underwent the process to remove many of the moles and in my follow-up appointment, assumed that I would hear the usual tips and advice from my dermatologist. I felt pretty confident that I was doing all I could to prevent future skin cancer.
But along with telling me to avoid sun during the harshest hours, wear sunscreen and cover up, he told me that the most important thing I could do is to avoid stress. Although it's become scientifically proven that stress can activate genes that cause disease, it wasn't something I had thought about deeply before. I always knew "stress is bad," but as I was worrying about meeting deadlines, having enough money, and doing it all — I never stopped to think about what all that stress was actually doing to my body.
As I left the dermatologist's office that day, I made a conscious choice to ditch stress. Years later, I've kept that pledge to myself with varying degrees of success. Now that I pay such close attention to my stress, I realize that much of my stress had become my default way of being, and I had to reinvent myself in my new stress-free mode.
Here are six things I practice every day, to keep my stress at bay:
Instead of to-do lists, I've created a habit out of making gratitude lists. I do this on general topics that I'm grateful for, and make specific lists whenever I am feeling stressed about a subject or person in my life. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects that are bringing me down, I make a list of the positive aspects of the situation or person. Nothing alleviates stress faster than an attitude of gratitude.
2. Healthy food
I've tried every diet ever invented and a few I even invented myself, but these days I keep it simple. I eat real food that was grown from a plant or came from an animal that ate a plant, with as minimal processing as possible. I eat organic as much as possible, and I think positive thoughts while I am preparing and eating my meals. Eating healthy food puts less stress on my digestive system, which is where the majority of the immune system is located.
I used to struggle through exercise classes at the gym, glancing at the clock the whole time and always wanting to leave early. But I stuck with my exercise routine until something miraculous happened. Eventually, I went from dreading exercise to craving it. Now I exercise every day whenever possible, and make sure to push myself until I am sweating and my heart rate is elevated. I know this is reducing the cortisol in my body (the stress hormone), so if I start out stressed, I will have sweat my stress away by the time I'm done.
4. Time outdoors
Fresh air and sunshine provide important vitamin D, health- and mood-boosting negative ions, oxygen and something else less tangible. When I spend time in nature, whether it's at the ocean, in a forest, or in the mountains, and I really take in my surroundings and breathe deeply, I can feel that I am part of something greater and majestic. Nature is not separate from humans, we are part of nature — and its bounty sustains us. When I connect with nature, I tap into my true nature, where stress does not exist.
They say laugher is the best medicine, and for good reason. Laughing releases endorphins, the brain's "feel good" neurotransmitters, which also reduces the body's stress response and relaxes the muscles. With two young children around, I have plenty of opportunities to laugh everyday — but I am always looking for more.
Every time I go to sleep I have a chance to start again. While I sleep, my thoughts suspend, my hormones regulate, my organs recuperate, my cells regenerate, and by the time I wake up, I am literally a new person. This gives me a chance to leave behind any stressful thoughts or experiences from the day before and start anew when I awake.
My low stress state is not a magical way of being that I have achieved, it is an inner choice that I make throughout the day, every day. Now that I've discovered how to keep it in check, I know for sure that stress is an inside job.