When you experience stress, it is your body’s way of letting you know you are out of balance. Without stress, you would not get up in the morning, get to work on time, put food on the table, or shift positions when uncomfortable.
The good thing is you actually have several tools available to you that enable you to use stress to your advantage; they enable you to minimize the stress response and keep from overreacting to it.
Here are seven action steps that will help you use stress, rather than letting stress use you:
1. Listen to your body’s whispers before they become screams.
You want to learn to quiet your mind to become fully aware of why your body is in stress to begin with. Why are you anxious? Why are you tired? What is your body really telling you?
The idea is to witness, to observe without judgment. Witnessing has its roots in the Buddhist meditation practice called mindfulness, which involves being in a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, sensations, and feelings, as well as of the surrounding environment. It has the added benefit of turning down the stress response, which then improves your mood, and your ability to cope more effectively.
To do: Pause. Take a deep inhale, count to four, and let the breath out, counting from four down to zero, repeating this cycle five times. As you quiet down, ask your body what it needs. Ask your heart what it wants. Observe and listen.
2. Choose to be kind to yourself.
Once you've taken time to listen to your body’s signal, choose to listen lovingly, as if you were trying to figure out what your child or infant was crying about, and then act lovingly towards yourself as you make choices that are nurturing, rather than hurtful. Science even suggest that self-compassion can help people improve quality of life.
To do: Ask yourself, If I loved myself, what would I do, knowing what I know? For example, Would I choose caffeine or take a nap?
3. Get moving, even if it's just for 10 minutes.
The term “survival of the fittest” means your ancestors had to be fit to survive. Research tells us that regular exercise not only helps your cardiovascular functioning, but reduces stress response activity.
It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do, as long as you do it. I recommend alternating days of vigorous exercise (the workout should be so intense that you can’t hold a conversation) with days of moderate exercise (you can talk while you exercise) and active rest days (strolling with the dog, for example).
To do: When you feel anxious, see if going for a walk or a light jog helps. If you’re feeling achy, try stretching. Low energy? Move your body for 10 minutes — take the stairs, park your car farther away from the store, or dance to your favorite tune.
4. Eat to fuel your body.
If you were to slow down and take the time to listen to how your body reacts to different foods, you might discover that certain foods leave you feeling more achy, tired or irritable, even though in the short-term, they enable you to feel better as your cravings are tempered. Indeed, studies now show that sugar intake, particularly in the form of glucose, is likely more of a risk factor for developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease that high salt intake.
To do: Enjoy the aromas, the colors and the textures of the food on your plate. Chew. Notice the tastes. Choose food that is grown naturally in your environment. (And if it doesn’t grow in the earth, don’t eat it regularly.) Notice how you feel, not only immediately after eating your food, but the next day. Use that information to make choices about how you eat.
5. Make time for rest and recovery.
Our society encourages us to push ourselves, go faster, work harder, sleep less. Even high-level athletes know that their best performance happens when they take the time to allow their body to rest and recover. Even modest sleep deprivation of one or two hours negatively affects your physiology, especially stress physiology.
To do: Ask yourself why you might be tired. Are you rested when you awaken in the morning? Examine your food intake. Examine the stimulants you may be taking (caffeine, sugar, etc.). Examine the quality of your sleep — how comfortable is your bed? Do you have physical pain disturbing your sleep? When does your energy dip during the day? When do you lose your focus? Perhaps this is a time to take regular naps or to practice a brief mediation.
6. Nurture your time in nature.
If you're like most North Americans, you barely stopped to have a proper meal today. Rather, you spent the majority of your day inside, in a car, in an office, at a computer, or on your smart phone.
Indeed, researches are finding that there is a strong correlation with more screen time and higher incidences of depression and anxiety, poor performance and attention deficit. In contrast, studies involving mentally fatigued adults, a walk (for a little less than an hour) in a vegetation-rich urban park (vs. city streets) significantly improved mental performance.
To do: Simple acts such as keeping a plant in your office, sitting by a window, or having a scene of nature that you can gaze at periodically, have been found to be associated with better health. Spend more time, at least 20 minutes, in nature. Garden, go for walks, stare out the window, buy some new plants and nurture them, or use aromatherapy in your office, bath or bedroom to help you relax.
7. Make time to play.
Play, socialization, or finding ways to ignite your creative nature all enable stress response reduction and can empower your sense of wellbeing. Several studies, for example, have reported that social support facilitates coping, improves psychological and physical health.
To do: Who or what causes you feel like you belong to something bigger, greater? Who or what helps you feel and act at your best? Whomever or whatever this may be, utilize it.
Any time you find yourself stressed, you have a choice. You have the power to make choices that will help you function at your best, not eventually bring you to your worst.