There’s no doubt about it, chronic stress is on the rise. Between politics, global affairs, work demands, the pressure of managing on the home front, and an addiction to our electronic devices, stress has infiltrated all areas of daily life—and it's not slowing down anytime soon.
Left unchecked, the symptoms of chronic stress—like anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, weight gain, and IBS, just to name a few—will wreak havoc on your health and happiness. Yet, it’s not enough to simply say, "eat better," "meditate," "exercise," or "take a spa day." Those platitudes are not sufficient to combat stress in your daily life. Instead, you need practical, powerful strategies that you can put into play to create calm, alleviate anxiety, and power-up those positive vibes.
With that in mind, I’m going to teach you three of my favorite stress management exercises that you can start using right away, no meditation skills required!
Stress Strategy 1: Have a go-to meal.
When the stress sirens start sounding you might be tempted to head to the nearest vending machine and chow down on a sugary, salty snack. But don’t do it! Instead, eat a meal that will recalibrate your body and re-energize your mind.
Here's why this matters:
When you encounter stress, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and this causes your blood sugar levels to skyrocket as glucose is redirected from the bloodstream to your muscles. While our ancestors used this glucose surge as fuel to fight off saber-toothed tigers, these days we’re more likely to be sitting still with our stress (think about a difficult meeting at work or a bad traffic jam), so that excess sugar stays in our system. Over time, this can lead to mood swings, weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.
As such, the last thing your body needs when you’re stressed is more sugar to fan the flames. Instead, make your next meal one that is sugar-free and low in starch, prioritizing healthy fats and vegetables, as well as moderate protein. Leafy greens in particular are a great source of magnesium (a natural anxiety-buster), which is why I recommend that my clients eat seven to nine servings of vegetables and fruit a day.
Here's exactly what to do:
- Start with 2 to 3 cups of dark greens. I prefer greens that you can cook (such as silverbeet, spinach, kale, broccoli, or asparagus) as cooking makes them easier to digest, which is important when your body is already functioning in overdrive.
- Add a portion of high-quality protein. My favorites include slow-cooked lamb and wild salmon, both of which are a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. These will help recharge your brain and body after periods of stress.
- Fill up on roasted root vegetables. In traditional Chinese medicine root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and parsnips are considered the perfect food to eat when you need to focus and relax. Eating foods that grow deep in the ground will help you feel grounded, too!
- Top it off with nourishing fats. Many vitamins and minerals are fat-soluble, which means you need some high-quality fats to really get the benefit of this meal. My picks are grass-fed butter or ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil.
- Sprinkle some Himalayan sea salt. You may be surprised to learn that sea salt can help you reduce stress, as it replenishes the sodium levels that support our adrenal glands. Don’t you love it when the things that taste great can make you feel great, too?
Stress Strategy 2: Find free-flow movement.
One way to think of stress is as blocked energy—something that needs to move through and out of your body so that you can be at ease. Physically, these energy blocks can manifest themselves as a stiff neck, a locked jaw, headaches, digestive issues, back pain, and skin breakouts. Mentally and emotionally, symptoms can include insomnia, anxiety, restlessness and difficulty focusing, anger, unexplained tears, memory lapses, self-judgment, and panic attacks.
Fortunately, you can use movement to unwind your mind, release stagnant energy from your body, and return your nervous system to a state of calm and relaxation. But here’s the trick—this only works if the movement is gentle.
Here's why this matters:
Stress is exhausting, and intense physical exercise is too. During a period of stress you must avoid anything that creates more work for your body and nervous system. By performing movements that are low and slow and connecting your body with your breath, you can pull away from that anxious edge.
Here's what to do:
- Start on your hands and knees. Begin to round and arch your spine, and sway your hips from side-to-side.
- Push back to child’s pose, sitting your hips to your heels, and then pull back forward to hands and knees, continue to flow back and forth.
- Sit comfortably and circle your chin along your collarbone, from right to left. Next shrug your shoulders and make big circles in both directions.
- Finally, stand up on both feet and let your body sway and circle as if you’re moving to the music in your mind.
- Finish by standing still, closing your eyes, and feeling the vibration of your body and your breath.
As you do this, give yourself permission to relax completely, move gently, and be connected with your body.
Stress Strategy 3: Listen to your stress.
It’s important to remember that your stress is not out to get you; rather, it’s trying to protect you. Chronic stress is a symptom of having an unresolved problem, an overly demanding schedule, or unhealthy lifestyle habits. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see people treating stress as the problem, often through medication, alcohol, or food abuse. I’m so glad you’re reading this article, as it tells me that you’re ready to see your stress for what it is: a message from your body that something needs to change.
Here's why this is important:
Stress signals that you need to put on the brakes or do something differently. The reality is that you can only live in a state of stress for so long before it affects your health, happiness, and relationships. So instead of always relying on stress management strategies, take the opportunity to identify and address the root cause of your stress.
Here's exactly what to do:
When you start to notice the telltale signs of stress, simply stop for a moment and practice the following:
- Place your hand over your heart, breathing in and out through the nose, and imagine your heart expanding with your breath.
- Ask yourself, "What is this message? Why am I feeling this way? What do I need to do next?"
- Keep breathing gently, and feel the answer move from your body to your mind. It might be saying something like "You need a nap, you need to cancel that plan, you need some sunshine, you need some water, you need some company, you need to use your voice, or you need a career change."
Don’t worry if you don’t discover the answer right away. This exercise is calming by itself, and the goal is to be present with your stress so that you can understand and master it. Over time the answer will become clear. To recap, here’s what you need to take away. The next time you feel stressed:
- Eat your go-to meal.
- Move your body gently.
- Listen in and put things in perspective.
And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.