I want to share a personal story with you. This past year has been one filled with many incredible blessings, memories, beautiful and hilarious moments. It has also been the most stressful 12 months of my life.
This past year I have been extremely fortunate to be one of the co-founders/co-hosts of the Mental Wellness Summit – the first of its kind online summit featuring 33 of the best and brightest minds in the forum of mental health and wellness; an event that is going to help re-shape our approach to mental health and wellness. And, the beautiful irony of it all – I’ve never had more stress to deal with!
The onset of stress did not catch me 100% by surprise, nor can I blame it just on organizing a summit. In addition to running a very busy practice, writing commitments, volunteer and charitable work, keeping physically active, writing a major board exam, and maintaining strong relationships with family and friends – throwing the summit into the mix really allowed me to test (read ‘stretch’) my stress management tools. I love challenges, and I would not have changed this experience for anything. When challenged, we grow STRONGER.
My story is not unique in any way nor is it to be taken as some incredible feat – as it is neither. What I intend to do is show that even those who are armed with knowledge and skill set to manage stress; this does not make it any easier to implement. We ALL have our own ‘summits’ going on in our respective lives, whether that be looking after household of young children, juggling work stress, financial worries, health concerns, relationship issues, etc. You name it – we all have challenges that rattle our equilibrium on a daily basis. And guess what – this is not going away. So what’s the trick? It is learning how to manage the stress that comes into our lives in a more efficient and pro-active manner.
Now, we all know that certain stressors are good (eustress), and off course certain others are BAD (distress). We actually need some stress to not only survive but to THRIVE. That being said, we are often weighted far too heavily on the distress end of the spectrum. Both eustress and distress release the hormone cortisol as part of the natural stress response6. Eustress is invigorating, and often linked with a tangible goal. In this situation cortisol returns to normal upon completion of the task. Distress on the other hand, causes the fight-or-flight mechanism to go into overdrive unless switched off. The problem for most is that continual triggers of distress lock us into the permanent fight or flight response – not good!
So what’s really the problem with chronic stress? Consider the following:
- $300+ billion per year spent by employers on stress related issues and missed work1
- 77% of people report physical symptoms caused by stress1
- 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress2
- 48% feel their stress has increased in the last 5 years2
- Stress increases risk for heart attack 21X3,5
- Stress has also been shown to increase the likelihood of cancer spreading (metastasis) which is a major cause of cancer death, by 30X3,4
Gone are the days where we don’t look at the mind body connection. In fact, the more research that rolls out the more we see it as the ABSOLUTE connection needed to bridge the gap not only for treatment of, but also in prevention of the many chronic diseases facing developed nations today3.
Here are my Top 5 Secret Weapons for Managing Your Stress that you, your family and friends can all use going forward.
- Be mindful
Meditation reduces anxiety and lowers cortisol levels, full stop. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol5. The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation that activates your ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response take 10 deep breaths and feel your entire body relax and decompress. Setting aside 10-15 minutes each day to practice mindfulness or meditation will create a sense of calm that permeates throughout your entire nervous system. There are many different types of meditation, and truthfully the best for you is the one you can commit to doing daily. I suggest that you do more research, visit a meditation center if you can, and fine-tune a daily meditation practice that fits your personality and schedule.
- Food is your friend (not your crutch)
Nearly 40 percent of North Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress. While it may seem tempting to drown your anxiety in a bowl of ice cream or calm your nerves with a bag of cookies, eating junk foods while stressed may be particularly dangerous to your health. One study showed that for chronically stressed women, eating foods high in trans fats and sugar lead to concerning health effects, including a larger waistline, increased abdominal fat, more oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance7. In addition, junk foods will only give you a moment of reprieve. After the initial pleasure wears off, you may find yourself battling mood swings, irritability, and other unpleasant emotions ON TOP of the stress – courtesy of the sugar, trans fats, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and whatever other synthetic ingredients you may have consumed. On the other hand, by choosing healthy, non-processed and real foods you can actually impact your mood on a positive note, helping to relieve tension, stabilize blood sugar, and give your stress the pink slip.
Is laughter truly the best medicine? Harvard seems to think it is certainly one of them… From brain scans and other tests, neuroscientists are compiling evidence that laughter triggers chemical responses in the brain that lead to feelings of pleasure and a sense of well-being. Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Laughter also appears to go beyond the belly and the brain—arteries respond to it in healthy ways that could improve blood flow and long-term health8. As Harvard Health Beat says in regards to reducing stress; “Practice deflating cognitive distortions. Rent funny movies and read amusing books.” Try to find ways in your daily life to laugh and joke as much as possible and you’ll lower cortisol levels – and that alone will have a tremendous impact on your health.
- Identify & Correct Nutrient Imbalances
As a practitioner who is board certified in Functional Medicine, I spend a lot of time looking ‘under the hood’ of my patients biochemistry. One of the most important ways to help someone enter into a healing environment is to ensure there are no nutrient deficiencies impeding this. I have yet to find a patient NOT have a nutrient deficiency in their first test and a simple blood test can help determine this. Using stress management as an example, those who are low in B vitamins, amino acids, and certain minerals (i.e. magnesium and zinc) have a higher chance of feeling anxious, and have a tougher time coping with daily stressors of life. While many people just start taking copious amounts of these nutrients blindly, my motto is ‘when you test – you don’t guess’. Optimal nutrition is the cornerstone of optimal health – without it you are building a house on quicksand!
- Have a strong sense of community
Close knit human bonds—whether it be family, friend, or a romantic partner—are vital for your physical and mental health at any age. Recent studies have shown that the Vagus nerve also responds to human connectivity and physical touch to relax your parasympathetic nervous system. Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his team set out to simulate social isolation ssociated with the difficult years of adolescence in human teens. They found that isolating mice known to have a genetic predisposition for mental illness during their adolescence triggered ‘abnormal behaviors’ that continued even when returned to the group. They found that the effects of adolescent isolation lasted into the equivalent of mouse adulthood. The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposite to “fight-or-flight”. The “tend-and-befriend” response increases healthy molecules such as oxytocin and actually reduces cortisol. This amplifies what certain ‘Blue Zone’ communities throughout the world are doing in common – in that they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can.