Nicole Spear, MS, CNS
Stress Management is NOT Optional!
Updated: Aug 25, 2018
My own story...
As I sat in the office of my naturopathic physician, listening to him rattle off the results of my most recent hormone and metabolic tests, I was shocked and confused. I could no longer hide behind the façade of a confident disposition that radiated a false message that everything was fine. Nope. The lab results laid bare my reality. They told of the internal race, the mental and physical fight, the exhaustion, and the depression. And they explained why bloating, abdominal pain, and gut distress had been my constant companions despite my fastidious diet, along with all the herbs, enzymes, and probiotics.
I tried to keep listening to the deep, methodical voice of my physician as he proceeded to tell me he had rarely seen a cortisol level as high as mine. In addition to his previous suggestions of various adaptogenic herbs and lifestyle changes to reduce stress, his next recommendation hit me like a flash of lightning. Cognitive behavioral therapy. What? Now I wanted to fight rather than cry. I wasn't in need of counseling and brain therapy! If my cortisol had been high when I urinated on those test strips in the comfort of my home, I'm sure it jumped up several notches as I sat in the chair, thoughts reeling.
As I drove home, tears streamed down my face. I was discouraged, but knew I had to fight my enemy before it won the battle over my health. At least my enemy was now clearly identified: stress.
Is Stress the New Cancer?
Stress is quickly becoming a modern-day epidemic. Even Merriam-Webster defines stress as "a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”[i] Yet stress itself is not the real problem: the body's response to it is. The adrenal glands are our body's tension indicators, and once stress is detected, a cascade of events occurs that includes the secretion and circulation of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Cortisol wreaks havoc on your entire body. It triggers systemic inflammation and destroys the gut. The fight-and-flight response generated by cortisol should rescue you from immediate danger or get you through a temporary crisis, but it was never designed to command your entire body indefinitely. And yet it does, and becomes the most destructive enemy we face. For those who have worked hard to choose a healthy lifestyle, eat a clean diet, drink purified water, and cleanse their environment, cortisol can shatter years of hard work. If you feel like you have labored to gain good health but are still fighting to keep your head above water, stress may be your root problem. If any of us expect to achieve and maintain an authentic state of health and vitality, stress management is not optional. It is required.
I want to share 20 ways to cultivate rest and calm in your body, mind, and environment. These will help you reduce stress, lower cortisol, and support your body's natural ability to heal itself.
After several months of implementing many of these new habits into my own life to cultivate calm and reduce stress, my health made a complete 180-degree turn. My energy levels were higher than they had been in years, my outlook on life was hopeful, my hormones began stabilizing, and my gut was finally starting to see happy days. Stress affects us profoundly. Even today, when I fail to manage stress in my life, my health quickly begins to suffer.
Cultivate a Calm Body
Breathe Deeply. Stress causes us to take short, shallow breaths that don’t adequately oxygenate our tissues or brain. Deep belly breathing tells our body to calm down and relax. Have you ever noticed yourself intuitively heaving a deep sigh when you are stressed? It's your body's way of forcing you to breathe deeply and relax. Stress increases your heart and respiratory rates, but deep breathing reduces them. Those who practice deep breathing can calm a nervous system that is activated by stress.
Sleep at the Right Time. When we are under stress, we become wired in the evening, have trouble falling asleep, or cannot stay asleep. This often leads to poor sleep habits in which we stay up late or sleep in. The body's restoration phase cycles with our circadian rhythm. All our body's organ systems, and especially the adrenal glands, perform the greatest amount of repairs between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. If we are not sleeping during that time, we are robbing our body of its ability to restore itself. The adrenal glands must be functioning at peak performance to manage stress appropriately. Therefore, sleeping between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. is one of the best ways to increase your stamina and fight stress.
Take Epsom Salt Baths. Soaking in a tub of warm water with at least two cups of Epsom salts calms the mind and relaxes the body. Epsom salts contain magnesium, a mineral that relaxes tight muscles. Most of us are severely magnesium deficient because stress depletes our body of this calming mineral. Magnesium decreases inflammation, and especially inflammation of the neurological system. It has been shown to promote better mood and sleep because of its positive effects on the brain. Magnesium is not absorbed well in the gut but readily passes through the skin, making an Epsom salt bath an ideal way to replenish this mineral.
Generate Endorphins through Light Exercise. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that promote good feelings. They reduce our perception of pain, and decrease feelings of stress. Light exercises such as stretching, walking, yoga, and swimming generate endorphins. Intense activity also produces endorphins, but it produces cortisol as well, making it a poor choice for stress management. Taking walks is an excellent way to pump some "happy" chemicals into your nervous system and reduce stress.
Develop a Morning and Bedtime Routine. Life can get crazy, but establishing and maintaining a morning and bedtime routine will do wonders for managing stress. After visiting my naturopathic physician, I implemented my own behavioral changes. A large part of my own healing became my established morning and bedtime routine. My bedtime routine begins at 9 p.m. by shutting down electronics, taking an Epsom Salt bath, and reading encouraging literature. My mornings begin at 6:00 a.m. with an hour of prayer and meditation using the Bible, followed by 30 minutes of exercise. After about three months of faithfully submitting to this routine, my energy improved, my outlook on life was more positive, and my resilience had increased. The stressors in my life had not changed, but my response to them did. This is how stress management can help you heal. As you can see, cultivating all five elements of a calm body isn't difficult, but it does take practice.
Cultivate a Calm Environment
Avoid Sensory Overload. Televisions, computer pop-ups, lights, and billboards inundate our visual fields. Likewise, our ears are bombarded with sounds of loud music, telephones, notifications, sirens, and conversations. Urban environments assault our noses with exhaust, cleaning chemicals, perfumes, and outgassing building materials. Each of these stimulants is a potential stressor our brain and body must respond to. Compare our industrialized, digital world with the environment in which we were designed to reside. Nature offers us peaceful images without flashing advertisements, quiet sounds, and the healing aromas of natural essential oils. If we want our body to heal, we must be more conscious about reducing the sensory input that increases our stress response.
Stop Overcommitting. Society has misled us to believe we must take every opportunity presented to us if we are to be well-rounded, successful individuals. School-aged children run from one activity to another in the name of personal development and adults are pressured into playing the roles of professional, parent, volunteer, and scholar simultaneously. As the years pass, the pressures of commitments, social schedules, and personal advancement opportunities burden our bodies and rob us of time with ourselves, our families, our close friends, and those we could serve. Saying "no" to opportunities will not hold you back from success. Rather, it fosters personal health and a value system that is far more advantageous.
Minimize Clutter and Possessions. Stuff requires our attention. Stuff takes up space, time, and energy. Society would have us believe that our stuff is important and part of our identity—but the truth is, it devalues us as humans. Value lies in people, not things. Clutter and possessions take our time and resources, which increases our stress load.
Reduce Your Workload. Workaholics are among the most unhealthy individuals. Statistically, they have shorter lifespans and are more likely to die suddenly. They push themselves to the brink and ignore all the warning signs of declining health until their bodies fail. The pressure to climb the corporate ladder to be financially successful robs us of the most valuable elements of life, such as relationships and health. Workaholics maintain the highest levels of stress, and healing is nearly impossible under the weight of this burden.
Take Time to Enjoy Nature. Nature has the innate ability to reduce our burden of stress. It offers a serene environment that woos us into a state of reflection and peace. Taking hikes through the woods, sitting by water, climbing mountains, watching a sunrise or sunset, and even just playing in your own backyard allows you to breathe fresh air and take a break from the loud noises and visual stimulation of society. Enjoying nature can reduce cortisol and increase endorphins, which reduce pain and promote positive feelings. The essential oils released by plants offer healing aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy. Many essential oils reduce cortisol levels, lower your heart and breathing rates, and change neurotransmitters to diminish anxiety, depression, and stress. Lavender, rose, lemon balm, ylang -ylang, bergamot, chamomile, and frankincense are commonly used in diffusers or added to bathwater for their stress-reducing effects. Adding a diffuser to your work or home setting can help promote a calmer environment.
Minimize Screen Time. With the explosion of the digital age, millions of people have become continually connected to electromagnetic devices as they carry cell phones on their body, work on computers and tablets for extended hours each day, and wear technology-based watches and wristbands. The popular journal Psychology Today has cited several studies showing that screen time induced the physiological effects of stress (e.g., increased heart rate, breathing rate, cortisol levels), impaired digestion, and changed neurotransmitters to affect attention and sleep habits. The blue light emitted from electronic screens is proven to cause sleep, hormone, and cognitive problems because it affects melatonin, an important hormone in the body.
Music Therapy. Music is a powerful medium with the ability to change our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Everywhere we go, music engulfs us, yet the choice of style is rarely therapeutic. Studies show nature's music produces the greatest reductions in cortisol, but calming music such as classical, spa, soft instrumental, and Celtic music also reduces anxiety, anger, and stress. Heavy metal, rap, hip-hop, and similar genres have been shown to increase irritability, anger, and cortisol, and can be a stressor.
Cultivate a Calm Mind
Pray and Meditate. Prayer and meditation have significant effects on our stress response. Medical literature abounds with studies showing that those who have a strong faith system and an active religious belief are far happier and less stressed than those who do not. Faith, prayer, and meditation bring meaning, purpose, and perspective to life, allowing us to cultivate a renewed sense of hope.
Be Grateful. Gratitude is a powerful attitude that helps us to recognize and meditate on the positive things in life, rather than the negative. Negative experiences, situations, and relationships inherently cause physical, emotional, and mental stress. The more we ruminate upon these negative experiences, the higher our cortisol levels grow and the greater burden of stress we place upon ourselves. Gratitude neutralizes our negative emotions. The more gratitude you can express, the less mental and emotional stress you will experience.
Give Generously. Giving is a contagious experience that ameliorates stress. Generosity does not have to be monetary. Giving your time and attention can be far more rewarding than monetary gifts. Generosity requires you to focus on someone other than yourself, and the mere act of turning your eyes away from self and toward other’s needs lowers your cortisol significantly, as well as generating endorphins. Your life has more meaning and purpose when you give yourself to others in ways that benefit them and society.
Focus on People, Not Things. The more we can focus on people, the less we focus on attaining and maintaining things. We need people, which is why isolation can be so dangerous. Turning our mind toward people changes our perspective, goals, and desires. We become less consumed with possessions and accomplishments and start seeing areas where we can serve and give generously. A mind that is focused on others and not on things is far less stressed and more peaceful than one focused on gaining and maintaining things.
Build Relationships. We can begin focusing on people in general, but each of us has a desire and need to form deep relationships. We need to know there is a core group of people who know, love, and care for us. Most often, these people are our own family members, but they can span further to a select group of close friends. Don’t neglect building relationships with those closest to you. A good relationship requires constant work and involvement from each party to develop, nurture, and deepen. Far too often, busy schedules, overcommitment, workaholism, and a focus on things have robbed us of potential relationships. I have never met a person who regretted building a true relationship, but I have met many people who deeply regretted not spending more time and attention on fostering a relationship with a spouse, child, family member, or friend while they had the opportunity. Humans were created to be relational, which is why isolation has repeatedly been associated with stress, health problems, and even death.
Laugh More. Laughing is one of the best medicines for stress, which is why conference speakers attempt to add humor to release tension in their listeners. Laughter puts the mind at ease, makes you feel good emotionally, and generates endorphins that ameliorate pain, reduce cortisol levels, relax muscles, enhance memory, and boost immune function. Laughter is an inexpensive way to support a healthy mental attitude and reduce stress.
Keep a Journal. Many people find journaling to be a very calming activity that effectively reduces mental stress. Writing down thoughts can be a way to eliminate them from your mind, especially if they are negative thoughts and emotions. Journaling can allow you to problem-solve. I have found it helpful to keep a journal of encouraging quotes, meaningful Scripture verses, and prayers. When my mind begins racing, worrying, and growing fearful and stress starts to weigh me down, I look back at these encouraging words as reminders that I have braved the storms of the past and can continue to do so.