Stress is a given in life. And it's not always a bad thing. But when stress becomes too much and lasts for too long, it can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. Many people extol the benefits of meditation and other mindfulness practices to help manage stress. And those things can work. But they're not for everyone.
So I want to offer some easy tips for managing stress. But first up, a lesson on the difference between “good” and “bad” stress.
Types of Stress and Why They Matter
There are two kinds of stress: acute stress and chronic stress.
Our bodies are designed to thrive under acute stress. It's what makes us react without thinking when a child runs into the path of an oncoming car or helps us focus solely on a project in order to meet a tight deadline.
However, we're not built for ongoing, prolonged stress and anxiety. Stress impairs our judgment and self-control. It's harder to make the decisions that we want to make, like picking salmon and veggies for dinner rather than ordering Chinese. And even though we're not in physical danger, our bodies still process this stress as if we were in harm's way. This leads to the body not using the nutrients from our food properly and even accelerates the muscle breakdown processes. In short, long-term stress creates a snowball effect of bad behaviors.
That's why it's imperative to find ways to manage stress. You can't avoid it completely, but you can find ways to reduce the level of anxiety in your life and support your body.
Tips to Reduce Stress
1. Do One Thing at a Time
Multitasking is seen as something to strive for, as if the more you do at once, the better of a person you are. But that's not only a myth, multitasking actually increases stress. The more scattered our attention is, the greater the opportunity for anxiety. So, try to do only one thing at a time.
When you exercise, if you use your phone for music, set it on airplane mode so text and email notifications won't come through. Then you can put your head down and give your work out all you've got.
When you work, consider closing the browser tab with your email and only checking it every 30 or 60 minutes. You'll be amazed how much quicker you can plow through a to-do list.
When you eat, try to step away from your desk, leave the TV off, and just eat. Enjoy the conversation with those you're dining with and savor the food you're having. You may find it's more flavorful and that you slow down and eat less when you're not distracted by social media.
2. Put Your Phone Away
Smartphones have their advantages and their time and place. However, they also probably give us the highest levels of stress, anxiety, and distraction. Endless scrolling can cause your mind to fear for the very worst that's also highly unlikely to happen. And most of us know by now that too much time on social media can lead to comparing ourselves with posed, filtered images that nobody in real life could ever look like. But that comparison can make us feel worse about ourselves, creating anxiety.
The bottom line is: Unless you need to call someone or send a text, put your phone down. And try putting it away too. Leave it in another room or put it in a drawer. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” really is true.
3. Build in Systems
As I mentioned, the more stressed and distracted we are, the harder it is to make healthy choices. So, make it easy to make easy decisions. The top three areas benefiting you being food, exercise, and sleep. Think about how you can put yourself in position to eat good foods, move regularly, and get good sleep.
For example, do you have time during the weekends to batch cook some roasted veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins? Then come lunch time during the week, you can mix a little of each, add a tasty dressing or some avocado, and you're set. Or maybe you chop up veggies ahead of time so they're just as easy as pretzels to dip into hummus for a snack. And don't forget that the price of convenience foods like pre-washed and pre-sliced vegetables can be worth it if it helps you eat healthier.
For exercise, think outside the (home) gym. A walk is accessible to many of us, and it's beneficial. In a small study, college students who walked briskly for just 10 minutes reported improved energy levels compared to those who didn't take a walk. And if you spend 20 minutes walking in nature, you can significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a study by University of Michigan researchers.
Lastly, with sleep, sticking to a regular sleep and wake schedule – including on the weekends – is best to help you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling refreshed. This comes back to the circadian rhythm, or the natural “body clock” we all have. This rhythm thrives on consistency. That's why, when you travel somewhere across the country or overseas, you experience jetlag. Your body is used to starting the day at 6 a.m., but 6 a.m. may be 1 p.m. where you're vacationing. Give your body and rhythm the clear signal that you wake up and go to bed at specific times every day, and not only will the body clock hum along, you'll also feel more energized.
4. Lower the Intensity
Exercise is amazing for stress. When we're stressed, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It craves movement. No wonder our anxiety can slowly tick upward as we sit behind a computer screen all day long trying to accomplish too much work. Physical activity gives our body what it wants. It allows us to release that built-up energy. Plus, working out also releases neurotransmitters called endorphins, which cause feelings of euphoria – or at least better mood. And, for some, going for a run or hitting the weight room can have a meditative feeling. You get into a flow state, where you're focused on this one thing, and that can help calm you down and provide a positive distraction from worries.
All of that said, some workouts may be better than others for stress relief. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) continues to be popular, and it's an excellent way to get your heart rate pumping, burn calories, and build muscle. However, it's not so great if your anxiety is peaking. Instead, prolonged, lower- to moderate-intensity exercise is better, because it improves heart rate variability. This is the space in time between heart beats. Stress lowers heart rate variability. You actually want high heart rate variability, or to have your heart beats beat at an irregular pattern.
So the next time you plan a workout, think about a brisk walk, jog, slower bike ride, or anything where you don't get out of breath. You should be able to carry on a conversation when exercising at a low or moderate intensity.
5. Eat More Antioxidants
You can also improve your heart rate variability by eating a diet rich in antioxidants. Oxidative stress increases with mental stress, especially with ongoing stress. Oxidative stress happens when our body has more free radicals than it does antioxidants (which fight free radicals). In the long-term, this imbalance can lead to health problems such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
You can fight this effect by eating foods rich in antioxidants. The easiest way to do this is to eat lots of vegetables and fruit. Aim to have at least one per meal, and ideally more than one. A variety of produce is best, because every food contains different beneficial antioxidants. You can also use VitaHustle Reds & Greens. It contains 28 organic fruits and vegetables and a slew of different groupings of antioxidants. Stir it into water, and you're good to go.
6. Take Fish Oil
Omega-3 fatty acids are a third way to increase heart rate variability. This may be one reason why eating fatty fish appears to benefit heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease. And, luckily for those who don't love the taste of seafood, fish oil supplements also seem to support heart health. Look for ones that are last least 50% EPA/DHA. Most capsules are 1 gram so when you add up the EPA and DHA on the back it should be greater than 500mg (or 0.5g).
7. Take a Break
Especially during highly stressful times, there's a tendency to think, “I can't take a break, I have to keep going!” But the truth is, you will be much better off if you can develop the discipline to take a break for a minute or, ideally, more like 20 minutes. Stepping away to make a cup of tea, take a walk around the block, or fit in a short home workout is time well spent. And when you get back to what you were doing, you will be less anxious and more productive because that break helps clear your mind. You may even be able to come up with the solution to a problem you were sweating over.