Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby!
By: Ben S. Fogel
Now, more than ever we are experiencing higher than average stress levels in our lives. Many of us are dealing with similar complex stressors that come with a global pandemic. I know I have been quoted as saying “control the controllables” but even the controllables sometimes feel out of control. My goal today is to help you distinguish the things in your life that create stress versus those things that make you feel less stressed. Also, how to add more stress reducing behaviors into your life to create more balance and a sense of control.
Understanding the natural stress response
Let us first discuss the stress response, and how our body’s naturally deal with it. For example, when you encounter a perceived threat – such as a large dog barking at you during your morning walk – your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. These are all things that your body does to keep you safe and alive during times of fight-or-flight.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
When the natural stress response goes wild
The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. This is where many of us live on a day to day basis. Need to pay the bills, work that extra late shift at the office, finish that end of the month project – all of these things can creep up on us and keep our stress response high 24/7.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with your life stressors. This is where some of our expertise comes in.
Life is a sprint, not a marathon
In all honesty, screw running a marathon. Especially trying to run a marathon every day! This is how stress can creep up on us. Not giving your body the ability to recover is what will kill us early. Every day, when you work 10-12 hours a day, day after day, your body starts to accumulate all of these stress hormones.
Instead of running a marathon – focus on sprint, recover, sprint. A great example of this method that I love to use is called the “Pomodoro Technique.” The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks – usually 5-10 minutes. For example, during a work session, I will set a timer for 25 minutes with the intense goal of completing a set task/project/etc. When the timer goes off, another 5 minute timer is set and starts for me to jump out of my chair and stretch out, go for a walk or take a rest. Then, the 25 minute timer starts again with a new goal to complete another project. Sprint, recover, sprint.
What I have found is that after 3 cycles, I need a longer break. If I complete 6 Pomodoro work cycles in one day, I know I moved the needle in a positive direction. This is about 3 hours of focused work, and I will get more done in these 3 hours than I would in an entire 8-10 hour day of unfocused, cluttered work spread throughout the day.
Learn to react to stress in a healthy way
Stressful events are facts of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you.
You can learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations.
Stress management strategies include:
- Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate (more on this below)
- Taking time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
- Fostering healthy friendships
- Having a sense of humor
- Volunteering in your community
- Seeking professional counseling when needed
The reward for learning to manage stress is peace of mind and perhaps a longer, healthier life.
Maximize the things in your day that give you pleasure
I know, kinda cheesy, right? But really, if you can literally minimize the things you do everyday that make your body feel as though you are under constant threat, you will see some very positive results. More simply put – minimize the things in your life that don’t give you pleasure, and maximize all the things that bring you pleasure. Start thinking of all the things that you do to enjoy your day.
The best exercise I can give here is to make a list. Make a list of all the things that you do that make you feel stressful. When possible, see if you can delete these things out of your life all together. Then, make a list of all the things that bring joy and pleasure into your life. Use the list above as a starting point. See how you can start to schedule these things daily into your life. For example, for me it is having a morning and nightly routine. My morning routine is getting ready for my day with a short meditative practice and my nightly routine is about spending quality one-on-one time with my kids and my wife. Something this simple to “bookend” my days keeps my stress levels much lower.
Are you looking to find a good meditative, relaxation and yoga practice? Something to bring those stress levels down? We have just 8 spots left for our upcoming 6 week Yoga Workshop starting on Wednesday, September 9th. The early bird pricing ends on 8/31 where you can save an additional $50 on the program!