Countless research studies have underscored how anxiety and depression correlate significantly with an individual’s sense of control or lack of control over his or her own destiny. The same thing is true when it comes to stress.
In fact, given our mortality combined with our lack of control over so much of life, stress goes hand in hand with being human. Although we can’t make all our stresses disappear with a magic wand, we can learn to cope more effectively with stress so it doesn’t kill us.
(Although don’t all of us secretly long for a fairy godmother or a genie who will grant us three wishes and remove all the suffering in the world? I know I do).
Stress is a complicated process that affects us on every level–physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Because of this, we need a holistic approach to build our resilience. It is best to work with all four levels but start wherever you know you are weakest, and build your stress-proof muscles one day at a time. Until the fairy godmother comes around, here are some lifelong practices that will help immunize you against stress.
Stress stimulates our fight/flight response, sending the signal to our bodies that we need to run for the hills or turn and face a threatening attacker. Our bodies rush with adrenaline and our heart rate quickens. What are the best tools to help the body recover?
Tip #1: Practice deep breathing and get regular exercise. The fastest way to calm down your nervous system is with your breath. Learn how to breathe from your belly. This is taught in yoga, in voice lessons, in self-hypnosis, and in instructional videos on line. No one thinks twice about brushing their teeth every day. If you practice self-relaxation or meditation for ten minutes twice a day for the rest of your life, you will be more able to remember how to calm your emotions when you need to do so quickly.
It is especially helpful to get aerobic exercise because you can simultaneously breathe deeply and work out the aftereffects of stress on your body. That being said, even walking briskly, climbing stairs instead of the elevator or dancing in your living room count.
Tip #2: Spend time outdoors in nature. Numerous studies have proven that nature heals. Kids learn more in schools that have regular outdoor activities and hospital patients heal faster when they can look out windows and see natural landscapes. Even a short walk on the beach, lazing in your backyard, or sitting on a park bench will do the trick.
Tip #3: Eat healthy meals with people you love. Too many people turn to bad food habits when stressed, either eating junk food or too much food for the comfort, or missing meals for lack of time. Fill your shelves and refrigerator with healthy alternatives so you won’t be tempted, and pack protein snacks that you can take with you to work or when pressed for time.
Cognitive therapy teaches people how to question their fearful, negative beliefs and to substitute them with more accurate, less stress-inducing beliefs, and these tools have been widely shown in the laboratory to be effective in altering the nature of our negative emotional responses.
Tip #4: Don’t take things that other people do or say (or fail to do or say) personally. A good mantra to reinforce this perspective is, “It’s not about me!” This is easy in principle but often difficult in practice especially with those closest to us who seem to be pushing our buttons deliberately.
If you need reminders about learning how to respond when your buttons get pushed, check out this blog. Remind yourself that everyone else is stressed out too, struggling to regulate their emotions and often failing miserably.
Tip #5: Don’t sweat the small stuff–and realize that almost everything we get hyped up over is pretty small. My personal practice is to run my worries by the life-or-death question. For example, I hit traffic and am upset that I am going to be late for work. I ask myself if this is a life-or-death issue. The answer is almost always no, whereas driving like a madwoman to get to work on time could become life-threatening quite easily.
Tip #6: Stop complaining. Every time that we complain about something–one of the most common being the weather–we bring all things negative to the mind. Since our minds naturally associate things together, when we start on a negative train of thought, worries and fears can escalate. If you are a parent, try singing “Shake It Out and Dance” with your kids (or even by yourself if you are young at heart).
Unfortunately, cognitive techniques often fail miserably. The reason why is that even mild stress can derail the ability of someone to use these otherwise effective weapons when they most need them–in real life. Because of this, we need to understand how negative emotions such as anger, fear, and grief, as well as stressful lifestyles so common in today’s families exert very powerful influences on our ability to return to a calm state, even when we have taught them cognitive behavioral skills.
Tip #7: Cry when you need to and learn how to work with your anger in non-destructive ways. Working effectively with our emotions is a book in itself. The short version is that it helps alleviate stress to allow ourselves to feel our feelings AND to learn to put them into perspective.
Tip #8: Laugh your way to health and happiness. Given how many adults turn to screen time for rest and relaxation, make sure you don’t stress yourself even further by only watching dark movies, upsetting news stories, or violent video games. Find books, movies, friends and activities that help you lighten your load.
Tip #9: Practice turning blame and self-pity into empathy and compassion, both for yourself and for others. The use of blame rarely generates a positive outcome or facilitates closeness and connection. If you typically beat yourself up, remember that mistakes are opportunities to learn and that you are a work in progress.
Reach out to others for love and support. Or find someone who is even more stressed than you and provide a helping hand or shoulder to cry on. A spiritual perspective is sometimes the best or only comfort through dark and difficult times.
Tip #10: Find the silver lining in any cloud. One of the best ways to do this is to incorporate some form of spiritual or religious practice and philosophy into your life. Reading ten minutes each day–whether you choose the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, wisdom from the Dalai Llama or any other positive life philosophy–can help bring hope and perspective into your life. Add in prayer, meditation or silent contemplation.
Change Takes Time
If you take on this challenge–practicing healthy forms of stress reduction on a daily basis–your life will slowly but surely take on a different light. Change will not happen over night, and you may forget these tips when you are really under fire. But if you are anything like me, you will be a bit calmer and more unflappable a year from now. You may even be able to teach your fairy godmother a thing or two!